Tag Archives: Boulatruelle

The Ambush

I wrote a lot about the ambush scene the last time through, but I want to add a few notes from this reading.

The imagery and tension in the ambush sequence is amazing. I’d really like to see it done justice (so to speak) in a film or TV adaptation instead of cut completely or turned into a comic moment.

In scenes like this, Victor Hugo narrows in from omniscient point of view down to just what one character knows. Marius doesn’t know any of Patron-minette’s names, so we don’t get them. But we know, for instance, that Boulatrelle’s a road mender and a drunk, so the drunk with a road mender’s hammer is clearly him even before someone speaks his name out loud. Valjean continues to be M. Leblanc throughout, even after he gives his name as Urbain Fauvre (note: check spelling).

There’s a lot of duality going on: All the aliases, Marius’ dilemma, Thénardier’s real plight vs his scapegoating of Valjean. And lots of animal comparisons. (I’m noticing them a lot more since I’ve started listening to The Les Misérables Reading Companion.)

Another disturbing thing about Thénardier: his mood swings. You never know whether you’re going to face violence and rage or calm (but still malicious) craftiness. It’s a form of his adaptability. Or maybe shiftiness is a better term.

Thénardier’s rage and resentment and envy in the face of deprivation are the same feelings that drove Jean Valjean by the time he got out of prison. Thénardier isn’t just a villain, he’s the hero’s evil counterpart: a glimpse of what Valjean could have become if he’d continued down the road that prison forced him onto instead of encountering the bishop’s example and encouragement.

Though I suspect Mirror-Universe Jean Valjean would have been more competent than Thénardier. As an example, he tells Valjean to cross out part of the letter he forces him to write, asking Cosette to go with the kidnappers, because it might look suspicious. Not to rewrite the note without it. Thénardier isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

Valjean’s demonstration with the red-hot chisel that they can’t intimidate him through torture is both an impressive feat of badassery and an expression of the self-denial he learned from the bishop. It’s helped him and others over the years, but one day it will kill him.

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Back on the Chain Gang

“Jean Valjean had been recaptured. It will be appreciated if we do not dwell on the painful details.”

Why start now?

Sorry, just kidding.

I love how the newspapers credit Valjean’s unmasking to “the indefatigable zeal of the public prosecutor’s office” and not to M. Madeleine turning himself in. And Valjean is tried and convicted for armed highway robbery against a child. If being an ex-con to begin with hadn’t destroyed his reputation, that would have.

Thénardier and Boulatruelle know each other already in Montfermeil. And Boulatruelle recognizes Valjean from prison, but doesn’t name him. If they compare notes later on, that may be another factor in T. regretting the deal over Cosette.

I love multilingual puns. “…the sans-culottes revived, to the great horror of dowagers, under the name of descamisados…” Basically: the pantsless revived as the shirtless. (In both cases, they’re political factions.)

Returned to prison, this time for life, Valjean seizes a chance to save someone’s life, escape, and very publicly fake his own death all at once. He could probably have rested easy at this point. Even Javert has no reason to look. Captured, dead, case closed. Ironically, it’s Cosette’s disappearance from Montfermeil that tips Javert off that Valjean might still be alive (and on the loose). No good deed…

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Recurring Background Characters

There are a few background characters in Les Misérables who never quite leave. Not just the ones who are associated with another character, like Valejan’s maid Toussaint, or the shopkeeper whom Gavroche bothers on several occasions, but characters who seem like one-offs, but come back anyway.

M. Bamatabois, the “gentleman” who attacked Fantine and precipitated her arrest, turns up on the jury of not-Valjean.

Boulatruelle, a local ne’r-do-well in Montfermeil, spends years trying to find Valjean’s secret cache of buried bank notes, taking breaks in between to help Thénardier out in his Parisian life of crime.

Village women on their way through the wood at first mistook him for Beelzebub and then saw that he was Boulatruelle, which was scarcely more reassuring.

Then there’s La Magnon, whom we never actually meet, but hear about on several occasions. She was once a servant of M. Gillenormand, Marius’ grandfather. A year or so after she left, she claimed M. Gillenormand was the father of her child. He took the boy in (arguing that he wasn’t the father, but that he’s perfectly capable of having been even at his age) until she blamed him for another baby, at which point he sent them both back, but continued to pay a stipend.

She turns out to be a friend of Mme. Thénardier, and one of the contacts on the outside after everyone is arrested following the botched extortion attempt against Jean Valjean.

Even stranger: Her own two children died at a young age, but in order to keep getting her allowance from M. Gillenormand, she got the Thénardiers to give her their two youngest children, Gavroche’s younger brothers. A second round of arrests after the extortion leaves the two boys alone on the streets, where they run into the ultimate Paris urchin: Gavroche.

She disappears at that point, but it’s a long thread for someone who initially seemed to serve only as part of the background for another character.

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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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The Scumbag Report


I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about Marius and Cosette’s sly meetings in the park, or read on.

I’m back! I took a break to read Julie Czerneda’s foray into fantasy, A Turn of Light, which took a lot longer than I expected, then decided I wanted to read something short for a change, and plowed through George Takei’s Oh Myyy!: There Goes The Internet. Now I’m back to Les Misérables with a short commentary, because what I’ve got is quite long and this is really the only place to break it.

In the next section, an attempted robbery will bring all the major players together. But first, we need to learn about the minor players who will be involved.

Hugo opens by describing society’s under-stage, a metaphor in which people mine what will become the future. And beneath that… well, “The real threat to society is darkness.”

The Patron-Minette, the four heads of the Paris underworld, are reduced to being merely Thénardier’s gang in the musical. Admittedly, they do work for hire, to specification. Dirty deeds for a price, presumably not done dirt cheap. (The name is apparently contemporary slang for dawn, a.k.a. the end of their business hours.)

Claquesous is apparently a vampire: He never appears during the day, and always wears a mask. Probably to hide fangs. [Update: Believe it or not, there’s more evidence for this later in the book.]

Montparnasse turned to crime in order to look more stylish. It reminds me of the comic book Underworld Unleashed, in which various villains sold their souls to the devil for greater power. The Joker sold his for a box of cigars. When called on it, he explained, “They’re Cubans!”

The skeevy Boulatruelle from Montfermeil, who was only marginally less scary than Beelzebub, turns out to be one of their regular accomplices.

Then we get a list of names, “each representing a variety of the misshapen fungi growing in the underworld of civilization.”

One uses the alias… Bizarro? Yes, indeed — and it’s listed that way in the original French! Apparently it’s Spanish for “brave.” Which I probably knew and then forgot.

Next up: Catching up with the Thénardiers.

Pages covered: 619-626. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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