Tag Archives: Poverty

The Ambush

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.

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Wretched in Every Sense of the Word

Seeing the “Jondrette” family in utter poverty is sad. He’s not lying about the kids not having eaten. They don’t even have a full set of clothes for everyone. And Thénardier mistreats them all, making things worse to elicit more sympathy. It’s stomach-churning.

The parents may be terrible people, but Éponine and Azelma don’t deserve it. You can see why Gavroche left. He and the younger brothers are better off on the streets.

On February 2*, Éponine and Azelma bump into Marius and drop a packet of letters they’re carrying. He picks them up, but they’re long gone. So he decides to look at them for a clue to return them.

They’re Thénardier’s scam letters to prospective marks. All different identities, all different stories, all different schemes…but also all badly spelled. I’m not sure the letter promising to dedicate theatrical verse to the prospective markpatron is likely to succeed. Then again, terrible grammar and spelling are endemic in modern scam emails too, and they still catch people.

I’m not sure why Marius finds it odd that the same person wrote letters “from” four different people. We’ve already seen that letter-writing is a professional service. Though perhaps the professional scribes tend toward better spelling?

One of the letters is actually addressed to Valjean (though only by description). It’s the one with the fewest lies (that and the one he later sends to Marius, their next-door neighbor), because he’s invited him to come see the sorry state in which they live, hoping for direct charity rather than pushing a more elaborate scam. Anything complex would be caught.

The first clue that the old man is Valjean: he’s surprised when Éponine tells him their address.

It would be too much coincidence even for this book for them to live in the same apartment, though. Valjean lived at the top of the stairs, the Jondrettes at the end of the hall.

*I was surprised to see the groundhog day tradition cited, even by another name, since I thought it was an American oddity. Apparently groundhog day grew out of an older German Candlemas tradition which states that if a bear sees sunlight on February 2, it will return to its den to prepare for six more weeks of winter. The Candlemas tradition is brought up here.

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The Wretched of the Earth

While the whole novel is built around justice for those downtrodden by society, there are five specific examples of poverty that Victor Hugo focuses on in Les Misérables:

Fantine is completely screwed over by the system, partly because options are fewer for women than men, and partly because of the stigma against unwed mothers.  Ultimately she ends up in the most degrading profession she can imagine, and dies from inadequate health care.

Marius, after falling out with his grandfather, chooses to take no money he hasn’t earned, and doesn’t earn very much. But he’s got options: he’s in school, and he has at least somewhat marketable skills, and of course there’s no stigma against young men. Plus he has a support network so he can crash at a friend’s apartment, or split the cost of the occasional social meal. He scrapes by in a crappy apartment until he earns his degree, but even then, he can’t quite pull himself out by himself, and it’s only after he (a) meets Cosette, who has money and (b) reconciles with his wealthy grandfather and moves back in with him that he’s able to enjoy a higher standard of living.

The Thénardiers, after they lose their inn, are in desperate straits, but rather than trying to scrape by, they do what they’ve always done: prey on society. They don’t seem to be very good at it, and while it’s hard to have any pity for the parents, it’s painful to read about how Éponine and Azelma live.

Gavroche, a child living on the streets. Of course, a child can get away with breaking a lot more rules than an adult can, and Gavroche is so optimistic he almost doesn’t care. Almost.

Finally, Pere Mabeuf, Marius’ friend who lives a modest but comfortable life off a book he published when he was younger, but as his work falls out of demand and he ages out of the job market, he is effectively done in by the lack of support for the elderly. Technically it’s a bullet that kills him, but he only ends up at the barricade because he’s reached the end of his rope and starts walking.

There are others: Valjean’s distant past (his role in the novel deals more with the flaws in the justice system than with economic class*), the voluntary austerity of Bishop Myriel and the nuns at the convent, the Thénardiers’ Parisian associates, and of course many nameless background characters, but these are the lives we get to see up close.

*It’s worth mentioning that as M. Madeleine, Jean Valjean is the only self-made man in the novel…and even he needed some seed money from an investor to get started.

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Over the Edge

After the Argot digression, the action in Les Misérables returns to the Rue Plumet, where Victor Hugo goes to great lengths to insist that there’s no action going on between Marius and Cosette. Now that they’ve met face to face and shared that one kiss, they don’t even think about going further than holding hands over the next few weeks as they meet secretly in the garden. It’s this sublime meeting of souls, all staring and talking (and I think I mentioned, Marius really rambles when he’s worked up) and nothing physical going on. (The funny thing is, later on Grantaire hears that Marius is seeing a girl, and his drunken, half-joking speculation on the nature of their meetings turns out to be right on the money.)

At one point Cosette tells him, “You know, my real name is Euphrasia.”* Because Marius hasn’t had enough confusion about her name. She explains Cosette is just a silly nickname, and “Do you like Euphrasia?” I can just imagine her looking at him with big puppy-dog eyes at that point. When Marius stammers that he likes it, but likes Cosette better… “Then so do I.” 🙄

It’s never entirely clear how much of her past Cosette remembers, or how much of her background she knows. Whether Fantine passed this knowledge on to Valjean, or she remembered being called Euphrasia before the Thénardiers took her in, it seems to have stuck.

They did not ask where this was taking them; they felt that they had arrived. It is one of the strange demands of mankind that love must take them somewhere.

Cosette, as before, hides everything.

Marius wanders about in a daze, because that’s what he does. At one point Courfeyrac remarks to him, “My dear fellow, you seem to me these days to be living on the moon, in the kingdom of dreams of which the capital is the City of Soap-Bubble. Be a good chap and tell me her name.”

*It’s actually Euphrasie, according to earlier chapters (and the original French). Surprisingly, the different spelling appears in the print book too, meaning it was changed in the translation, not in the Kindle scan.

Éponine Steps Up

Éponine at the GateIt’s worth remembering that in the book, Marius and Éponine aren’t friends, but casual acquaintances at best. Forgetful and ungrateful, he doesn’t give her a second thought once she shows him to Cosette’s home. But she’s been following him around the whole time, basically stalking him, and at the point when Thénardier and Patron-Minette show up to rob the house, she’s there.

As in the show, Thénardier doesn’t recognize his daughter (just as he didn’t recognize his son earlier).

Éponine’s pretty awesome in this scene. She tries to disarm her father emotionally by turning it into a reunion (he has just broken out of prison), and when that fails — Babet actually says “This is getting silly” — she starts reminding them that she’s already checked the place out, and when that fails…

She doesn’t scream. She doesn’t have to. She just threatens to. They threaten her back, and she just laughs at them. “My God, do you think I’m scared? I’m used to starving in summer and freezing in winter. You poor fools…” After delivering an awesome speech she just sits down and refuses to move, until Brujon, known for never backing down from anything (and also writing poetry and songs), decides it’s not worth the risk, and they leave.

There’s a remark about the “key to the grating,” which will make more sense later.

Beginning of the End

After about six weeks, one day Cosette is unhappy because her father says they need to leave. Dramatically it works better for it to be a direct response to the attack. Marius has a plan, and scratches his address on the wall in case something happens. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything that could go wrong in his reunion with his now-91-year-old grandfather (it’s been four years) does go wrong. They both want to reconcile, but neither is quite sure how to go about it, and get off on the wrong foot, saying the wrong things. Finally, Marius asks permission to marry Cosette so her father can’t take her away — apparently the age of consent was 25 at the time. Gillenormand refuses, and worse, tells him to make her his mistress. Marius is so insulted he walks out, promising never to return.

Incidentally, M. Gillenormand dresses in a style so many decades out of fashion that he would be stared at on the street, but his daughter always makes sure he wears a cloak when they leave the house.

“I’m bound to say that the only kind of sans-culottes I’ve ever cared for are the ones in skirts.” Of course.

Imminent Collapse

Valjean’s decision to leave the country has more to do with the growing political unrest in Paris, and the resulting police presence. But when he finds an address scratched on the garden wall, and some shadowy figure (Éponine, playing puppet master) drops him a note saying “Clear out,” he moves the household to the remaining decoy apartment.

Marius is so dejected that he spends the rest of the day wandering around Paris, not even noticing that a revolt is starting around him. At one point he ends up in the river without realizing it. Finally he returns to the Rue Plumet for their evening rendezvous, and Cosette’s gone. But a shadowy figure whispers that his friends are waiting for him at the barricade. Oddly enough, that boy’s voice sounds sort of like Éponine’s rasp. Could it be? Naaah.

Finally, we return to M. Mabeuf, whose slow descent into poverty has reached the bottom. He turned in the windfall of Valjean’s purse (which Gavroche had lifted from Montparnasse) to lost and found. The man who loved books more than anything has had to sell them, one by one, even the plates for the book he wrote (not that anyone has wanted to buy a copy in years). With no furniture to speak of, no other possessions worth selling, and deep in debt, his housekeeper/companion Mére Plutarque falls ill. He sells his last book and leaves her the money. The next day, he hears that there’s fighting in town, and starts walking.

What else is he going to do?

Pages covered: 844-882. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Argot, F– Yourself

Translator Norman Denny pulled two chapters out of Les Misérables, feeling that they digressed too much from the theme and story of the rest of the book, and placed them in appendices. One was the chapter on convents. The other, set immediately after Thénardier’s prison break, dealt exclusively with argot, the thieves’ slang and jargon of the day. When I first read the book in high school, I took the excuse to skip these out-of-sequence chapters and consider myself “done” when I reached the end of the story, but I always felt like I’d cheated a bit. Add in the fact that I developed an interest in how languages interact (yes, before I started dating a linguistics student), and I figured I ought to get to at least this chapter someday, but I never quite got around to it.

This time around, I was determined to read everything. Even the convents and argot.

And…well…I wasn’t missing much.

Victor Hugo spends a ridiculous amount of time justifying the fact that he’s even discussing the matter, because apparently he and other authors had been condemned for daring to inflict such vulgarity on the readers. He goes on for five pages, twice as much as he spent justifying his use of the word merde at Waterloo. He admits that it’s distasteful, like a “repellent animal…dragged out of its cloaca” (by which I hope he isn’t using the anatomical meaning) but insists that it’s necessary to study it in order to form a complete picture of society.

“Nothing can be more depressing than to expose, naked to the light of thought, the hideous growth of argot”…including, apparently, all the other horrible awful stuff that happens to people in this book. I suppose to a French writer the bastardization of the French language might be more depressing than Cosette’s forced drudgery as a child, or Fantine’s desperate slide into poverty and prostitution, or the starved child Combeferre describes when trying to convince those rebels who have children to leave the barricade instead of dying with the rest of them. I mean, come on…this is The French Language we’re talking about!

Really, though, the chapter is less about the jargon itself than it is about the way social ills twist it. It’s the distortion that matters, not the resulting language, and the cause of that distortion: those very themes that Hugo has been exposing throughout the book. In a sense, he’s talking about the same thing, only without filtering them through fictional characters.

There’s a lot of social philosophy in here (much more than there is linguistics), but it’s the same philosophy that he repeats elsewhere: types of revolutions, the idea that the French Revolution was the singular event that would drive humanity toward a golden age in the next century, and so on. At one point he spends a paragraph laying out his core social policy in a nutshell.

Graffiti amid the rubble

Toward the end he ponders: Will the future ever arrive? I look at my pocket computer that instantly connects me to a worldwide network of information…on which I read headlines and news articles about political debates that haven’t been settled in 50 years, crime, wars, poverty, exploitation…In the chapter on convents, Hugo talks about the need to discard those elements of the past that are no longer useful (or never were), but there are so many problems in this novel that we’re still dealing with.

It’s been 151 years since Hugo asked that question, and I can’t answer it.

I guess he’s right: This line of thought is more depressing.

Pages covered: 1214-1232. Photo taken on a recent trip to San Francisco during which I managed to read about 150 pages of the barricade siege.

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