Tag Archives: Thenardiers

Gavroche and his Family

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.

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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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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 Thenardier mistreats them all, making things worse to elicit more sympathy. It’s stomach-churning.

The parents may be terrible people, but Eponine 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*, Eponine 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 Thenardier’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 Eponine 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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Rescuing Cosette

Waterloo turns out to have been critical for the Thénardiers’ inn: Looting corpses got them seed money to start it, and “rescuing” Pontmercy got them a story for their sign.

The woodcut of Little Cosette drastically understates how badly she’s treated by the Thénardiers. So do all the movie versions I’ve seen, and the musical.

Cosette overhears Thénardier saying he thinks her mother is dead, and starts singing “My mother’s dead” over and over to the toy sword she’s swaddled and rocking as a makeshift doll. 😢

That said, it still amuses me that she sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs. Thénardier probably cooked the owls from Beauxbatons.

Describing the dismal neighborhood of the Gorbeau tenement where Valjean and Cosette live when they first reach Paris, Hugo remarks that monotonous architecture oppresses the mind. There’s actual science backing him up now.

Javert is very cautious during the chase through the Paris streets, because for most of it, he still isn’t 100% sure the man he’s following is Jean Valjean. Until he gets a good look at his face, Javert takes pains to just follow, and avoid making a false arrest (and getting fired).

Once he’s sure it’s him, and he’s blocked all the exits and is certain Valjean can’t escape, Javert starts having fun with the hunt. Ironically, this is what gives his quarry time to climb the wall with Cosette.

“…thinking he could play cat-and-mouse with a lion.”

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Back on the Chain Gang

“Jean Valjean had been recaptured. It will be appreciated if we do not dwell on the painful details.”

Why start now?

Sorry, just kidding.

I love how the newspapers credit Valjean’s unmasking to “the indefatigable zeal of the public prosecutor’s office” and not to M. Madeleine turning himself in. And Valjean is tried and convicted for armed highway robbery against a child. If being an ex-con to begin with hadn’t destroyed his reputation, that would have.

Thenardier and Boulatruelle know each other already in Montfermeil. And Boulatruelle recognizes Valjean from prison, but doesn’t name him. If they compare notes later on, that may be another factor in T. regretting the deal over Cosette.

I love multilingual puns. “…the sans-culottes revived, to the great horror of dowagers, under the name of descamisados…” Basically: the pantsless revived as the shirtless. (In both cases, they’re political factions.)

Returned to prison, this time for life, Valjean seizes a chance to save someone’s life, escape, and very publicly fake his own death all at once. He could probably have rested easy at this point. Even Javert has no reason to look. Captured, dead, case closed. Ironically, it’s Cosette’s disappearance from Montfermeil that tips Javert off that Valjean might still be alive (and on the loose). No good deed…

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