Tag Archives: Theodule

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Javert is no longer a threat to Jean Valjean, Marius is alive and reconciled with his grandfather, and he and Cosette have a chance to be together. But happy endings don’t just happen, you still have to build them.

Boulatruelle, the rascal of Montfermeil, shows up one last time when he misses the chance to catch Jean Valjean digging up the last of his buried treasure — the candlesticks, and the rest of the money he earned as M. Madeleine. Apparently Boulatruelle was too drunk during the extortion attempt for the police to be able to prove intent.

Marius’ slow recovery (he’s got both a shattered shoulder and severe head trauma) actually saves him from prosecution. By the time he’s well enough to arrest (three months), the authorities just want to put the whole matter behind them and not re-inflame public opinion.

His convalescence takes place entirely at home, with house calls from the doctor. These days, he would have spent his months of coma/delirium in the hospital. Back in 1832, it’s probably just as well he didn’t, because this was before people understood germs and the need for sanitation.

M. Gillenormand doesn’t pay much attention to names, and manages to get Valjean’s alias wrong — “M. Tranchelevent” even after he’s been inquiring after Marius’ condition on a daily basis for four months, and even after researching this Cosette girl whom Marius seems so fond of.

He’s also so relieved to have Marius back that he abandons all his old political views in favor of everyone under his roof being happy.

Once Marius is well enough to be aware of his surroundings, he’s all set to have to fight to see Cosette…and his grandfather says, oh, yeah, her father stops by every day to check on you, now that you’re awake, you can see her tomorrow. They’re engaged by December, a February date chosen based on the doctor’s advice.

“Marius, my boy, you are a baron and you are rich. Don’t, I beseech, you, waste your time lawyering.” – G.


“No lengthy explanation is needed…” but here’s one anyway…

Valjean goes to a lot of trouble to separate Cosette from his own legal troubles (and her own murky past). He establishes a fake family history for her, claiming to be not her adoptive father but her biological uncle. The real Fauchelevent isn’t around to dispute the claim anymore, and the nuns never really paid attention to which Fauchelevent “brother” was Cosette’s father, so they’re happy to sign off on it. He also fakes an injury so that he can’t sign any papers related to the marriage, since doing so might invalidate them. Meanwhile the money from Madeleine’s factory is placed in a trust in Cosette’s name, bequeathed anonymously. It turns out she’s rich, although her father — uncle — whatever — isn’t.

Marius and Valjean never speak of their experiences at the barricade. Actually they don’t speak much at all, though every once in a while they find something to talk about, like the importance of free education.

As Marius recovers, he sets about looking for his father’s rescuer and his own, in order to pay his debts to them before starting life with Cosette. No luck on either account, as Thénardier has gone to ground (having been sentenced to death in absentia), his wife has died in prison, and no one recognized the man who brought Marius to the door with Javert — not even Gillenormand’s doorman.

The Wedding

I love when Hugo gets sarcastic, as when he describes wedding traditions. “The chastity and propriety of whisking one’s paradise into a post-chaise to consummate it in a tavern-bed at so much a night, mingling the most sacred of life’s memories with a hired driver and tavern serving maids, was not yet understood in France.” … “There was a strange belief in those days that a wedding was a quiet family affair…”

Another quote that makes me think Hugo would do well as a commentator today: “We do not see a Mardi gras like that any more. Since everything is now an overblown carnival, carnivals no longer exist.”

Mardi Gras

I can’t help but read this as meta-commentary: “Paris, let us admit it, is very ready to be amused by what is ignoble. All she asks of her masters is – make squalor pleasant to look at.” Certainly the parodies of the musical like to point this out: “Les Mousserables”‘ “Mixed Emotions” rating, or Forbidden Broadway’s line about “Rich folks pay fifty bucks a shirt / that has a starving pauper on it.” The novel is a call for social change, but that element is a lot thinner when you remove it by 150 years and condense the story into a three-hour piece of entertainment, even when you make the effort to show things as gritty and painful as they did in the movie.

Azelma finally gets something to do! She and her father, the last surviving Thénardiers, spot the wedding procession, and her father sets her to research the couple.

Chapter title: “Jean Valjean still has his arm in a sling.” Ooh, how exciting!

Cosette’s dress is beautiful. So is Marius’ hair. Also, now that they’re married, Marius can stare at “the pink objects vaguely to be discerned beneath the lace of her corsage.” Hubba hubba.

Cosette jokes: “It’s true. My name is now the same as yours. I’m Madame You”

Out of curiosity, I checked the 1887 (Isabel Hapgood) translation of that line and noticed on the same page the following phrase: “their griefs were but so many handmaidens who were preparing the toilet of joy.” I know the word’s changed its meaning, but I just couldn’t stop laughing at “the toilet of joy.”

Théodule is of course at the wedding, which makes me wonder what he was up to during the revolt back in June. He’s stationed in the city, so he probably would have been involved in the fighting. Come to think of it, I’m surprised Hugo didn’t use the opportunity to show a view of the insurrection from the other side…or at least a conversation between cousins. I’m not sure we ever see him and Marius interact at all.

The old man who used to rant at the slightest provocation is now rambling about joy and love at, well, the slightest provocation. It’s a complete reversal.

G: “That in fact there are unhappy people is a disgrace to the blue of the sky.” — I’m not sure if he’s offended by the circumstances that make people unhappy or that the unhappy people exist.

Don’t get your hopes up for too happy an ending to Les Misérables, though. Even if you haven’t seen the play or movie, you know the title.

Pages covered: 1110-1139, more or less. A few bits of Valjean’s legal maneuverings are actually revealed a little bit later, in the conversation with Marius after the wedding, but this seemed like a better way to break things up. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Creeping Around the Garden

I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about a failed mugging, or read on!

Variations of the HeartThe musical condenses an extremely long courtship between Marius and Cosette into the cliched (but much easier to stage when you’ve got other story to tell) love-at-first-sight moment. In the book, they have months of flirting across the park in summer, then lose sight of each other, then almost meet just before the attempted robbery in February, then nothing for several more months.

Cosette is actually starting to move on, having given up on ever seeing Marius again, and this handsome soldier in the nearby barracks starts spending his break time in view of the garden. This time it’s not so much love at first glance as “Hellooooo Nurse!” though when his fellow officers tell him he should flirt with her, he says with great modesty (or not) “Do you really think I’ve time to stare at all the girls who stare at me?”

Because this is Les Misérables, and coincidences abound, the soldier is Théodule Gillenormand. Yes, Marius’ cousin. Katie suggests that maybe Hugo got tired of introducing new characters. If so, it certainly took him a while.

Then things get spooky.

A chimney that beats a retreat when about to be found out.Cosette doesn’t scare easily. Years with Valjean and at the convent have counteracted the anxiety of her childhood, allowing the “gipsy blood in her veins” (I wonder if this was a standard phrase at the time, or if Hugo is adding a bit to her background) and her adventurous nature to reassert itself. Hugo compares her to a lark. For something I didn’t remember at all from the first read-through, that nickname keeps recurring an awful lot.

One night that spring, Cosette hears footsteps in the garden. She goes to the shutters to peek out, but no one’s there. Another night she’s out in the moonlit garden, and sees the shadow of a man wearing a hat, walking a few paces behind her. She looks around, but again no one’s there…and when she looks back, the shadow has vanished as well.

She figures she’s hallucinating, but twice in as many days? “Most disturbing, it could not have been a ghost. Ghosts do not wear round hats.”

The next night she awakens and hears footsteps in the garden. She looks out, and there’s a man with a cudgel! Oh, wait…it’s her father standing guard. *whew!*

After a couple of nights on patrol, Jean Valjean wakes her up to point out a chimney shadow that looks rather like that of a man wearing a round hat, and Cosette is so relieved that she doesn’t think about things like whether the shadow quite lined up with where she saw it, or the position of the moon three days later, or “singular behaviour of a chimney that beats a retreat when it is in danger of being caught.” (I just love that line.)

Their housekeeper Toussaint is somewhat less reassuring, remarking that “We could be murdered in our beds before you could say knife, especially with Monsieur not sleeping in the villa.” Gee, thanks. (On the plus side, Hugo notes that she has a stammer, but declines to write it in dialect. “We dislike the musical notation of an infirmity.”)

A few nights later, a stone appears while she’s walking around the garden, completely freaking her out. The next morning, convinced she’s imagined it, she goes out. The stone’s still there, but in the daylight she’s more curious than afraid, and finds the envelope with a notebook filled with musings of love. Pages and pages of it.

The Book of Love

“God is behind all things, but all things conceal God. Objects are black and human creatures are opaque. To love a person is to render them transparent.” I think this may have inspired the line, “To love another person is to see the face of God” from the musical.

“Lacking this, or lacking air, we suffocate.” So, I guess Marius is saying that love is like oxygen.

She finishes the letter just as Theodule wanders by again, and not only thinks him “odious,” but wishes she could throw something at him. All her feelings for Marius are rekindled fully. Interestingly, Hugo compares it to the bread messages tossed over the walls by prison inmates.

That night, Marius finally steps out of the shadows, and the two of them are reunited. Or, perhaps we should say, united, because they’ve never actually spoken until this moment. Marius starts babbling, going on for several minutes asking if she’s read the book, telling her that he’s been coming to watch her at night, but don’t worry, no one sees him, he just looks at her windows and walks very quietly to avoid disturbing her (stalker warning!), and oh no I’m rambling, “am I annoying you?” Yes, he’s afraid he’s doing everything all wrong…

At long last, nearly a year after they first noticed each other, they meet, speak, embrace, kiss…and learn each others’ names. Whoa!

Next up: Gavroche’s strange encounters with his family.

Pages covered: 797-811. Images by Jeanniot and Lynd Ward from two unidentified editions of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Poor, Poor Marius

Les Misérables and CoffeeIn this chapter: Marius in poverty; quotes on books; and a cranky old man whose complaints are timeless.

I’m roughly at the halfway point! This project is taking even longer than I expected, partly because I have a lot less time to read than I’d like, partly because I’ve got other books I want to read too, and partly because taking notes for this commentary does slow things down. On the plus side, it’s also motivation to pick the book up again when I’ve lost momentum, as I have the last couple of weeks.


When we last discussed Les Misérables, Marius Pontmercy had fallen out with his grandfather when he learned he’d been lied to about his father, and had fallen out with his student friends when he realized his politics were too naive for their company.

Marius On His Own

Marius in abject poverty fares better than Fantine does. For one thing, he doesn’t start off in debt (in fact he very carefully avoids debt). For another, he’s not ostracized by potential employers when work is available. And of course he doesn’t have the Thénardiers demanding exorbitant sums every few weeks.

Somehow he still manages to get his law degree. How does he pay for school? He also learns German and English, and finds meager work translating and writing. He’s certified as an advocate, but he can’t stand to be around lawyers anymore. After a few years he’s managed to settle into a comfortable working poor existence.

He’s still looking for the elusive Thénardier who saved his father’s life and, presumably, must be a great, saintly man. He has no idea that he’s moved in next door. Interestingly, he saves them from eviction at one point by digging into his emergency stash to pay their back rent.

Contemplation, dreaming and the 1830 revolution calm Marius’ political opinions. “To be exact, he no longer had opinions, but only sympathies.”

Hugo compares poverty in early adulthood as a crucible, concentrating willpower and contemplation without idle distractions. I suppose it depends on how dire your straits are and whether you have hope to escape it. It certainly doesn’t track with the stories you read in the news…or the rest of the book.

Booking It

And now a bit about Monsieur Mabeuf, the man who unwittingly revealed the truth about Marius’ father and set in motion his transformation. There are some great quotes in this section.

“Like everyone else he had a label, since at that time nobody could live without one, but his ‘ism’ was of a non-committed kind: he was not a royalist, a Bonapartist, a chartist, an Orleanist, or an anarchist — simply a book-ist.” Also a botanist, which was a big part of his friendship with Colonel Pontmercy.

“He never left home without a book under his arm, and often came back with two.”

Regarding his housekeeper “She had never desired any man or been able to live without a cat.”

“To read aloud is to assure oneself that one is reading, and there are persons who read very loudly indeed, as though positively proclaiming the fact.”

Grumpy Old Man

Marius’ grandfather won’t attempt reconciliation, but misses him terribly. “Old people need love as they need sunshine; it is warmth.” His temper suffers for it.

His aunt, on the other hand, is too shallow to care. “In the end she thought far less about him than about the cat or parrot which she doubtless possessed.”

“…as so often when he read the newspaper, was soon simmering with fury.” Talk about universal truths.

“You only have to breathe the air in the streets to be driven half insane.” It’s easy to forget that smog goes back to the dawn of the industrial revolution (which M. Gillenormand clearly doesn’t like either). Further, really, if you look at smoke from heating fires in cities.

M. Gillenormand rants at length about youngsters with their goatees, dressing sloppily and talking coarsely. (But enough about 90s grunge.) Also about those liberal colleges and the media. And, just for good measure, about a play written by Victor Hugo.

Theodule (Marius’ cousin) has been carefully agreeing with everything the old man says. Finally Gillenormand notices, pauses in his diatribe, and turns to him, saying simply: “You’re a damned fool.”

Pages covered: 584-602. Next: Marius meets Cosette (sort of).

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Meeting Marius

Les Misérables near the halfway point.I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, or read on.

After meeting Gavroche, we’re told that we will learn about Marius Pontmercy. As it happens, though, we’re instead introduced to Monsieur Gillenormand, an old upper-middle-class man of 90. He’s one of those people who are interesting because of their age, and “peculiar because whereas they were once like everyone else they are now like no one else.”

Still in perfect health, he has two emotional states: happy/mocking, and furious. He loves to tell story of how he escaped the Revolution with his head intact, but for once Hugo doesn’t relate the tale to the reader. He hates the Revolution, the Republic and the Empire, and he hates that his son-in-law fought for Napoleon.

Marius’ aunt is so prude that she’s haunted by the memory that a man once saw her garter.

An ex-servant of his claims he fathered her baby. He insists he didn’t, but also insists that he could have done the deed even at his advanced age, and takes the child in anyway…until she drops a second baby on his doorstep and he sends them both back. He still pays a stipend on the condition that she not do it again. (Added. When I read through this section I thought it sort of funny but not enough to comment on, but it turns out that La Magnon comes back.)

“Anyone walking through the little town of Vernon in those days, and crossing the beautiful stone bridge which, let us hope, will soon be replaced by some hideous construction of cables and girders…”

Georges Pontmercy’s distinguished military career includes one battle alongside Victor Hugo’s uncle. For someone who doesn’t like to speak of himself, he sure sneaks in a lot of references to “the present writer.”

Upon Marius’ mother’s death, Gillenormand demands custody from his father under threat of disinheriting the boy. He agrees, but every few months visits Paris to sneakily steal a glimpse of his son. Both Marius and Cosette are given up by a single parent for their own good.

M. Gillenormand is part of a salon of mostly returned aristocrats, described as being in their 25th year of adolescence. This is the only real experience of the outside world that young Marius gets.

Ultraism (n): To be so vehemently for something as to be in fact against it.

Nice. After years of intercepting his letters and telling Marius that his father is a no-good brigand, M. Gillenormand finally tells him to go see him…on his deathbed. Marius arrives too late. He’s unmoved, however, having believed himself abandoned rather than surrendered.

Not long afterward he has a chance meeting with one of his father’s friends, Pere Mabeuf, who remarked on his surreptitious visits, and Marius realizes (1) he’s been lied to, and (2) he’s been wholly unfair to his father. He starts researching, and changes his opinions not only of his father, but of Napoleon and politics in general. Because he was so sheltered and shown only the negative side, he ends up being the more strongly for his father, the Republic, the and the Empire. It’s the zeal of the convert. “What was right seems wrong, and what was wrong seems right.”

Nowadays you might call him radicalized.

Marius has been disappearing off somewhere. When G. approves of Marius’ cousin because he’d never “go gallivanting after some shameless hussy,” “Théodule grinned the grin of a pickpocket commended for honesty.”

They finally fall out when Gillenormand talks Théodule into spying on him, and finds out that Marius has been visiting his father’s grave and not just sneaking out to see some girl. Next, in Part 15, Marius gets to know some ABCs. Students, that is.

Pages covered: 512-554.

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