Tag Archives: Azelma

Wretched in Every Sense of the Word

Seeing the “Jondrette” family in utter poverty is sad. He’s not lying about the kids not having eaten. They don’t even have a full set of clothes for everyone. And Thénardier mistreats them all, making things worse to elicit more sympathy. It’s stomach-churning.

The parents may be terrible people, but Éponine and Azelma don’t deserve it. You can see why Gavroche left. He and the younger brothers are better off on the streets.

On February 2*, Éponine and Azelma bump into Marius and drop a packet of letters they’re carrying. He picks them up, but they’re long gone. So he decides to look at them for a clue to return them.

They’re Thénardier’s scam letters to prospective marks. All different identities, all different stories, all different schemes…but also all badly spelled. I’m not sure the letter promising to dedicate theatrical verse to the prospective markpatron is likely to succeed. Then again, terrible grammar and spelling are endemic in modern scam emails too, and they still catch people.

I’m not sure why Marius finds it odd that the same person wrote letters “from” four different people. We’ve already seen that letter-writing is a professional service. Though perhaps the professional scribes tend toward better spelling?

One of the letters is actually addressed to Valjean (though only by description). It’s the one with the fewest lies (that and the one he later sends to Marius, their next-door neighbor), because he’s invited him to come see the sorry state in which they live, hoping for direct charity rather than pushing a more elaborate scam. Anything complex would be caught.

The first clue that the old man is Valjean: he’s surprised when Éponine tells him their address.

It would be too much coincidence even for this book for them to live in the same apartment, though. Valjean lived at the top of the stairs, the Jondrettes at the end of the hall.

*I was surprised to see the groundhog day tradition cited, even by another name, since I thought it was an American oddity. Apparently groundhog day grew out of an older German Candlemas tradition which states that if a bear sees sunlight on February 2, it will return to its den to prepare for six more weeks of winter. The Candlemas tradition is brought up here.

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Javert is no longer a threat to Jean Valjean, Marius is alive and reconciled with his grandfather, and he and Cosette have a chance to be together. But happy endings don’t just happen, you still have to build them.

Boulatruelle, the rascal of Montfermeil, shows up one last time when he misses the chance to catch Jean Valjean digging up the last of his buried treasure — the candlesticks, and the rest of the money he earned as M. Madeleine. Apparently Boulatruelle was too drunk during the extortion attempt for the police to be able to prove intent.

Marius’ slow recovery (he’s got both a shattered shoulder and severe head trauma) actually saves him from prosecution. By the time he’s well enough to arrest (three months), the authorities just want to put the whole matter behind them and not re-inflame public opinion.

His convalescence takes place entirely at home, with house calls from the doctor. These days, he would have spent his months of coma/delirium in the hospital. Back in 1832, it’s probably just as well he didn’t, because this was before people understood germs and the need for sanitation.

M. Gillenormand doesn’t pay much attention to names, and manages to get Valjean’s alias wrong — “M. Tranchelevent” even after he’s been inquiring after Marius’ condition on a daily basis for four months, and even after researching this Cosette girl whom Marius seems so fond of.

He’s also so relieved to have Marius back that he abandons all his old political views in favor of everyone under his roof being happy.

Once Marius is well enough to be aware of his surroundings, he’s all set to have to fight to see Cosette…and his grandfather says, oh, yeah, her father stops by every day to check on you, now that you’re awake, you can see her tomorrow. They’re engaged by December, a February date chosen based on the doctor’s advice.

“Marius, my boy, you are a baron and you are rich. Don’t, I beseech, you, waste your time lawyering.” – G.


“No lengthy explanation is needed…” but here’s one anyway…

Valjean goes to a lot of trouble to separate Cosette from his own legal troubles (and her own murky past). He establishes a fake family history for her, claiming to be not her adoptive father but her biological uncle. The real Fauchelevent isn’t around to dispute the claim anymore, and the nuns never really paid attention to which Fauchelevent “brother” was Cosette’s father, so they’re happy to sign off on it. He also fakes an injury so that he can’t sign any papers related to the marriage, since doing so might invalidate them. Meanwhile the money from Madeleine’s factory is placed in a trust in Cosette’s name, bequeathed anonymously. It turns out she’s rich, although her father — uncle — whatever — isn’t.

Marius and Valjean never speak of their experiences at the barricade. Actually they don’t speak much at all, though every once in a while they find something to talk about, like the importance of free education.

As Marius recovers, he sets about looking for his father’s rescuer and his own, in order to pay his debts to them before starting life with Cosette. No luck on either account, as Thénardier has gone to ground (having been sentenced to death in absentia), his wife has died in prison, and no one recognized the man who brought Marius to the door with Javert — not even Gillenormand’s doorman.

The Wedding

I love when Hugo gets sarcastic, as when he describes wedding traditions. “The chastity and propriety of whisking one’s paradise into a post-chaise to consummate it in a tavern-bed at so much a night, mingling the most sacred of life’s memories with a hired driver and tavern serving maids, was not yet understood in France.” … “There was a strange belief in those days that a wedding was a quiet family affair…”

Another quote that makes me think Hugo would do well as a commentator today: “We do not see a Mardi gras like that any more. Since everything is now an overblown carnival, carnivals no longer exist.”

Mardi Gras

I can’t help but read this as meta-commentary: “Paris, let us admit it, is very ready to be amused by what is ignoble. All she asks of her masters is – make squalor pleasant to look at.” Certainly the parodies of the musical like to point this out: “Les Mousserables”‘ “Mixed Emotions” rating, or Forbidden Broadway’s line about “Rich folks pay fifty bucks a shirt / that has a starving pauper on it.” The novel is a call for social change, but that element is a lot thinner when you remove it by 150 years and condense the story into a three-hour piece of entertainment, even when you make the effort to show things as gritty and painful as they did in the movie.

Azelma finally gets something to do! She and her father, the last surviving Thénardiers, spot the wedding procession, and her father sets her to research the couple.

Chapter title: “Jean Valjean still has his arm in a sling.” Ooh, how exciting!

Cosette’s dress is beautiful. So is Marius’ hair. Also, now that they’re married, Marius can stare at “the pink objects vaguely to be discerned beneath the lace of her corsage.” Hubba hubba.

Cosette jokes: “It’s true. My name is now the same as yours. I’m Madame You”

Out of curiosity, I checked the 1887 (Isabel Hapgood) translation of that line and noticed on the same page the following phrase: “their griefs were but so many handmaidens who were preparing the toilet of joy.” I know the word’s changed its meaning, but I just couldn’t stop laughing at “the toilet of joy.”

Théodule is of course at the wedding, which makes me wonder what he was up to during the revolt back in June. He’s stationed in the city, so he probably would have been involved in the fighting. Come to think of it, I’m surprised Hugo didn’t use the opportunity to show a view of the insurrection from the other side…or at least a conversation between cousins. I’m not sure we ever see him and Marius interact at all.

The old man who used to rant at the slightest provocation is now rambling about joy and love at, well, the slightest provocation. It’s a complete reversal.

G: “That in fact there are unhappy people is a disgrace to the blue of the sky.” — I’m not sure if he’s offended by the circumstances that make people unhappy or that the unhappy people exist.

Don’t get your hopes up for too happy an ending to Les Misérables, though. Even if you haven’t seen the play or movie, you know the title.

Pages covered: 1110-1139, more or less. A few bits of Valjean’s legal maneuverings are actually revealed a little bit later, in the conversation with Marius after the wedding, but this seemed like a better way to break things up. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Ambush in the Slums

I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about Paris’ chief scumbags, or read on.

All the surviving major players in the events outside the barricade meet in this scene: Marius meets Éponine, Thénardier encounters Valjean and Cosette (and tries to rob them), and even Javert returns…ironically to rescue the man he’s hunted! This is a long one, mainly because there isn’t a good spot to break it up. I suppose I could split it between the initial meetings and the extortion attempt, but really, this whole sequence flows together more smoothly than anything else of comparable length so far. I found myself reluctant to put the book down while reading it.

Now, there’s a cheerful title: “The noxious poor.” As the section goes on, it becomes clear that the title distinguishes the Thénardiers from the honest poor, like Marius or Fantine.

The “first tenant” at the Gorbeau tenement complains about how everything costs more these days.

Meeting Éponine

Éponine and MariusMarius, still in despair months after he’s last seen the girl of his dreams, finally meets Éponine on Groundhog Day, when she knocks on his door begging for money.

Éponine is pathetic in the truest sense of the word. She’s dressed about as well as Cosette when she was in the Thénardiers’ “care” (which is to say in too few rags to even begin to keep her warm), has a husky voice like “a bronchitic old man,” is missing teeth, and is down to skin and bones. “A blend of fifty and fifteen.” She hasn’t eaten in three days. Hugo compares her, and girls like her, to “flowers dropped in the street which lie fading in the mud until a cartwheel comes to crush them.”

Éponine is thrilled to find books in Marius’ room. She clearly has a crush on him already, and rambles to him about how she likes to go off on her own. There aren’t any exact matches to the imagery, but I’m certain this passage inspired the song.

Catching up with the Thénardiers

Marius realizes he didn’t really know true poverty at all, and finds a hole in the wall through which he begins spying on the “Jondrettes.” Just, y’know, to see how badly they’re really doing. (This is the same guy who was stalking Cosette so determinedly that her father moved them to a new house.) The narration refers to them as “les misérables.”

Thénardier now looks like “a combination of vulture and prosecuting attorney.” He’s running a series of scams begging for money through letters. He diversifies his identities, tactics and targets in the pitches. Today he’d claim to be a Nigerian prince in one letter and a lottery commissioner in another. But the letter begging his neighbor for money is about as honest as it could be…except for his name, which he’s given as Jondrette.

The Thénardiers’ situation is heartbreaking, as vile as they are, if only because the children deserve better. And yet when one of their letters bears fruit, he breaks what they have left, careless of injuring Azelma in the process, in order to gain more sympathy from the “philanthropist”… Continue reading

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Escape from Montfermeil

Little Cosette and the broomI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to Valjean’s second prison sentence, or read on.

Getting Cosette away from the Thénardiers takes 45 pages. The other day I was flipping through The Complete Book of Les Misérables and noted a comment from one of the show’s writers that the book wasn’t really that complex. I scoffed, but you know, they’re right. It isn’t complex. It’s just ridiculously detailed.

We learn a bit more about the Thénardier family. In addition to Éponine and Azelma, whom Mme Thénardier dotes on, there’s an infant son she neglects. (IIRC he later turns out to be Gavroche, though I’m not sure the timeline fits. Update: yes, it’s him.) Mme Thénardier “talked like a gendarme, drank like a coachman, and treated Cosette like a gaoler.” Her husband’s business philosophy in “Master of the House” is practically lifted from this chapter — they just made it rhyme. Strangely, despite all this detail, Hugo hasn’t mentioned either adult Thénardier’s first name.

They really aren’t comic relief in the book. They’re sleazy, they’re odious and disgusting, and while there are comedic and ironic elements to them, they inspire more revulsion than laughter. If Javert is the noble villain, they’re the base ones.

Fetching water from the well is a BIG DEAL, especially at night with no lights (remember the last time you went out in the woods at night far from well-lit streets? Imagine that without a flashlight), especially for a little girl who’s been brought up to fear everything…and pointed to a bucket larger than she is. She can barely move it empty.

This is not the way Cosette wanted to spend Christmas Day.

Oh look, another mysterious stranger who will eventually be revealed as Jean Valjean. This is getting to be a pattern. “The stranger” is in the woods to check on where he buried his savings, then to head into town to look for the inn. He helps this poor little girl, then asks her name. Cosette’s tale of her home life is…not what he had been led to expect.

I love this chapter title: “Awkwardness of accommodating a poor man who may turn out to be rich.”

Valjean in the book is very deliberate. He rarely takes a big action without looking at the situation and thinking it through. He spends an hour at the inn observing how the Thénardiers treat Cosette vs. their own children, intervening on her behalf several times. But when there’s an immediate threat to someone, he reacts instinctively: the cart, the mast, or Madame Thénardier threatening to beat Cosette.

Cosette gets in trouble for playing with Éponine’s discarded doll. (Yes, discarded. Éponine and Azelma have tossed it aside to dress the kitten.) Valjean solves the problem by buying her the fancy doll she’s been staring at all day when she could get outside.

Ah, Thénardier! “A room where one merely goes to bed costs 20 sous, but a room where one retires may cost 20 francs.”

Cosette sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs. Beauxbatons would have been around at the time according to Harry Potter canon. But I suspect Thénardier would cook and serve the owls.

Hugo twice mentions little Cosette’s habit of sticking her tongue out, and is very apologetic about having to mention it both times. At least he doesn’t take two pages like he did to justify swearing during Waterloo.

In addition to being more deliberate, book-Valjean is a shrewder negotiator than musical-Valjean. He waits until the next morning and then, while settling the bill, steers the conversation toward her and eases up to “what if I took her off your hands?”

As for the Thénardiers, M. does all the bargaining himself. This turns out to be a mistake. When he shows his wife the 1500 francs, she criticizes him for the first time ever, saying simply, “Is that all?”

Thénardier goes after them as they leave town, demanding a signed note from Fantine. Oh, you mean like this one? He’s disappointed to actually get it. He was hoping to be bribed.

After 30 pages calling him “the stranger,” Hugo admits that “the man in the yellow coat,” is Jean Valjean.

In other news, the extended movie soundtrack is out today. Strangely enough, I’m not sure I want to pick it up. While I liked the movie overall, I still haven’t listened to the highlights album. It just seems like something would be missing to try to separate the sound and visuals from each other in this version.

Pages covered: 338-384. Continue on to the chase through Paris.

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Sunday in the Park with Fantine

Les Misérables

Something interesting happened a hundred or so pages into Les Misérables: The first week was a slog, but now on week three, I find myself looking forward to it. Maybe it’s the fact that more of the cast is starting to show up.

After Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop, the book jumps forward two years to 1817. Hugo picks up after the time skip with a snapshot of Parisian society and French culture in that year. A lot of the names are lost on me, but the bit about changes in terminology for Revolution-related topics is interesting.

He later makes the point that it’s difficult for modern readers to imagine a country outing from Paris “45 years ago” because so much has changed. It’s easy to forget that Les Misérables was already a historical novel when it was new. The modern equivalent would be a story written today that starts in 1965 and runs through 1982.

Fantine’s Day Off

Fantine makes her first appearance on page 123 of “Part 1: Fantine.” Hugo talks about the group of Parisian students being Oscars rather than Arthurs (no idea why), and when he gets to naming them, he starts out with “The Oscars were named Felix…” That seemed a bit *ahem* odd.

“Gold and pearls were her dowry, but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth.” You know where this is going, don’t you?

There’s an extended story about a blissful country outing that Fantine goes on with her boyfriend and their circle of friends. As I recall, it’s the only time in the book when she’s happy.

They finish the afternoon in a tavern, drinking. Fantine’s boyfriend Felix Tholomyès is a buzzkill, windbag…and ringleader of the group. He’s that philosophy major who lets his studies go to his head, thinks he’s smarter than everyone and holds forth constantly. And now he’s giving the women diet advice. And telling the men to screw around, and the women to let them. Stay classy. (And really, what does she see in this guy? Excuse me, this Oscar?)

At the end of the day, Tholomyès’ “merry prank” is revealed: essentially, it’s “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we all dumped our girlfriends at once by ditching them?” #jerks

Fantine’s boyfriend wrote a letter when he wanted to leave, but at least he took her to a park that’s covered with trees and told her on a Sunday.

I think Hugo was trying to do a twist ending here, between Felix’s “surprise” and the fact that he first mentions Fantine’s child in the last sentence of the 20-page sequence. Or maybe he was trying to prevent prudish readers forming a negative first impression of Fantine. He spends a lot of time pointing out how virtuous and modest she is in all other respects, and that to her, Tholomyès is the love of her life.

Fantine is devastated, but the other women are more stoic. One even had another guy picked out already. Presumably none had children, but who knows? It’s not as if Hugo mentioned Cosette until then.

A Poor Choice of Guardians

Ten months later, traveling from Paris for her hometown to look for work, a much sadder Fantine stumbles on Mme. Thénardier and her children on the one day she looks respectable. Oops.

Cosette, Éponine and her sister Azelma (also known as miss not-appearing-in-this-show) all get along wonderfully when they first meet as toddlers. You know it won’t last.

Cosette turns out to be a nickname for Euphrasie.

Mme. Thénardier is humming as she and Fantine arrange for the innkeepers to care for Cosette. Guess what’s stuck in my head now?

Madame Thénardier is described as looking like a wrestler, who would have scared Fantine off if she’d been standing instead of sitting. M. Thénardier is described as “a Jack-of-all-trades who did everything badly,” and promotes himself heavily by his (greatly exaggerated) reputation as a solider. This explains the coat he wears in the stage version. The names Éponine and Azelma are attributed to the fact that Mme. Thénardier reads the trashy novels of the day, which Hugo uses as a springboard to comment on the spread and reversal of prestigious vs. plain names as inspired by pop culture and social mobility.

As sad as it is to see Cosette toward the end of her time being mistreated by the Thénardiers, it’s worse to read how they got to that point. Things start out fine for the first month, but then they sell her clothes and put her in rags. Next they’re feeding her scraps. Resenting her despite the extra revenue stream from Fantine, Mme Thénardier directs all her cruelty toward Cosette and all her kindness toward Éponine and Azelma…who follow her mother’s example in treating Cosette. By the time she’s five, they’ve put her to work as a drudge, all the while resenting her presence. Meanwhile, M. Thénardier demands more and more money from Fantine, telling her how wonderful Cosette is faring, even as they treat her worse and worse.

Villagers take to calling her the Lark. “But this was a lark that never sang.” When I first wrote this commentary, I didn’t even note it, because I’d forgotten that the name keeps coming up throughout the book.

The Stranger

Fantine’s hometown of Montreil-sur-Mer has recently experienced an economic revival. A stranger came to town and invented a new manufacturing method for their main industry, completely transforming the local economy. He doesn’t talk about his past, and arrived only with a small amount of money which he invested in the project. But since he rescued the police chief’s children from a fire his first day in town, no one even asked to see his papers.

Who could he be?

On top of revitalizing the industry, building a new factory and employing a bunch of the townspeople, Pere Madeleine endows hospitals and schools, inspires political rivals to do the same, and is always helping random people out. He’s known to sneak into houses to leave money on the table. Eventually they insist, over his objections, on making him Mayor.

Uh-oh, official policy in his factory includes “pure morals” for women (along with goodwill from men and honesty from everyone). That makes him partly responsible for Fantine’s firing later, and probably makes him feel more personally responsible for her fate.

Hmm, M. Madeleine is known as an excellent marksman on the rare occasions he shoots. I wonder if that’ll turn up later

Intrigued by rumors of skulls and crossbones, winged hourglasses and the like, young ladies of the town ask him, “M. le Maire, may we be allowed to see your bedroom? It is said to be like a cave.” (No, really.) They’re disappointed to only see his candlesticks.

I’m really not sure at what point Hugo expects us to figure out that M. Madeleine is Jean Valjean. But any reader who hasn’t figured it out by the time he goes into mourning for the Bishop of Digne hasn’t been paying attention.

Pages covered this week: 119-163. Continue on to part four, where we meet Javert for the first time.

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