Tag Archives: Montparnasse

Mugging Fail

I love this scene: Montparnasse tries to rob Jean Valjean, but gets trounced and lectured to instead. And Gavroche picks the would-be-mugger’s pocket, leaving the coins for Mabeuf, whose hedge he’s hiding in.

It’s got quick reversals, irony, and over-the-top coincidence.

“Who was this old gent? The reader has probably guessed.” But Gavroche doesn’t know him, and he’s the viewpoint character for the scene, so the narrator dances around his name instead of giving it.

Incidentally, Gavroche is trying to steal apples – which is what Champmathieu was arrested for. Back in that chapter it was mentioned that it could be excused of a boy, but not a grown man.

These last few chapters bring back two looks at Valjean’s years as a prisoner: The chain gang being taken to prison, and his scare-em-straight tale to Montparnasse. The story has moved on, structurally…but of course Valjean isn’t allowed to move on. That’s the whole point of his arc, that society won’t let him just be, and always sees him as an ex-convict.

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Second Chances

The offering of a second chance, and acceptance/refusal of said chance, happens repeatedly in Les Misérables.

  • The Bishop’s pardoning of Jean Valjean’s theft, of course, works out quite well.
  • M. Madeleine releasing Fantine from custody elicits a reaction very much like Valjean’s response to being pardoned by the Bishop, and if she hadn’t been deathly ill, this probably would have been her chance to climb back out of poverty (options in 1823 for an ex-prostitute might be limited, but she might have left town for a fresh start, or joined a convent, or something).
  • Valjean offers Montparnasse some money and a chance to reform after he tries to mug the elderly gentlemen. Parnasse of course ignores it. The scare-em-straight approach with an attitude of utter contempt might have been a factor, but Montparnasse clearly wouldn’t have been receptive at this point anyway.
  • Marius offers Thénardier some money after the blackmail attempt fails, admonishing him to make an honest man of himself. Again, Thénardier isn’t receptive, and again, Marius is condescending.

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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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Epic Fail at Mugging

The poor book didn't have a chance.

I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about the Valjean and Cosette at the Rue Plumet, or read on!

This is a really short scene, but I wanted to give it its own post just for its awesomeness.

Now recovered from his injury, Valjean goes back to wandering the streets at night. “It would be a mistake to suppose that one can wander in this fashion through the deserted districts of Paris without ever meeting with an adventure.”

Now, just count the coincidences in this setup:

Gavroche is trying to sneak into Pere Mabeuf’s garden to steal apples. Mabeuf and Plutarque are outside discussing their dire financial situation, so he has to hide in the hedge to avoid being caught. While there, he witnesses Montparnasse try to mug Jean Valjean — I mean an elderly gentleman — on the street outside.

So, Montparnasse vs. Jean Valjean. What do you think happens? He gets his ‘Parnasse handed to him, of course, looking like “a wolf savaged by a sheep.”

Valjean starts grilling him: “What is your business in life?” “Loafer.” Then he tries to scare him straight with a multi-page monologue: What will happen to him when he’s caught, the effort he’ll have to put in to avoiding work, how awful prison is, and always looking over your shoulder. At one point he repeats the description of the hidden saw in a coin from earlier, as if Hugo forgot he’d already described it, but wanted to make sure he included this fascinating bit of research.

“Have you ever seen a treadmill? It is a thing to beware of, a cunning and diabolical device…” I’m sure many would agree.

When Valjean thinks he’s made enough of an impression, he hands over his coin purse. It’s an echo of the Bishop giving him a second chance, but Montparnasse isn’t open to the message (though he is “moved to thought, perhaps for the first time in his life”). The different approach probably didn’t help much either.

And then, the best part of the scene: While Montparnasse is watching Valjean walk away, Gavroche lifts the purse from his coat pocket, then tosses it into Mabeuf’s garden.

Next up: Creeping around the garden. Well, another garden.

Pages covered: 790-796.

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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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