Tag Archives: Montfermeil

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.”

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Back on the Chain Gang

“Jean Valjean had been recaptured. It will be appreciated if we do not dwell on the painful details.”

Why start now?

Sorry, just kidding.

I love how the newspapers credit Valjean’s unmasking to “the indefatigable zeal of the public prosecutor’s office” and not to M. Madeleine turning himself in. And Valjean is tried and convicted for armed highway robbery against a child. If being an ex-con to begin with hadn’t destroyed his reputation, that would have.

Thénardier and Boulatruelle know each other already in Montfermeil. And Boulatruelle recognizes Valjean from prison, but doesn’t name him. If they compare notes later on, that may be another factor in T. regretting the deal over Cosette.

I love multilingual puns. “…the sans-culottes revived, to the great horror of dowagers, under the name of descamisados…” Basically: the pantsless revived as the shirtless. (In both cases, they’re political factions.)

Returned to prison, this time for life, Valjean seizes a chance to save someone’s life, escape, and very publicly fake his own death all at once. He could probably have rested easy at this point. Even Javert has no reason to look. Captured, dead, case closed. Ironically, it’s Cosette’s disappearance from Montfermeil that tips Javert off that Valjean might still be alive (and on the loose). No good deed…

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Part 9: Escape from Montfermeil

Little Cosette and the broomI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to Valjean’s second prison sentence, or read on.

Getting Cosette away from the Thénardiers takes 45 pages. The other day I was flipping through The Complete Book of Les Misérables and noted a comment from one of the show’s writers that the book wasn’t really that complex. I scoffed, but you know, they’re right. It isn’t complex. It’s just ridiculously detailed.

We learn a bit more about the Thénardier family. In addition to Éponine and Azelma, whom Mme Thénardier dotes on, there’s an infant son she neglects. (IIRC he later turns out to be Gavroche, though I’m not sure the timeline fits. Update: yes, it’s him.) Mme Thénardier “talked like a gendarme, drank like a coachman, and treated Cosette like a gaoler.” Her husband’s business philosophy in “Master of the House” is practically lifted from this chapter — they just made it rhyme. Strangely, despite all this detail, Hugo hasn’t mentioned either adult Thénardier’s first name.

They really aren’t comic relief in the book. They’re sleazy, they’re odious and disgusting, and while there are comedic and ironic elements to them, they inspire more revulsion than laughter. If Javert is the noble villain, they’re the base ones.

Fetching water from the well is a BIG DEAL, especially at night with no lights (remember the last time you went out in the woods at night far from well-lit streets? Imagine that without a flashlight), especially for a little girl who’s been brought up to fear everything…and pointed to a bucket larger than she is. She can barely move it empty.

This is not the way Cosette wanted to spend Christmas Day.

Oh look, another mysterious stranger who will eventually be revealed as Jean Valjean. This is getting to be a pattern. “The stranger” is in the woods to check on where he buried his savings, then to head into town to look for the inn. He helps this poor little girl, then asks her name. Cosette’s tale of her home life is…not what he had been led to expect.

I love this chapter title: “Awkwardness of accommodating a poor man who may turn out to be rich.”

Valjean in the book is very deliberate. He rarely takes a big action without looking at the situation and thinking it through. He spends an hour at the inn observing how the Thénardiers treat Cosette vs. their own children, intervening on her behalf several times. But when there’s an immediate threat to someone, he reacts instinctively: the cart, the mast, or Madame Thénardier threatening to beat Cosette.

Cosette gets in trouble for playing with Éponine’s discarded doll. (Yes, discarded. Éponine and Azelma have tossed it aside to dress the kitten.) Valjean solves the problem by buying her the fancy doll she’s been staring at all day when she could get outside.

Ah, Thénardier! “A room where one merely goes to bed costs 20 sous, but a room where one retires may cost 20 francs.”

Cosette sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs. Beauxbatons would have been around at the time according to Harry Potter canon. But I suspect Thénardier would cook and serve the owls.

Hugo twice mentions little Cosette’s habit of sticking her tongue out, and is very apologetic about having to mention it both times. At least he doesn’t take two pages like he did to justify swearing during Waterloo.

In addition to being more deliberate, book-Valjean is a shrewder negotiator than musical-Valjean. He waits until the next morning and then, while settling the bill, steers the conversation toward her and eases up to “what if I took her off your hands?”

As for the Thénardiers, M. does all the bargaining himself. This turns out to be a mistake. When he shows his wife the 1500 francs, she criticizes him for the first time ever, saying simply, “Is that all?”

Thénardier goes after them as they leave town, demanding a signed note from Fantine. Oh, you mean like this one? He’s disappointed to actually get it. He was hoping to be bribed.

After 30 pages calling him “the stranger,” Hugo admits that “the man in the yellow coat,” is Jean Valjean.

In other news, the extended movie soundtrack is out today. Strangely enough, I’m not sure I want to pick it up. While I liked the movie overall, I still haven’t listened to the highlights album. It just seems like something would be missing to try to separate the sound and visuals from each other in this version.

Pages covered: 338-384. Continue on to the chase through Paris.

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Part 8: Off the Deep End

Number 24601 becomes 9430I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Previously: After Fantine’s death, we spent 45 pages on the Battle of Waterloo. Now back to the story!

Completely skipped by the musical: Jean Valjean is recaptured, tried for robbing the chimney-sweep boy after his release, and sent back to prison. He offers no defense (he did take the coin), even though the prosecution claims he committed armed robbery with accomplices, which gets him the death penalty (though the king commutes it to life in prison). What he really did was step on a coin and refuse to move his foot.

With M. Madeleine gone, everything in Montreuil-sur-mer falls apart. All that prosperity is lost in local power struggles. He wasn’t making excuses when he worried what would happen to his workers.

“Before going further we must describe in some detail…” we just finished a 50-page digression! now what?

Regarding a local ne’er-do-well near Montfermeil, “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.” Update: Believe it or not, this seemingly one-off character shows up again later.

Hugo estimates the worldwide cost of gunfire salutes, which he considers a waste of ammunition, at 900,000 francs per day, “A detail in passing. Meanwhile the poor continue to die of hunger.”

Heh. Sans-culottes and descamisados.

“Look Down” in the movie, with the convicts pulling a ship into drydock, is probably inspired by this scene at the shipyards during Valjean’s second sentence. A crewman of a ship in for repair is caught on a rope hanging from the mast. Valjean volunteers to rescue him, then breaks his own shackle to do it. (No one notices how easy it was at the time.) After the daring rescue, Valjean himself falls into the ocean and is believed to drown.

There are some interesting bits in this sequence, but overall I don’t think it adds much that we don’t already know.

Pages covered: 325-337. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Continue on to part 9 as Valjean rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers.

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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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