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.
Marius, 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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