Tag Archives: Magnon

Recurring Background Characters

There are a few background characters in Les Misérables who never quite leave. Not just the ones who are associated with another character, like Valejan’s maid Toussaint, or the shopkeeper whom Gavroche bothers on several occasions, but characters who seem like one-offs, but come back anyway.

M. Bamatabois, the “gentleman” who attacked Fantine and precipitated her arrest, turns up on the jury of not-Valjean.

Boulatruelle, a local ne’r-do-well in Montfermeil, spends years trying to find Valjean’s secret cache of buried bank notes, taking breaks in between to help Thénardier out in his Parisian life of crime.

Village women on their way through the wood at first mistook him for Beelzebub and then saw that he was Boulatruelle, which was scarcely more reassuring.

Then there’s La Magnon, whom we never actually meet, but hear about on several occasions. She was once a servant of M. Gillenormand, Marius’ grandfather. A year or so after she left, she claimed M. Gillenormand was the father of her child. He took the boy in (arguing that he wasn’t the father, but that he’s perfectly capable of having been even at his age) until she blamed him for another baby, at which point he sent them both back, but continued to pay a stipend.

She turns out to be a friend of Mme. Thénardier, and one of the contacts on the outside after everyone is arrested following the botched extortion attempt against Jean Valjean.

Even stranger: Her own two children died at a young age, but in order to keep getting her allowance from M. Gillenormand, she got the Thénardiers to give her their two youngest children, Gavroche’s younger brothers. A second round of arrests after the extortion leaves the two boys alone on the streets, where they run into the ultimate Paris urchin: Gavroche.

She disappears at that point, but it’s a long thread for someone who initially seemed to serve only as part of the background for another character.

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Part 25: Gavroche and the Adventure of the Incognito Family

Gavroche and the Elephant of the Bastille

I thought I had remembered all of the Thénardier children. Éponine, of course. Azelma, who doesn’t appear in the musical but doesn’t really have much of a role in the book anyway. And finally (I thought), Gavroche, the lovable street urchin who’s treated as an orphan in the show but is a runaway (who occasionally goes back to visit) in the book.

There are actually two younger brothers, whom Hugo doesn’t name, making five in all. Mme Thénardier only has enough love for her daughters. Not Cosette, not her sons, not anyone else in the world.

Now get this: Remember Magnon, Gillenormand’s ex-servant who gets him to pay for her two children by claiming they’re his? Her children die in an epidemic of croup, and the Thénardiers agree to let her have their small boys so that she’ll keep getting her stipend. M. Gillenormand doesn’t notice when he visits, whether because he’s not paying attention or because he’s just old. Continue reading

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Part 21: Just a Lark

The Lark's FieldI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about the revolutionary mood of 1832 Paris, or read on!

Marius is utterly despondent after witnessing the attempted robbery. Cosette’s gone again, and he still doesn’t know her name — in fact, it’s worse, because he thought he knew it, but it turns out he doesn’t after all. He had to choose between his true love’s father and the man who saved his own father, and learn that the latter was vile and repulsive. Even now he can’t bring himself to testify against Thénardier, and actually sends him money in prison (even though he has to borrow it from Courfeyrac). He’s also stopped working and fallen into a vicious circle.

I love this scanning error in the Kindle edition: “It is her own thoughts that are reaching meh!”

Marius fails at telepathy.

At one point he wanders into a picturesque field that “because the place is worth seeing no one visits it.” But it’s called the Field of the Lark, and since he’s learned Cosette’s old nickname, he seizes on it as a sign. So from then on, whenever he gives up staring at the blank piece of paper he’s supposed to be writing on, he goes there.

Aftermath of a Robbery

You’d think Javert would be pleased at having captured most of the gang, but he’s troubled by one loss: “The prospective victim who escapes is even more suspect than the prospective murderer.” He’s already forgotten Marius except as “that little nincompoop of a lawyer who had probably been scared out of his wits.”

Montparnasse and Éponine apparently have…something going on. He escaped capture because he left early, “more in a mood to amuse himself with the daughter than play hired assassin for the father.” In a later chapter, he’s described as “perhaps [Thénardier’s] unofficial son-in-law.” It’s not clear how far it goes, though he’s more interested than she is. In any case, it’s odd that Hugo dances around this, considering how frank he is about, for instance, Fantine’s relationship with Tholomyes.

Remember how I joked that Claquesous was a vampire? He escapes on the way to prison, mystifying the police escort. “He had simply vanished like a puff of smoke, handcuffed though he was.” Yeah, vampire. Or maybe Batman. (Javert wonders if he’s a double agent, though of course he disapproves of the practice.)

Of course, they don’t let a “trifle” like being in prison keep them from running their criminal enterprise. They send messages back and forth between prison yards and out of the prison hidden inside lumps of bread, tossed over the wall. One of them gets wind of a likely house to rob in the Rue Plumet (sound familiar?), contacts Magnon (M. Gillenormand’s former servant from 200 pages ago!), who sends Éponine to check it out. Éponine takes one look at it, and sends back a coded message about a biscuit, meaning it’s not worth the effort. But she knows someone else very interested in the inhabitants of that house.

Lost and Found

It takes Éponine a while to track Marius down. First she locates his old friend Père Mabeuf, the gardener and book-lover who knew his father. He’s fallen on hard times, and gotten old besides. The girl helps the old man draw water from the well, an interesting reversal of Valjean and Cosette’s first meeting.

He calls her an angel. “‘I’m no angel,’ she replied. ‘I’m the devil, but it’s all the same to me.’” Her self-image needs some help.

After he answers her question about Marius, he turns around and she’s gone. Later that night as he’s drifting off to sleep, he wonders if she was a goblin. Or maybe she’s Batman. She’s certainly got the voice.

Though since she finds Marius at the Rivière des Gobelins, maybe Mabeuf was right.

Since Marius has last seen Éponine, she’s been worked over by both poverty and puberty. It’s a bit awkward, and it’s kind of surprising that Marius even notices. She starts rambling about this that and the other thing, while he answers her occasional questions with monosyllables.

She mentions that Mabeuf called him a baron. “You can’t be a baron. Barons are old. They go and sit in the Luxembourg, on the sunny side of the château, and read the Quotidienne at a sou a copy.” I guess this trope is older than I thought.

When she finally tells him “I’ve got the address,” he’s suddenly ecstatic. And Éponine? “She withdrew her hand and said in a tone of sadness that would have wrung the heart of any beholder, but of which Marius in his flurry was quite unconscious: ‘Oh, how excited you are!’”

Next: Catching up at the Rue Plumet

My commentaries seem to be covering smaller and smaller chunks of text. I don’t know how much is the story getting denser, how much is the greater presence of interesting characters, how much has to do with it being so much easier to highlight a passage and come back to it later instead of commenting as I read, and how much is just seeing more connections because I’ve read more of the story so far.

Pages covered: 739-755. Image by Lynd Ward from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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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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