It is Christmas Eve at Montfermeil. At the Thénardier inn, the husband is drinking with the customers and the wife is supervising the meal. Cosette is at her usual place, huddled under the table near the chimney. Ragged and barelegged in her wooden shoes, she is knitting woolen socks for Eponine and Azelma, the Thénardier daughters. Upstairs, a new Thénardier baby, a boy, is wailing, but his mother detests him and pays no attention.
Cosette muses somberly as she knits. Four travelers have arrived unexpectedly, and she has had to fill their pitcher with water. That means the supply is probably exhausted, a situation fraught with anxiety for Cosette. She may have to go out in the black of night to fill the pail at the distant spring. Unfortunately, her worst fears are realized. A traveling salesman furiously complains that his horse has not been given anything to drink, and Mme. Thénardier consequently orders Cosette to bring back water. As an afterthought, she hands her a coin to buy a loaf of bread.
The beginning of the trip is relatively reassuring since the center of the town is filled with carnival stands whose candles give off a protective light. It even holds a brief and poignant pleasure: One of the shops contains a magnificent doll, which Cosette contemplates for a moment in delirious admiration.
But as she leaves the confines of the fair, the night grows darker and the last glimmers of light vanish at the edge of the forest. The countryside is transformed into a nightmarish vision, a world of ghosts, animals, and unknown terrors. So great is Cosette's terror, she does not notice her coin fall into the spring as she feverishly fills her pail.
The return trip is agonizingly slow. Every few steps she stops to put down her inhumanly heavy burden and rests. Suddenly the pail becomes weightless. A man has come up from behind and like a rescuing angel has silently taken the handle from her grasp. A stranger just arrived from Paris, the man appears weary and grieved, and his clothes indicate a genteel poverty. After getting off the stagecoach, he has plunged into the forest instead of entering the village and so has noticed Cosette.
The stranger accompanies her to the inn and on the way elicits her pathetic story. When she gives him her name, Cosette, he seems to receive a shock. When they arrive at the inn, on Cosette's timid suggestion he gives her back the pail to save her from a beating by the irascible Mme. Thénardier. Mme. Thénardier greets Cosette crossly and the stranger, on account of his unprepossessing appearance, with insolence. But he is indifferent to his reception and to the wine Cosette has automatically brought him; all his attention seems concentrated on the child.
Suddenly Mme. Thénardier remembers the bread. Cosette, desperately attempting to avoid her wrath, pretends the bakery was closed. But now she cannot find the coin to give it back. The stranger intervenes once more; pretending to pick up a coin from the floor, he gives the woman a 20-sou piece he has taken from his pocket. His kindness does not stop there. He notices that Cosette is diligently knitting while the Thénardier girls are playing without a care. Moved to compassion, he buys the unfinished socks for the exorbitant sum of five francs and relieves Cosette of her dreary task.
Little girls need toys to fill their leisure, however, and Cosette has none. When the Thénardier children abandon their doll for a moment to play with the cat, Cosette surreptitiously grabs it, but when the theft is discovered, Mme. Thénardier erupts with the violence of a storm. Cosette wrings her hands in desperation and terror. The stranger then does an incredible thing. He steps out of the inn and returns with the magnificent doll from the village shop, which he hands to Cosette. The assembly is stunned, Mme. Thénardier is speechless, and Cosette contemplates the doll with awed veneration.
After his dramatic intervention, the man returns to his reverie and much later retires to his room, escorted by a now obsequious Thénardier. Before he retires, however, he performs one last good deed. The Thénardier girls have placed their little shoes near the chimney and a tender mother has put a 10-sou coin in each. Next to them stands a worn, muddy wooden shoe, empty. The traveler puts a shining gold louis in it and steals off to bed.
The next day, the stranger reveals the purpose of his trip. He offers to relieve Mme. Thénardier of Cosette, and she eagerly accepts. Her husband, however, is more greedy. He plays the affectionate father, unwilling to abandon the child he cherishes. The stranger has to pay him 1,500 francs before he will relinquish her. The stranger takes Cosette's hand, and she trustingly follows him out of the inn.
But the happy ending is spoiled by one last complication. Egged on by his wife, the insatiable Thénardier runs after the pair to see if he can extort yet more money. Valjean — for of course it is he — plays his trump card and shows the innkeeper Fantine's note. When Thénardier still tries to follow from a distance, Valjean raises his cane menacingly and disappears into the forest with his precious charge.
Once again the Thénardiers appear in our story, and we realize that they are and will remain an integral part of the novel. In contrast to Jean Valjean, who represents man rising from animality to sainthood, the Thénardiers are losing their humanity and becoming savage brutes. In describing them, Hugo uses the common realistic and naturalistic technique of presenting selected details of external appearance and letting these suggest the truth of the inner man. By the time he has finished painting Mme. Thénardier's stature, her energy, her great voice, her freckles, her beard, and her jutting tooth, we can see for ourselves that she is a monster, and Hugo does not need to tell us so.
With the innkeeper, Hugo extends his exploration somewhat beyond Thénardier's surface appearance. He adds details of manner, gesture, and speech that are characteristic of the man, and he even goes so far as to say that Thénardier is a hypocritical crook. None of these facts, however, goes beyond what a shrewd observer might deduce about the innkeeper on modest acquaintance, and Hugo is very careful never to take us "inside" Thénardier. "We believe," he says about the details of the man's past; it is a guess, not a statement; and he concludes, "There was some mystery in Thénardier." It is just this ambiguousness, in fact, that makes him so terrifying a personage.
As for Cosette, Hugo sums up the history of her last five years in terms of the most common and vivid of childhood experiences — fear of the dark. The intensity of her fear is so great, however, that we recognize without being told that it is the expression of a thousand other unexpressed real terrors. Her fear of the night is only the outward mark of the fear kindled in her by her total solitude and inhuman treatment.
There were many such abandoned children in nineteenth-century France, rejects of an industrialized society that no longer had any use for them. Fantine herself was an abandoned child, and like Cosette, her name meant only "little one"; but she was raised by the village to which she belonged because in an agricultural society a child can always earn its keep: tend sheep, feed chickens. In the nineteenth-century city, however, there was no way for a small child to help carry the family's economic burden, and it was often abandoned to allow the parents to work.
Cosette is fortunate that she is useful at the inn, for Mme. Thénardier has exactly the temperament of those infamous nineteenth-century baby-nurses who, when their payment for the care of an unwanted baby did not come, promptly tied the infant up in brown paper and dropped it in a river.
Hugo has compensations for Cosette, however. Her St. Nicholas may be only an old convict, but he comes with exactly the right fairytale gifts — the biggest doll in the world and a gold piece down the chimney. What is more, her Christmas miracle is to be a lasting one. It is one of the oldest stories in the world Hugo tells here, but it is always a satisfying one.