Tag Archives: Parenting

Part 22: Meanwhile, Back at the Rue Plumet…

The Mysterious House on the Rue PlumetI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about the Marius, Éponine and the gang after the robbery, or read on!

It’s been about 250 pages since we last saw anything from Jean Valjean’s or Cosette’s point of view, when they entered the convent. We’ve seen them through Marius’ eyes only.

Now we finally come back to their perspective, picking up with Valjean’s decision to leave the convent. Basically, he was so happy there that it troubled his conscience (sort of like the first Matrix being paradise, but humans wouldn’t accept it), and it came down to whether he would be right to steer Cosette into the life of a nun without letting her experience the world outside and all its possibility first so that she could make an informed choice.

Well, not quite. If comes down to the fact that he’s afraid if he did that, she’d come to resent him, and that’s the final straw.

So he finds that house in the Rue Plumet, set well back from the street behind a huge, overgrown garden, with a secret entrance to the grounds running between the neighborhood’s walls that lets out in another part of town entirely (it was built for someone who wanted to visit his mistress in secret). “Only the birds had observed this curiosity, which doubtless was the subject of much interested speculation among the sparrows and finches of a century ago.”

He also rents two apartments elsewhere in Paris, to cover his tracks and provide a bolt-hole. That explains how they move so quickly when Marius follows them home: they’re at one of the decoy apartments at the time.

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Part 19: 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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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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Part 13: Paris Has the Best Street Urchins

GavrocheI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, or read on.

Now that Valjean and Cosette are safely established at the convent, we move on to “Part Three: Marius” and jump ahead several years.

Of course, we don’t start with Marius. Just as “Part One: Fantine” opened with the Bishop and “Part Two: Cosette” opened with the Battle of Waterloo, this section starts with street urchins. Marius isn’t even one of them.

Paris has the best street urchins, or at least they did back in the good old days. Victor Hugo presents a fascinating, idealized description of the typical Paris urchin, then goes on to present the urchin as a microcosm of Paris, which he sees as a microcosm of — and the center of — the world. Let’s just say this won’t be the last time Hugo expounds on the wonders of Paris.

Harpers Ferry and John Brown are mentioned in a list of leaders and movements inspired by the revolutionary spirit of Paris. I remember reading that the novel was popular among Confederate soldiers (sometimes known as Lee’s Miserables), but the rare references to America fall into two categories: historical “Yay revolution!” or contemporary “Boo slavery!”

There’s a lot of talk about the transition between city and country, in-between places that are both but neither (briefly discussed in other chapters). That’s something I’m not super-familiar with, having grown up in southern California in the 1980s. The sprawling suburbs stopped abruptly at a big industrial farm (most of which is gone now), and if we went hiking or camping, we drove from solid city to solid country, and skipped right past the transitional areas.

Anyway, after a while we get a brief introduction to Gavroche, mostly relying on the description of the standard urchin. He occasionally visits his family, who don’t really care for or about him… in the same dreary Paris tenement where Valjean first hid out with Cosette. The family name is given as Jondrette, but there are a few hints to suggest who they really are. (I find it interesting that in the musical, Gavroche re-introduces the Thénardiers after the time jump, given that in the book he’s part of the family, if only by birth.)

Adding to the coincidences: Their next door neighbor is a penniless student named Marius, whom we’re told will be the next subject of concern. Except that he isn’t. The next chapter is about Marius’ grandfather.

Pages covered: 495-511. Image of Gavroche “after an original by Émile Bayard,” from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 10: Valjean sure knows how to pick a hiding place

Hunt in DarknessI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Now that Valjean has rescued little Cosette from the Thénardiers, the story moves to Paris! But not to the greatest neighborhood. Victor Hugo describes it in such loving details as:

“An interesting and picturesque feature of buildings of this kind is the enormous size of the spiders that infest them.”

“It is possible to conceive of something even more terrible than a hell of suffering, and that is a hell of boredom. If such a hell exists, that stretch of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have been the road leading to it.”

It’s to this cheerful spot that Valjean brings Cosette. It’s still better than the Thénardiers’ inn, though.

Becoming Cosette’s surrogate father is as major a turning point for Valjean’s soul as the incident with the bishop. This doesn’t come through in the stage musical at all, but they made it central in the movie, and Victor Hugo flat-out compares the two epiphanies in the novel: The bishop taught him virtue, while Cosette taught him the meaning of love. Hugo even ponders whether Valjean’s no-good-deed-goes-unpunished experience would have sent him back into bitterness if he hadn’t met her.

Les Misérables SoundtrackIf I may digress for a moment (and since I’m writing about Les Misérables, it would only be fitting), I finally listened to the movie soundtrack on its own last night, two months after seeing the film…and I’ve finally placed what “Suddenly” reminds me of: “Someone Else’s Story” from Chess. No wonder it felt like it didn’t fit in this score: it reminds me of a different show!.

Valjean brings his money to Paris sewn into the lining of his coat. I wonder if they used serial numbers in those days.

He hasn’t quite learned how to keep a low profile yet. He becomes known for being generous to the local beggars, and one night one of the regulars doesn’t quite look right when he hands him some money.

Then Javert rents a flat in the same tenement. Uh-oh…

Exit, Pursued by Javert

Before the chase through the nighttime Paris streets, Hugo apologizes for not knowing how much of the area he’s about to describe is still around. Before that apology, he apologizes for mentioning himself. These days it would just be an author’s note, not part of the text.

Streetlights haven’t been lit because of the full moon. That’s not something I would have considered, but if the lights have to be lit by hand, it makes sense that you’d take advantage of efficiencies like that.

Trapped in a dead end, Valjean takes the only escape route he can: up. But he can’t free-climb with Cosette.

Cosette finally starts breaking down over the flight. He tells her she must be quiet, because Mme Thénardier is following them. This works, but only because it scares her even more — after they reach safety, he has to assure her that she’s gone.

An empty garden, a ruined building, sounds of pursuit, midnight hymns, a body with a rope around its neck…and an incredible coincidence, as the gardener (who happens to be awake at midnight) is the man Valjean saved from the runaway cart.

The Hunter

The viewpoint returns to Javert and Valjean’s arrest months before. He actually forgot about him — a job well done, but it’s been done and over with — until reading the news of his death. Then he read about a little girl being “abducted” in Montfermeil, whose mother Fantine had died in a hospital earlier that year, and started to wonder.

By the time Javert shows up to interview the Thénardiers, they’ve realized they don’t want police looking too closely at them, and changed their tune: she left with her grandfather, and Thénardier had simply wanted to keep her around a few more days.

“Javert went back to Paris. ‘Valjean is dead,’ he said to himself, ‘and I’m an ass.'” Well, you’re half-right.

He keeps seeing odd reports, though, and tries to put together enough evidence to make an arrest. He even poses as one of the beggars, hoping his suspect will show up and give him a good look at his face (establishing Javert as a master of disguise). His lack of certainty, coupled with police PR problems at the time, give Valjean enough time to flee. Once he flushes Valjean into a dead end, though, he decides to toy with his prey, which gives him just enough time to escape.

Notes

Someone landed on one of these articles this week by searching for “How to read Les Misérables.” I did a search myself, and found WikiHow’s article by that title. “Things you’ll need: Willpower. A copy of Les Misérables” – So true!

Bad reception at the place I had lunch on Wednesday kept me from tweeting my comments, so I had to write them offline. This is probably better, since I don’t have to clutter up my Twitter feed with my notes, and I can still tweet highlights if I want to. I’m going to stick with that plan going forward.

Also, like last week, my commentary ended up being a lot longer than I wanted, so I’ve split it into two articles. The second one will go up in a few days.

Pages covered: 385-424. Continue on to Part 11: the convent.

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