- I’m impressed with the callback to the miner’s candlestick from back in Digne as Hugo dives into the mining metaphor. (Valjean considers using it to attack the sleeping Bishop. The Denny translation calls it a spike, losing the more immediate callback in the Bishop’s gift of actual candlesticks.)
- Now that she points it out, Éponine’s description when we first meet her as a teenager does rather resemble Fantine’s by the time she’s dying: skin and bones, prematurely aged, missing teeth, even a raspy voice.
- Three times through the book. Three times. And I never caught on to the implications of just how far Thénardier goes in exploiting his daughters. The way she’s undisturbed walking into Marius’ bedroom, phrases in the letters, the way she smiles at Marius at one point… Ugh.
Marius is still crashing at Courfeyrac’s place, but Courfeyrac has noticed the change in him: “My dear fellow, you give me the impression right now of being on the moon, in the realm of dreams, in a state of delusion, whose capital is Soap-Bubble City. Now, be a good chap – what’s her name?:
In fact, Cosette and Marius are so wrapped up in their nightly secret meetings that they don’t notice a freaking cholera epidemic. Now that’s focused!
After six weeks of secret rendezvous, Marius’ possessiveness has gotten creepy. And he’s angry at Cosette when she tells him that they’re moving away. It’s hard to tell whether the “return to reality” is the narrator’s rebuke for him being possessive at all, or for it being too soon. Hugo was progressive for his time, but still sexist.
There is absurd comedy in the idea that he stands motionless with his face against a tree for two hours trying to process the fact that Cosette’s moving…but he doesn’t notice that she’s been sobbing. He still cares more for the ideal than the person.
And neither of them notices the drama going on outside the gate, where Éponine stands up to Patron-Minette all by herself. It’s inspiring. She switches tactics rapidly, trying first to distract them, then to convince them it’s not worth the effort, and finally threatening to expose them. They threaten her of course, but she gives this amazing speech about how she’s not scared of them, because she’s already lived through worse. And they walk away, grumbling.
But it’s also profoundly sad. It only works because she has nothing left to lose, and they can’t afford the risk that she might scream.
The youngest two Thénardier children luck out by being raised by someone else and supported by someone with money…until their adoptive mother is arrested while they’re out playing. The five– and seven-year-old come home to find a neighbor telling them their family’s gone, and they need to go to the address of the man who’s been providing for them (well, his representative, anyway)…and then they lose the address.
It’s ironic: Marius spent years searching for the man as looking for the man who saved his father, hoping to repay him. His grandfather, who hated George Pontmercy, was already providing for two of Thénardier’s children. None of them ever find out, though. Gavroche doesn’t even know when they run into him and he takes them under his wing, showing them the ropes and taking them to the home he’s built in a disintegrating unfinished monument.
As for Gavroche, he’s no worse off on the street than his sisters are at home. And growing up without their parents has allowed him to turn out kind-hearted. Mischievous, sure. Irreverent, yes. A pest to those more fortunate than him, absolutely! Still, he instinctively helps those who need it the most, giving the coins to Mabeuf, his shawl to a homeless girl, the biggest piece of bread to one of the two lost kids he picks up, and so on. The Thénardiers would have jealously kept everything, and they taught their daughters to do the same.
Thénardier’s jailbreak is a page-turner. And then there’s the moment at the end, after Gavroche has climbed up a three-story wall with a rope to get him safely down.
Gavroche pauses, hoping for some sort of acknowledgement from his father. When he realizes it’s not coming — Thénardier is already planning his next “job” — Gavroche saunters off, casually remarking that he’s going to take care of “his” kids. It’s a rebuke that also passes unremarked. And the fact that those kids he’s taken in are also Thénardier’s abandoned children just adds another layer.
Montparnasse, who asked for Gavroche’s help in the first place, is already gone. Babet thinks the kid looked familiar. But Thénardier couldn’t even be bothered to look closely enough to recognize his own son.
I wrote a lot about the ambush scene the last time through, but I want to add a few notes from this reading.
The imagery and tension in the ambush sequence is amazing. I’d really like to see it done justice (so to speak) in a film or TV adaptation instead of cut completely or turned into a comic moment.
In scenes like this, Victor Hugo narrows in from omniscient point of view down to just what one character knows. Marius doesn’t know any of Patron-minette’s names, so we don’t get them. But we know, for instance, that Boulatrelle’s a road mender and a drunk, so the drunk with a road mender’s hammer is clearly him even before someone speaks his name out loud. Valjean continues to be M. Leblanc throughout, even after he gives his name as Urbain Fauvre (note: check spelling).
There’s a lot of duality going on: All the aliases, Marius’ dilemma, Thénardier’s real plight vs his scapegoating of Valjean. And lots of animal comparisons. (I’m noticing them a lot more since I’ve started listening to The Les Misérables Reading Companion.)
Another disturbing thing about Thénardier: his mood swings. You never know whether you’re going to face violence and rage or calm (but still malicious) craftiness. It’s a form of his adaptability. Or maybe shiftiness is a better term.
Thénardier’s rage and resentment and envy in the face of deprivation are the same feelings that drove Jean Valjean by the time he got out of prison. Thénardier isn’t just a villain, he’s the hero’s evil counterpart: a glimpse of what Valjean could have become if he’d continued down the road that prison forced him onto instead of encountering the bishop’s example and encouragement.
Though I suspect Mirror-Universe Jean Valjean would have been more competent than Thénardier. As an example, he tells Valjean to cross out part of the letter he forces him to write, asking Cosette to go with the kidnappers, because it might look suspicious. Not to rewrite the note without it. Thénardier isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.
Valjean’s demonstration with the red-hot chisel that they can’t intimidate him through torture is both an impressive feat of badassery and an expression of the self-denial he learned from the bishop. It’s helped him and others over the years, but one day it will kill him.
Another parallel in introducing groups: Patron-Minette (the worst of the Paris underworld) and the ABC society. They’re explicitly linked in that they both work under the surface of society, one to improve it and one to prey on it. Hugo describes philosophers and political thinkers as miners, and criminals as underminers. This has gotten me thinking about the double meanings of miserables described in the first episode of the Les Mis Reading Companion, which I finally got around to listening to!
A few notes on top of the scumbag report from my last read-through:
Babet “underlined his smiles and put quotation marks around his gestures.” — that’s got to be figurative. No way do air quotes go back that far.
I still think the description of Claquesous sounds like Batman. He is the night. Appears and disappears without warning. Always masked. Terribly mysterious.