Tag Archives: Robbery

Javert in his Element

It’s impressive to see Javert in his element, being every bit the protector he thinks he is. Most of the time we see him persecuting people who don’t deserve it.

Interrupting the ambush shows us that he’s an antagonist rather than a simple villain. More to the point, the way Javert interrupts the ambush is what shows it: A dramatic entrance, clever quips, bravery in the face of danger, pausing to start his report while his deputies cuff everyone, and he’s going against actual criminals. For this one scene, he’s portrayed heroically.

This is how Javert sees himself: the vigilant protector of society.

But he’s only heroic in this instance because he’s in the right. He doesn’t understand that he can be, and often is, on the wrong side, because he values authority and order more than people.

Anyway: I’m done with part three after 3½ months of weekday lunch hours. The biggest difference I’ve noticed between this time through and the last is that I’m looking ahead when making connections, not just back. Last time I’d forgotten a lot of the structure and story that wasn’t in the musical. This time it’s only been five years, so I remember a lot more.

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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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Part 27: 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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Part 23: 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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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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