Tag Archives: Leblanc and Lanoire

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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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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Stealth Courtship

Marius struts past Jan Valjean and CosetteI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about Marius and the job market, or read on.

At last, Marius and Cosette meet! Well, sort of. Long-distance flirting is all they can manage, and they still haven’t spoken a word to each other after weeks.

After pages and pages of reading about Marius Pontmercy, we finally get a description of him. Though I could do without reading about his “sensitive nostrils.” (It could be worse; in the 1887 translation you can get on Project Gutenberg, they’re “passionate nostrils.”)

Girls stare at Marius, but he thinks they’re laughing at his shabby clothes, so he becomes very shy and avoids them. Courfeyrac starts calling him Monsieur l’abbé.

I remember this quote sticking in my head the first time through the book: “His feeling for his father had by degrees become a religion and like all religions had receded to the background of his mind.”

Marius notices Jean Valjean and Cosette frequenting the same park as him for over a year, but pays them no mind until he stops going for a while, then comes back and she’s hit puberty. Even then, he doesn’t really notice until one day Marius’ and Cosette’s eyes meet. *ZAP!*

Suddenly he’s very self-conscious. The next day, he starts wearing his best clothes when going to the park, making sure he gets seen by her, and then starts thinking, huh, maybe the gentleman might think I’m acting a little odd.

One day they walk by his bench, and she glances at him. He’s overcome…but also worried because his boots are dusty and he’s sure she must have noticed.

They steal glances at each other, flirting from a distance. Marius starts hiding behind trees and statues so that he and Cosette can see each other but Valjean can’t see him. About this time Valjean starts getting suspicious and starts changing their routine to see if Marius will follow.

One time Valjean drops his handkerchief. Marius finds it, convinced that it must be hers, and concludes that the initials U.F. mean her name is Ursula. Throughout the whole section, we only have Courfeyrac’s nicknames for them: Monsieur Leblanc (because of his hair) and Mademoisele Lanoire (because she usually wears black, or did when she was younger).

The couple’s first quarrel: arguing through glances over the fact that the wind lifted up her skirt and exposed her leg. Someone could have seen! No one did, but someone could have!

Marius is new to dating (if you can call it that), and aside from their subtle flirtations in the park, he’s basically stalking her. Finally Valjean catches him at their house, and they stop going to the park. Within a week they’ve moved. Brilliant plan, Marius.

Next up: The Paris Underworld.

Pages covered: 603-618. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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