- 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.
It’s so frustrating to watch Marius take part in the same condemnation that the people of Digne showed Jean Valjean when he arrived there two decades earlier. With all his ideals, you want him to know better, but he “had not yet made full progress” and still believes that shunning the ex-convict is the right thing to do. He makes Valjean unwelcome and does his best to distract Cosette and weaken her emotional ties to her father.
But Marius has also scrupulously tried to pay back Thénardier for saving his father’s life, despite knowing how vile he is. Unlike Javert, who struggles with the idea of owing Valjean his life, Marius wouldn’t hesitate to honor his debt of gratitude.
Valjean knows this. Maybe not the Thénardier connection, but he’s observed Marius’ character, and Marius has mentioned looking for the man who saved his life at the barricade. And he knows that Marius would insist that he stay…which is why he doesn’t tell him. Valjean tells Marius the bare minimum, leaving him to fill in the blanks as darkly as possible: he already believes Valjean murdered Javert, and as he investigates, he comes to believe that Valjean defrauded M. Madeleine.
Strangely enough, the one time Thénardier proves to be better at something than someone else is in investigating Jean Valjean. He turns up irrefutable evidence that Valjean is Madeleine, that he did not kill Javert, and that he rescued Marius. To be fair, that’s not what he was trying to prove…
But if Marius had asked questions, and Valjean had answered them, he would have reconciled the conflicting views right then and remained welcoming. Valjean might still have fallen into despair, might still have insisted on leaving (as he does in the musical), but Marius wouldn’t have been complicit.
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.
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.