Tag Archives: Madeleine

Part 5: Who IS This Guy, Anyway?

Les Miserables featuring a bookmarkWe left off with Fantine’s arrest and Valjean overriding Javert. Over the next few weeks, as Fantine’s health deteriorates, Valjean writes to the Thénardiers asking them to send Cosette to Montreil-sur-mer. Of course, since he sends money, they refuse to let her go – she’s turned into a gold mine as far as they’re concerned, so they keep asking for more.

Javert is so angry at being overruled regarding Fantine that he reports M.Madeleine as Jean Valjean even though he still has no proof. So when he’s told that the “real” Valjean has been found, he not only feels that he’s been insubordinate, but that he’s done so for the wrong reason, and must be made an example of. He insists on being dismissed — simply resigning isn’t enough, because that would be honorable — because of the one-slip-and-you’re-out philosophy summed up in “Stars.”

Some background that turns up:

  • Valjean did make discreet inquiries about his sister and her family after taking on his new life, but nothing turned up.
  • Javert was a warden at Toulon while Valjean was imprisoned and did see him there, but made no particular impression on him. He was just another guard as far as Valjean was concerned, so he didn’t recognize the Inspector when Javert was given his post.

Wheel of Time fans will find this interesting: One of the Sisters attending Fantine is an ageless woman known for never speaking a word that is not true.

Page 208: “The reader will have realized that Monsieur Madeleine was indeed Jean Valjean.” You think?

Who Am I?

Valjean/Madeleine’s inner debate over whether to reveal himself and save the man mistaken for him takes 15 pages. [Edit: More like 50, including the trip to court and watching for an hour before making up his mind.] The two concerns that have driven him for the past eight years, redeeming his soul and burying his past, have finally come into full conflict.

At one point he’s determined to turn himself in, then suddenly remembers Fantine and Cosette, and starts thinking about the consequences to the town. Then he’s determined to take the opportunity fate has granted him, but just to be sure he needs to wipe out his last links to Jean Valjean, including the candlesticks. He’s just setting them on the fire when the sight of them jogs his conscience.

His almost accidental theft of a coin from a boy chimney-sweep after the incident with the bishop, missing in the play, is a critical point in his legal status here. It makes him a recidivist, far worse than simply having broken parole, and subject to life imprisonment at hard labor. Sort of a 19th-century version of “Three Strikes” with the third strike being shoplifting.

I keep getting reminded of fantasy novels. When Valjean finally sleeps, he has a dream about a not-exactly-deserted town that reminds me of the cities of the dead in the Earthsea books. Let’s add another series to my re-read list. At least they’re short.

Pages covered this week: 191-224. Continue to part 6 and the trial.

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Part 4: Righteousness vs “Righteousness”

Les Misérables

Last time we followed the mysterious Monsieur Madeleine’s rise to prominence in Fantine’s hometown. By the time she returns, it seems that everybody loves Monsieur Madeleine.

Well, almost everyone.

Javert is not impressed.

Inspector Javert is described using the wolf/sheepdog metaphor, as a dog born to wolves. Outcast, he decides he can never join society, but can either prey on it or protect it. His instinct for order leads him to the latter.

Continuing the animal metaphor, Javert laughing is “a rare and terrible occurrence…Javert unsmiling was a bulldog; when he laughed he was a tiger.”

He’s been investigating “M. Madeleine” for quite some time, though it causes severe cognitive dissonance between his two key beliefs: government officials can do no wrong and criminals can do no right. (M. Madeleine has pretended not to notice.)

Javert hints at his suspicions to Valjean before he lifts the cart off of Fauchelevent, (“I’ve only known one man with the strength to do this…”) but Valjean does it anyway, because he’s just that kind of guy.

Fantine Gets Screwed Over

Fantine’s dismissal is far less personal than in the play: a local busybody/moral guardian finds out about her child and exposes her secret. She even gets severance pay, it’s just not enough to cover her debts. No one will hire her because of her reputation, and she can’t leave town and start fresh because she owes too much here. She probably would have been all right just being fired from the factory, if it weren’t for the whole town ostracizing her. Even then, she manages to cut back enough and find just enough work to hang on all summer, but winter and mounting debts do her in.

And then the Thénardiers start demanding more and more money. They write to her saying that Cosette is freezing and needs 10 francs for a woolen dress. She sells her hair and buys a dress. They’re furious because, of course, they wanted the money, and give the dress to Éponine. The next time they write, they claim she’s deathly ill and needs 40 francs for medicine or she’ll die within a week. Fantine sells her incisors for that — not exactly practical for a show where she has to sing. Finally, at the end of her rope, she receives a demand for 100 francs or they’ll turn Cosette out on the street. She figures she’s already sold the rest…

I wonder what the “moral guardian” would say if she knew that her action had increased the number of prostitutes in town.

Somewhere in this section I had to look up 1800s French currency and figure out how centimes, sous, napoleons and francs were related. The first hit was someone on Yahoo Answers who was re-reading Les Mis and wanted to know the same thing.

Fantine’s Arrest

Bamatabois isn’t a repulsive customer – he’s just harassing Fantine for the hell of it until he dumps a snowball down her back and she snaps.

Javert really can’t handle anything that challenges his assumptions, such as the Mayor commanding him to let some prostitute go free after she hit a citizen.

By this time, Fantine’s so bitter that she has the same problem. She’s come to blame M. Madeleine for the year or more of hell, so when he tells Javert to free her, she thinks she’s misheard, and Javert must have had a change of heart.

As they argue over Fantine’s jail sentence, Javert claims jurisdiction…then M. Madeleine cites regulations. Repeatedly, until he completely shuts Javert down.

The way M. Madeleine addresses Fantine after he pardons her, and the way she reacts to the sudden change of fortune, strongly mirrors the way the bishop pardoned Valjean. (Except the part where Fantine faints immediately afterward, but Hugo has been hinting at her having consumption since she left Paris.)

Pages covered this week: 164-190. Continue on to part 5 as Javert confronts M. Madeleine with his suspicions. Sort of.

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Part 3: Sunday in the Park with Fantine

Les Misérables

Something interesting happened a hundred or so pages into Les Misérables: The first week was a slog, but now on week three, I find myself looking forward to it. Maybe it’s the fact that more of the cast is starting to show up.

After Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop, the book jumps forward two years to 1817. Hugo picks up after the time skip with a snapshot of Parisian society and French culture in that year. A lot of the names are lost on me, but the bit about changes in terminology for Revolution-related topics is interesting.

He later makes the point that it’s difficult for modern readers to imagine a country outing from Paris “45 years ago” because so much has changed. It’s easy to forget that Les Misérables was already a historical novel when it was new. The modern equivalent would be a story written today that starts in 1965 and runs through 1982.

Fantine’s Day Off

Fantine makes her first appearance on page 123 of “Part 1: Fantine.” Hugo talks about the group of Parisian students being Oscars rather than Arthurs (no idea why), and when he gets to naming them, he starts out with “The Oscars were named Felix…” That seemed a bit *ahem* odd.

“Gold and pearls were her dowry, but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth.” You know where this is going, don’t you?

There’s an extended story about a blissful country outing that Fantine goes on with her boyfriend and their circle of friends. As I recall, it’s the only time in the book when she’s happy.

They finish the afternoon in a tavern, drinking. Fantine’s boyfriend Felix Tholomyès is a buzzkill, windbag…and ringleader of the group. He’s that philosophy major who lets his studies go to his head, thinks he’s smarter than everyone and holds forth constantly. And now he’s giving the women diet advice. And telling the men to screw around, and the women to let them. Stay classy. (And really, what does she see in this guy? Excuse me, this Oscar?)

At the end of the day, Tholomyès’ “merry prank” is revealed: essentially, it’s “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we all dumped our girlfriends at once by ditching them?” #jerks

Fantine’s boyfriend wrote a letter when he wanted to leave, but at least he took her to a park that’s covered with trees and told her on a Sunday.

I think Hugo was trying to do a twist ending here, between Felix’s “surprise” and the fact that he first mentions Fantine’s child in the last sentence of the 20-page sequence. Or maybe he was trying to prevent prudish readers forming a negative first impression of Fantine. He spends a lot of time pointing out how virtuous and modest she is in all other respects, and that to her, Tholomyès is the love of her life.

Fantine is devastated, but the other women are more stoic. One even had another guy picked out already. Presumably none had children, but who knows? It’s not as if Hugo mentioned Cosette until then.

A Poor Choice of Guardians

Ten months later, traveling from Paris for her hometown to look for work, a much sadder Fantine stumbles on Mme. Thénardier and her children on the one day she looks respectable. Oops.

Cosette, Éponine and her sister Azelma (also known as miss not-appearing-in-this-show) all get along wonderfully when they first meet as toddlers. You know it won’t last.

Cosette turns out to be a nickname for Euphrasie.

Mme. Thénardier is humming as she and Fantine arrange for the innkeepers to care for Cosette. Guess what’s stuck in my head now?

Madame Thénardier is described as looking like a wrestler, who would have scared Fantine off if she’d been standing instead of sitting. M. Thénardier is described as “a Jack-of-all-trades who did everything badly,” and promotes himself heavily by his (greatly exaggerated) reputation as a solider. This explains the coat he wears in the stage version. The names Éponine and Azelma are attributed to the fact that Mme. Thénardier reads the trashy novels of the day, which Hugo uses as a springboard to comment on the spread and reversal of prestigious vs. plain names as inspired by pop culture and social mobility.

As sad as it is to see Cosette toward the end of her time being mistreated by the Thénardiers, it’s worse to read how they got to that point. Things start out fine for the first month, but then they sell her clothes and put her in rags. Next they’re feeding her scraps. Resenting her despite the extra revenue stream from Fantine, Mme Thénardier directs all her cruelty toward Cosette and all her kindness toward Éponine and Azelma…who follow her mother’s example in treating Cosette. By the time she’s five, they’ve put her to work as a drudge, all the while resenting her presence. Meanwhile, M. Thénardier demands more and more money from Fantine, telling her how wonderful Cosette is faring, even as they treat her worse and worse.

Villagers take to calling her the Lark. “But this was a lark that never sang.” When I first wrote this commentary, I didn’t even note it, because I’d forgotten that the name keeps coming up throughout the book.

The Stranger

Fantine’s hometown of Montreil-sur-Mer has recently experienced an economic revival. A stranger came to town and invented a new manufacturing method for their main industry, completely transforming the local economy. He doesn’t talk about his past, and arrived only with a small amount of money which he invested in the project. But since he rescued the police chief’s children from a fire his first day in town, no one even asked to see his papers.

Who could he be?

On top of revitalizing the industry, building a new factory and employing a bunch of the townspeople, Pere Madeleine endows hospitals and schools, inspires political rivals to do the same, and is always helping random people out. He’s known to sneak into houses to leave money on the table. Eventually they insist, over his objections, on making him Mayor.

Uh-oh, official policy in his factory includes “pure morals” for women (along with goodwill from men and honesty from everyone). That makes him partly responsible for Fantine’s firing later, and probably makes him feel more personally responsible for her fate.

Hmm, M. Madeleine is known as an excellent marksman on the rare occasions he shoots. I wonder if that’ll turn up later

Intrigued by rumors of skulls and crossbones, winged hourglasses and the like, young ladies of the town ask him, “M. le Maire, may we be allowed to see your bedroom? It is said to be like a cave.” (No, really.) They’re disappointed to only see his candlesticks.

I’m really not sure at what point Hugo expects us to figure out that M. Madeleine is Jean Valjean. But any reader who hasn’t figured it out by the time he goes into mourning for the Bishop of Digne hasn’t been paying attention.

Pages covered this week: 119-163. Continue on to part four, where we meet Javert for the first time.

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