Tag Archives: Gillenormand

Part 34: What a Wonderful Smell You’ve Discovered


Alternate title: “Into the garbage chute, sigh-boy!”

One of the interesting things about re-reading Les Misérables after so long is not just what I’d forgotten, but what I’d remembered incorrectly. For example, I remembered that after Jean Valjean carried Marius out of the barricaded zone through the sewer grate, the action stopped, Victor Hugo spent 10-15 pages describing the history and layout of the Paris sewers in detail, and then when you returned to Valjean’s flight through those underground tunnels, you knew exactly where he was at any given point. I also remember a distinct impression that, like everything else, Paris has the best sewers.

Not exactly.

Hugo does stop the action dead. And he does spend a lot of time discussing the history of the sewers. But he starts by complaining at length how much of a waste it is that we flush all our, well, waste into the ocean instead of trucking it out to the countryside for fertilizer. He’s actually calculated the cost savings (or used someone else’s calculations) when compared to sending ships out to mine penguin guano and such.

That’s right: Victor Hugo really knows his sh—well, anyway, he goes on to describe the geology of Paris and the history and nightmarish character of the sewers, up through an expedition to map them starting in 1805 that found poisoned air, cave-ins, quagmires, walled-up dungeon cells, and skeletons. He goes on to describe the improvements made by the survivors — yes, survivors — but only in the most general of terms.

‘Sire,’ said the Minister to Napoleon, ‘yesterday I saw the bravest man in your Empire’ … ‘Who is he?’ the Emperor asked. ‘And what has he done?’ … ‘It is what he wants to do, Sire’ … ‘What is that?’ … ‘To explore the sewers of Paris.’

The man’s name was Bruneseau.

I suppose Paris doesn’t do anything by halves in Hugo’s mind, because rather than having the best sewers, it seems that Paris has the worst sewers.

At one point he blames the sewers for Paris’ poor air quality, citing a study that showed the air above a dung-heap is cleaner than the air in Paris (the equivalent of those modern studies that try to sell you no-touch antibacterial soap for your kitchen sink, I suspect), neglecting to consider other sources of pollution like, say, thousands of cooking, heating and industrial fires crammed into a small area.

When he returns to Valjean and the unconscious Marius, he starts drip-feeding information about the layout as Valjean reaches each new area: sections that are more navigable or more labyrinthine, the ring sewer, how lucky Valjean was that he went one way and not the other, or that the police patrol decided not to split up, the problem of floor collapses leading to, at one point, a bottomless pit of sludge leaking into the silt below (as incorporated into the movie).

Valjean spends hours trying to get out. He climbs down around midday, and emerges in the evening. By the end he’s utterly exhausted.

An interesting fact: Javert isn’t there looking for Valjean. After reporting in, he went back to his normal duties, and followed Thénardier along the river to a locked sewer grate (Thénardier had a key), and was waiting around outside to catch him as he left. Thénardier spotted Valjean with a body, didn’t even recognize him, and figured he’d let him out the same grate to distract the police.

Javert’s face twitched, as always happened when someone thought him capable of making a concession.

Also interesting: Valjean doesn’t ask Javert to let him take Marius home, but to help him do it. It actually makes more sense this way, because he’s allowing himself to stay within sight of Javert rather than expecting the policeman to trust that he’ll show up when he says he will. After dropping him off at M. Gillenormand’s home, he asks to be allowed to stop at home for a few minutes. Javert agrees, waits by the door until he climbs the stairs…and leaves. The cab driver complains about bloodstains, but not anything else, so presumably Valjean manages to clean himself and Marius up a little bit after climbing out of the pit.

Marius’ grandfather is convinced that he’s dead, and wails on and on about how the ungrateful wretch did it just to spite his dear old grandfather. He knew him when he was just that high, and while he may have acted mean toward him, the boy knew he was joking (no, he didn’t)… All the while the doctor is cleaning him up and checking his wounds, and when Marius opens his eyes, M. Gillenormand faints. It reminds me of the scene in which Valjean is buried alive and the real Fauchelevent thinks he’s uncovered him too late.

Pages covered: 1061-1103. Photo of a storm drain grating from one of my walks around the neighborhood.

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Part 27: Over the Edge

After the Argot digression, the action in Les Misérables returns to the Rue Plumet, where Victor Hugo goes to great lengths to insist that there’s no action going on between Marius and Cosette. Now that they’ve met face to face and shared that one kiss, they don’t even think about going further than holding hands over the next few weeks as they meet secretly in the garden. It’s this sublime meeting of souls, all staring and talking (and I think I mentioned, Marius really rambles when he’s worked up) and nothing physical going on. (The funny thing is, later on Grantaire hears that Marius is seeing a girl, and his drunken, half-joking speculation on the nature of their meetings turns out to be right on the money.)

At one point Cosette tells him, “You know, my real name is Euphrasia.”* Because Marius hasn’t had enough confusion about her name. She explains Cosette is just a silly nickname, and “Do you like Euphrasia?” I can just imagine her looking at him with big puppy-dog eyes at that point. When Marius stammers that he likes it, but likes Cosette better… “Then so do I.” 🙄

It’s never entirely clear how much of her past Cosette remembers, or how much of her background she knows. Whether Fantine passed this knowledge on to Valjean, or she remembered being called Euphrasia before the Thénardiers took her in, it seems to have stuck.

They did not ask where this was taking them; they felt that they had arrived. It is one of the strange demands of mankind that love must take them somewhere.

Cosette, as before, hides everything.

Marius wanders about in a daze, because that’s what he does. At one point Courfeyrac remarks to him, “My dear fellow, you seem to me these days to be living on the moon, in the kingdom of dreams of which the capital is the City of Soap-Bubble. Be a good chap and tell me her name.”

*It’s actually Euphrasie, according to earlier chapters (and the original French). Surprisingly, the different spelling appears in the print book too, meaning it was changed in the translation, not in the Kindle scan.

Éponine Steps Up

Éponine at the GateIt’s worth remembering that in the book, Marius and Éponine aren’t friends, but casual acquaintances at best. Forgetful and ungrateful, he doesn’t give her a second thought once she shows him to Cosette’s home. But she’s been following him around the whole time, basically stalking him, and at the point when Thénardier and Patron-Minette show up to rob the house, she’s there.

As in the show, Thénardier doesn’t recognize his daughter (just as he didn’t recognize his son earlier).

Éponine’s pretty awesome in this scene. She tries to disarm her father emotionally by turning it into a reunion (he has just broken out of prison), and when that fails — Babet actually says “This is getting silly” — she starts reminding them that she’s already checked the place out, and when that fails…

She doesn’t scream. She doesn’t have to. She just threatens to. They threaten her back, and she just laughs at them. “My God, do you think I’m scared? I’m used to starving in summer and freezing in winter. You poor fools…” After delivering an awesome speech she just sits down and refuses to move, until Brujon, known for never backing down from anything (and also writing poetry and songs), decides it’s not worth the risk, and they leave.

There’s a remark about the “key to the grating,” which will make more sense later.

Beginning of the End

After about six weeks, one day Cosette is unhappy because her father says they need to leave. Dramatically it works better for it to be a direct response to the attack. Marius has a plan, and scratches his address on the wall in case something happens. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything that could go wrong in his reunion with his now-91-year-old grandfather (it’s been four years) does go wrong. They both want to reconcile, but neither is quite sure how to go about it, and get off on the wrong foot, saying the wrong things. Finally, Marius asks permission to marry Cosette so her father can’t take her away — apparently the age of consent was 25 at the time. Gillenormand refuses, and worse, tells him to make her his mistress. Marius is so insulted he walks out, promising never to return.

Incidentally, M. Gillenormand dresses in a style so many decades out of fashion that he would be stared at on the street, but his daughter always makes sure he wears a cloak when they leave the house.

“I’m bound to say that the only kind of sans-culottes I’ve ever cared for are the ones in skirts.” Of course.

Imminent Collapse

Valjean’s decision to leave the country has more to do with the growing political unrest in Paris, and the resulting police presence. But when he finds an address scratched on the garden wall, and some shadowy figure (Éponine, playing puppet master) drops him a note saying “Clear out,” he moves the household to the remaining decoy apartment.

Marius is so dejected that he spends the rest of the day wandering around Paris, not even noticing that a revolt is starting around him. At one point he ends up in the river without realizing it. Finally he returns to the Rue Plumet for their evening rendezvous, and Cosette’s gone. But a shadowy figure whispers that his friends are waiting for him at the barricade. Oddly enough, that boy’s voice sounds sort of like Éponine’s rasp. Could it be? Naaah.

Finally, we return to M. Mabeuf, whose slow descent into poverty has reached the bottom. He turned in the windfall of Valjean’s purse (which Gavroche had lifted from Montparnasse) to lost and found. The man who loved books more than anything has had to sell them, one by one, even the plates for the book he wrote (not that anyone has wanted to buy a copy in years). With no furniture to speak of, no other possessions worth selling, and deep in debt, his housekeeper/companion Mére Plutarque falls ill. He sells his last book and leaves her the money. The next day, he hears that there’s fighting in town, and starts walking.

What else is he going to do?

Pages covered: 844-882. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 16: Poor, Poor Marius

Les Misérables and CoffeeIn this chapter: Marius in poverty; quotes on books; and a cranky old man whose complaints are timeless.

I’m roughly at the halfway point! This project is taking even longer than I expected, partly because I have a lot less time to read than I’d like, partly because I’ve got other books I want to read too, and partly because taking notes for this commentary does slow things down. On the plus side, it’s also motivation to pick the book up again when I’ve lost momentum, as I have the last couple of weeks.


When we last discussed Les Misérables, Marius Pontmercy had fallen out with his grandfather when he learned he’d been lied to about his father, and had fallen out with his student friends when he realized his politics were too naive for their company.

Marius On His Own

Marius in abject poverty fares better than Fantine does. For one thing, he doesn’t start off in debt (in fact he very carefully avoids debt). For another, he’s not ostracized by potential employers when work is available. And of course he doesn’t have the Thénardiers demanding exorbitant sums every few weeks.

Somehow he still manages to get his law degree. How does he pay for school? He also learns German and English, and finds meager work translating and writing. He’s certified as an advocate, but he can’t stand to be around lawyers anymore. After a few years he’s managed to settle into a comfortable working poor existence.

He’s still looking for the elusive Thénardier who saved his father’s life and, presumably, must be a great, saintly man. He has no idea that he’s moved in next door. Interestingly, he saves them from eviction at one point by digging into his emergency stash to pay their back rent.

Contemplation, dreaming and the 1830 revolution calm Marius’ political opinions. “To be exact, he no longer had opinions, but only sympathies.”

Hugo compares poverty in early adulthood as a crucible, concentrating willpower and contemplation without idle distractions. I suppose it depends on how dire your straits are and whether you have hope to escape it. It certainly doesn’t track with the stories you read in the news…or the rest of the book.

Booking It

And now a bit about Monsieur Mabeuf, the man who unwittingly revealed the truth about Marius’ father and set in motion his transformation. There are some great quotes in this section.

“Like everyone else he had a label, since at that time nobody could live without one, but his ‘ism’ was of a non-committed kind: he was not a royalist, a Bonapartist, a chartist, an Orleanist, or an anarchist — simply a book-ist.” Also a botanist, which was a big part of his friendship with Colonel Pontmercy.

“He never left home without a book under his arm, and often came back with two.”

Regarding his housekeeper “She had never desired any man or been able to live without a cat.”

“To read aloud is to assure oneself that one is reading, and there are persons who read very loudly indeed, as though positively proclaiming the fact.”

Grumpy Old Man

Marius’ grandfather won’t attempt reconciliation, but misses him terribly. “Old people need love as they need sunshine; it is warmth.” His temper suffers for it.

His aunt, on the other hand, is too shallow to care. “In the end she thought far less about him than about the cat or parrot which she doubtless possessed.”

“…as so often when he read the newspaper, was soon simmering with fury.” Talk about universal truths.

“You only have to breathe the air in the streets to be driven half insane.” It’s easy to forget that smog goes back to the dawn of the industrial revolution (which M. Gillenormand clearly doesn’t like either). Further, really, if you look at smoke from heating fires in cities.

M. Gillenormand rants at length about youngsters with their goatees, dressing sloppily and talking coarsely. (But enough about 90s grunge.) Also about those liberal colleges and the media. And, just for good measure, about a play written by Victor Hugo.

Theodule (Marius’ cousin) has been carefully agreeing with everything the old man says. Finally Gillenormand notices, pauses in his diatribe, and turns to him, saying simply: “You’re a damned fool.”

Pages covered: 584-602. Next: Marius meets Cosette (sort of).

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Part 14: Meeting Marius

Les Misérables near the halfway point.I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, or read on.

After meeting Gavroche, we’re told that we will learn about Marius Pontmercy. As it happens, though, we’re instead introduced to Monsieur Gillenormand, an old upper-middle-class man of 90. He’s one of those people who are interesting because of their age, and “peculiar because whereas they were once like everyone else they are now like no one else.”

Still in perfect health, he has two emotional states: happy/mocking, and furious. He loves to tell story of how he escaped the Revolution with his head intact, but for once Hugo doesn’t relate the tale to the reader. He hates the Revolution, the Republic and the Empire, and he hates that his son-in-law fought for Napoleon.

Marius’ aunt is so prude that she’s haunted by the memory that a man once saw her garter.

An ex-servant of his claims he fathered her baby. He insists he didn’t, but also insists that he could have done the deed even at his advanced age, and takes the child in anyway…until she drops a second baby on his doorstep and he sends them both back. He still pays a stipend on the condition that she not do it again. (Added. When I read through this section I thought it sort of funny but not enough to comment on, but it turns out that La Magnon comes back.)

“Anyone walking through the little town of Vernon in those days, and crossing the beautiful stone bridge which, let us hope, will soon be replaced by some hideous construction of cables and girders…”

Georges Pontmercy’s distinguished military career includes one battle alongside Victor Hugo’s uncle. For someone who doesn’t like to speak of himself, he sure sneaks in a lot of references to “the present writer.”

Upon Marius’ mother’s death, Gillenormand demands custody from his father under threat of disinheriting the boy. He agrees, but every few months visits Paris to sneakily steal a glimpse of his son. Both Marius and Cosette are given up by a single parent for their own good.

M. Gillenormand is part of a salon of mostly returned aristocrats, described as being in their 25th year of adolescence. This is the only real experience of the outside world that young Marius gets.

Ultraism (n): To be so vehemently for something as to be in fact against it.

Nice. After years of intercepting his letters and telling Marius that his father is a no-good brigand, M. Gillenormand finally tells him to go see him…on his deathbed. Marius arrives too late. He’s unmoved, however, having believed himself abandoned rather than surrendered.

Not long afterward he has a chance meeting with one of his father’s friends, Pere Mabeuf, who remarked on his surreptitious visits, and Marius realizes (1) he’s been lied to, and (2) he’s been wholly unfair to his father. He starts researching, and changes his opinions not only of his father, but of Napoleon and politics in general. Because he was so sheltered and shown only the negative side, he ends up being the more strongly for his father, the Republic, the and the Empire. It’s the zeal of the convert. “What was right seems wrong, and what was wrong seems right.”

Nowadays you might call him radicalized.

Marius has been disappearing off somewhere. When G. approves of Marius’ cousin because he’d never “go gallivanting after some shameless hussy,” “Théodule grinned the grin of a pickpocket commended for honesty.”

They finally fall out when Gillenormand talks Théodule into spying on him, and finds out that Marius has been visiting his father’s grave and not just sneaking out to see some girl. Next, in Part 15, Marius gets to know some ABCs. Students, that is.

Pages covered: 512-554.

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