Tag Archives: Gorbeau Tenement

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.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

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.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

Rescuing Cosette

Waterloo turns out to have been critical for the Thénardiers’ inn: Looting corpses got them seed money to start it, and “rescuing” Pontmercy got them a story for their sign.

The woodcut of Little Cosette drastically understates how badly she’s treated by the Thénardiers. So do all the movie versions I’ve seen, and the musical.

Cosette overhears Thénardier saying he thinks her mother is dead, and starts singing “My mother’s dead” over and over to the toy sword she’s swaddled and rocking as a makeshift doll. 😢

That said, it still amuses me that she sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs. Thénardier probably cooked the owls from Beauxbatons.

Describing the dismal neighborhood of the Gorbeau tenement where Valjean and Cosette live when they first reach Paris, Hugo remarks that monotonous architecture oppresses the mind. There’s actual science backing him up now.

Javert is very cautious during the chase through the Paris streets, because for most of it, he still isn’t 100% sure the man he’s following is Jean Valjean. Until he gets a good look at his face, Javert takes pains to just follow, and avoid making a false arrest (and getting fired).

Once he’s sure it’s him, and he’s blocked all the exits and is certain Valjean can’t escape, Javert starts having fun with the hunt. Ironically, this is what gives his quarry time to climb the wall with Cosette.

“…thinking he could play cat-and-mouse with a lion.”

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

Part 19: 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

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

Part 10: Valjean sure knows how to pick a hiding place

Hunt in DarknessI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Now that Valjean has rescued little Cosette from the Thénardiers, the story moves to Paris! But not to the greatest neighborhood. Victor Hugo describes it in such loving details as:

“An interesting and picturesque feature of buildings of this kind is the enormous size of the spiders that infest them.”

“It is possible to conceive of something even more terrible than a hell of suffering, and that is a hell of boredom. If such a hell exists, that stretch of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have been the road leading to it.”

It’s to this cheerful spot that Valjean brings Cosette. It’s still better than the Thénardiers’ inn, though.

Becoming Cosette’s surrogate father is as major a turning point for Valjean’s soul as the incident with the bishop. This doesn’t come through in the stage musical at all, but they made it central in the movie, and Victor Hugo flat-out compares the two epiphanies in the novel: The bishop taught him virtue, while Cosette taught him the meaning of love. Hugo even ponders whether Valjean’s no-good-deed-goes-unpunished experience would have sent him back into bitterness if he hadn’t met her.

Les Misérables SoundtrackIf I may digress for a moment (and since I’m writing about Les Misérables, it would only be fitting), I finally listened to the movie soundtrack on its own last night, two months after seeing the film…and I’ve finally placed what “Suddenly” reminds me of: “Someone Else’s Story” from Chess. No wonder it felt like it didn’t fit in this score: it reminds me of a different show!.

Valjean brings his money to Paris sewn into the lining of his coat. I wonder if they used serial numbers in those days.

He hasn’t quite learned how to keep a low profile yet. He becomes known for being generous to the local beggars, and one night one of the regulars doesn’t quite look right when he hands him some money.

Then Javert rents a flat in the same tenement. Uh-oh…

Exit, Pursued by Javert

Before the chase through the nighttime Paris streets, Hugo apologizes for not knowing how much of the area he’s about to describe is still around. Before that apology, he apologizes for mentioning himself. These days it would just be an author’s note, not part of the text.

Streetlights haven’t been lit because of the full moon. That’s not something I would have considered, but if the lights have to be lit by hand, it makes sense that you’d take advantage of efficiencies like that.

Trapped in a dead end, Valjean takes the only escape route he can: up. But he can’t free-climb with Cosette.

Cosette finally starts breaking down over the flight. He tells her she must be quiet, because Mme Thénardier is following them. This works, but only because it scares her even more — after they reach safety, he has to assure her that she’s gone.

An empty garden, a ruined building, sounds of pursuit, midnight hymns, a body with a rope around its neck…and an incredible coincidence, as the gardener (who happens to be awake at midnight) is the man Valjean saved from the runaway cart.

The Hunter

The viewpoint returns to Javert and Valjean’s arrest months before. He actually forgot about him — a job well done, but it’s been done and over with — until reading the news of his death. Then he read about a little girl being “abducted” in Montfermeil, whose mother Fantine had died in a hospital earlier that year, and started to wonder.

By the time Javert shows up to interview the Thénardiers, they’ve realized they don’t want police looking too closely at them, and changed their tune: she left with her grandfather, and Thénardier had simply wanted to keep her around a few more days.

“Javert went back to Paris. ‘Valjean is dead,’ he said to himself, ‘and I’m an ass.'” Well, you’re half-right.

He keeps seeing odd reports, though, and tries to put together enough evidence to make an arrest. He even poses as one of the beggars, hoping his suspect will show up and give him a good look at his face (establishing Javert as a master of disguise). His lack of certainty, coupled with police PR problems at the time, give Valjean enough time to flee. Once he flushes Valjean into a dead end, though, he decides to toy with his prey, which gives him just enough time to escape.

Notes

Someone landed on one of these articles this week by searching for “How to read Les Misérables.” I did a search myself, and found WikiHow’s article by that title. “Things you’ll need: Willpower. A copy of Les Misérables” – So true!

Bad reception at the place I had lunch on Wednesday kept me from tweeting my comments, so I had to write them offline. This is probably better, since I don’t have to clutter up my Twitter feed with my notes, and I can still tweet highlights if I want to. I’m going to stick with that plan going forward.

Also, like last week, my commentary ended up being a lot longer than I wanted, so I’ve split it into two articles. The second one will go up in a few days.

Pages covered: 385-424. Continue on to Part 11: the convent.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.