Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Marius: Book VIII
Summer passes, then fall. Winter comes. Neither M. Leblanc nor the young girl have reappeared at the Luxembourg Gardens. Marius is overwhelmed by an immense despair and a profound listlessness. One day he goes to a dance hall with the vague hope of encountering his lost love. The inevitable disappointment leaves him more depressed than ever, weary of people, obsessed with his anguish. Another day he has a strange encounter. He meets a man with long white hair who much resembles M. Leblanc but who is dressed as a workingman. Perplexed, Marius decides to investigate the mystery, but the passerby disappears before he can follow him.
On February 2, Marius witnesses a depressing scene that seems to be in keeping with his somber mood. He is passed by two girls, emaciated, ragged, barefoot. They are running, and from a word or two he overhears, Marius gathers that they are fleeing from the police. In their haste, one of them drops an envelope and Marius picks it up. Before he can call them, they are out of earshot. He puts the envelope in his pocket and forgets it.
Undressing in the evening, he comes upon the envelope and examines it. In it he finds four letters addressed to prominent people, containing pleas for money and signed with the names of four different petitioners, but certain signs indicate the same author wrote all four. The handwriting, the paper, a peculiar tobacco odor, the spelling mistakes are all identical. However, none of the letters bears an address, so Marius dismisses the mystery from his mind.
The next day as he is working, someone knocks on his door, and a young girl enters. She is no more than fifteen, but misery has already made her haggard. She gives Marius a letter from her father, Jondrette, asking for money. The face of the girl is not absolutely unknown to Marius. He seems to remember that he has seen her somewhere before. She calls Marius by name. He could not doubt that she means him, but who is this girl? How does she know his name? Even though Marius has been living in the house for some time, he has had, as we have said, very few occasions to observe his squalid neighborhood. His mind has been elsewhere, and where the mind is, there also are the eyes.
The letter from Jondrette is in the same handwriting as those in the packet Marius had picked up the day before. While Marius ponders the coincidence, the young girl frolics boldly around the room, sings, examines Marius' possessions, looks in the mirror. Finally, she tells him how handsome he is and accompanies her compliment with a meaningful look. Ignoring the hint, Marius hands her the package she has lost. Her manner changes; she is incredibly grateful and pours out to him a tale of constant hunger, suffering, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts. Touched, Marius gives her his last five francs, and she thanks him in a flood of revolting but pathetic slang.
When she has left, Marius reflects on the depths of misery and degradation to which society allows a human being to sink. As he muses, he notices a triangular hole near the ceiling in the wall that divides his room from the Jondrettes'. Compassion is a spur to his curiosity, and he climbs on a dresser to observe his wretched neighbors. What he sees is a den: "abject, dirty, fetid, infected, dark, sordid." At a table sits a fairly old man who resembles both a shady businessman and a bird of prey. He is in the process of writing another begging letter and ranting against the injustices of life. Near the chimney sits his wife, a virago of indeterminate age A listless, wan girl — the second fugitive of the day before — is resting on an old mattress.
Marius is about to leave his observation post when the older daughter walks in. She announces the imminent arrival of a potential benefactor, whom she has accosted during one of his frequent visits to St. Jacques Church. The father springs into action and orders various actions taken to worsen the squalid appearance of the room. He tells his wife to put out the fire, the younger daughter to break the seat of a chair, the eldest to break a window. The room is suitably devastated when the philanthropist walks in.
His entrance causes Marius an incredible shock. It is "M. Leblanc," and he is accompanied by his daughter, who is as lovely as ever. Meanwhile Jondrette, posing for this occasion as Fabantou, an actor down on his luck, launches into an emotional lament. As he details his real and pretended misfortunes, he stares hard at the visitor, as if trying to remember a familiar face. The latter, moved by the evident misery of the family, hands Jondrette five francs and a package of clothing, and promises to return at 6 P.M. with money for his rent.
Marius is an indifferent eyewitness to the whole scene. His only interest is the young girl. A moment after she leaves, he runs after her. He reaches the street just in time to see her depart in a cab. He hails another, but since he has no money on him, the driver refuses to take him. In despair he turns back to his room. As he is about to climb the stairs, he notices Jondrette in deep conversation with a man of menacing appearance. It is one of the most notorious hoodlums in the neighborhood.
As he mournfully enters his room, he is followed by Jondrette's older daughter. Marius is piqued at her since by giving her his last five francs he has lost the opportunity to follow his elusive sweetheart. His resentment is particularly unfair, for the young girl's visit is motivated only by compassion and gratitude. She has noticed Marius' depressed air and is offering her help. Marius asks her to discover M. Leblanc's address. The young girl agrees, although with a sadness that Marius does not notice.
Alone again, Marius plunges into a poignant reverie. He is disturbed by Jondrette's excited comments about M. Leblanc and his daughter. Hoping to obtain some vital information, he jumps back on his observation post. He learns that Jondrette has recognized in M. Leblanc an old acquaintance, although obviously not a friend since his wife greets the news with venomous rage. Jondrette, however, is pleased by the discovery since he thinks he will be able to extort vast amounts of money from this old man. He has evidently hatched a sinister plot, judging from the ominous instructions to make up a fire which he gives his wife. Then he leaves to further perfect his trap.
Marius quickly resolves to checkmate whatever mischief Jondrette is planning. After a brief hesitation, he quietly sets out for the police station. On the way, he overhears a conversation between two disreputable characters that confirms his suspicion that a net is closing around M. Leblanc. At the police station, he is met by an inspector of impressive height with a piercing gaze. The interrogation is incisive and to the point. After his briefing, the policeman requests Marius' passkey and tells him to return home immediately. He is to observe the execution of the plot and, when the trap is about to be sprung, to shoot in the air as a signal to the police. As Marius leaves, as an afterthought the inspector gives him his name: Javert.
A little later, Courfeyrac and Bossuet, Marius' student friends, run into him on the street, but he is unaware of their presence as he is intently following Jondrette. The latter, not suspecting he is being followed, enters a hardware store and comes out with a chisel. Then he disappears into the shop of a man who hires out carriages. Marius gives up his spying to return home before the house is locked up for the night. On his way to his room, he glimpses four men lurking in one of the empty apartments, but fearing to be seen, he refrains from investigating.
In his room, he hears Jondrette returning, then giving various instructions and sending the two girls into the street as lookouts. He climbs back on the dresser and peers through the hole. The room is illuminated by an eerie red glow produced by a sizable stove full of burning coal, with a chisel in the middle of the fire. In a corner he notices two piles, one of old pieces of iron, the other of rope, which upon close examination turns out to be a ladder. Jondrette places two chairs at a table, lights his pipe, and waits.
The church bells strike six and, as agreed, M. Leblanc comes in. His first act is to hand Jondrette more money for his rent and his immediate needs. While he thanks him profusely, Jondrette manages to give his wife a disquieting order — "Send away the cab." Jondrette and Leblanc sit down and Jondrette holds his attention with talk while, unobtrusively, a man enters the room behind the old man's back. Warned by a kind of instinct, M. Leblanc turns and perceives the new arrival. Jondrette explains him away as a neighbor, and the same explanation covers the arrival of three more sinister figures.
Then he explodes his bombshell: "Do you have your wallet? I'll settle for a thousand crowns." Leblanc, alarmed by this blackmail, stands up with his back to the wall and stares at him suspiciously. Like a cat playing with a mouse, Jondrette turns to more innocent conversation. Suddenly three armed men walk in and Jondrette ceases his pretense. In a thunderous voice he says to Leblanc: "Do you recognize me?" Leblanc, pale but far from intimidated, retreats behind the table and steels himself for action, declaring he does not know Jondrette. Jondrette cries, "I am not Fabantou. I am not Jondrette. I am Thénardier."
The revelation leaves Leblanc unmoved, but not Marius. He is stunned, for he finds himself confronted by an impossible dilemma: save Thénardier and sacrifice an innocent man, or call the police and betray his father's trust. He has no time to deliberate, for events move rapidly. Thénardier savors his triumph with hysterical glee, pouring out a flood of reproaches, threats, and boasts; Leblanc calmly replies that Thénardier is mistaken — he is not a rich man, and they have never met before. But, as Thénardier turns around to speak to one of his accomplices, the prisoner springs to the window and nearly escapes. It takes three men to bring him back, and after a titanic struggle, he is tied to one of the beds.
Thénardier then sends the gang out and tries another tactic. Shrewdly he points out to Leblanc that in spite of his danger he has never called for help. Can it be that he is afraid of the police? With elaborate casualness, he moves to give the old man a view of the red-hot chisel and proposes a bargain — 200,000 francs for Leblanc's freedom. With the smile of a "grand inquisitor," he invites Leblanc to write a letter to his daughter asking her to come to him; she will serve as a hostage to insure that Leblanc pays the money. Silently, Leblanc writes, signs his name, and gives his address. Convulsively, Thénardier grasps the letter and sends his wife out with it to get the girl. They wait in a long and dreadful silence until Mme. Thénardier returns in a fury. They have been duped: Leblanc has given them a false address.
While she has been gone, however, Leblauc has used a miniature saw hidden in a hollow coin in his pocket to cut his bonds, and he is free except for one leg. He leaps to his feet and defies them, seizing the red-hot chisel in one hand. "You will never make me write what I do not want to write," he cries, and disdainfully puts the chisel to his own arm, watching it burn without a quiver; then he flings the chisel out of the window. The gang falls upon him, and Thénardier, deciding there is nothing left to do but kill him, takes a knife from the drawer.
Marius is in an agony of indecision, but he can no longer delay — it is Leblanc or Thénardier. Suddenly he has an inspiration: During her visit that morning, Thénardier's daughter had written on a piece of paper to show her education, "The cops are here." Marius grabs it and throws it through the crack in the wall. The gang reacts just as he has hoped. They rush to the window in a disorderly panic.
But their escape is foiled by Javert's dramatic appearance. His authority reduces them to a flock of sheep. Thénardier alone among the men offers some resistance; he aims a pistol at Javert, but the gun misfires. In bestial fury, his wife hurls a rock at the inspector, who simply ducks. The police put handcuffs on the gang, and the three masked men are identified: they are Gueulemer, Babet, and Claquesous, three of the four bandit chiefs of Paris. His prisoners secured, Javert looks around for the victim, but in the confusion he has vanished. "The devil!" says Javert. "He must have been the best catch of the lot."
The next day, Gavroche goes to see his parents, impertinent and carefree as usual. He finds the door to their apartment closed, and an old lady whom he has just insulted informs him that his whole family is in jail. He greets the news with a casual "Ah!" and with a song on his lips returns to the wintry street.
Hugo has an instinct for innocence; with sexually mature women characters he is sometimes uneasy as a writer, but with the girl-woman his touch is unerring. Confronted by the elder Jondrette girl, with her torn bodice, her harsh voice, and her abominable argot, he looks beyond the surface and shows us hunger, grief, modesty, shame, courage, a longing for affection and even for respectability. Through her and her sister, he gives us a vivid illustration of his thesis that "le misère de l'enfant" is the most appalling of all.
However, this is not his only purpose in introducing them. Where his plot is concerned, he is taking up again, on a deeper, more human level, the Cinderella theme treated at the beginning of Book II. These two creatures in rags were once the spoiled darlings, Eponine and Azelma; the "ugly sisters" have become ugly indeed, and when Cosette appears before her erstwhile tormentors in silk cloak and velvet hat, she takes a crushing revenge, though she is quite unaware of it The irony of their meeting is mingled with tragedy: Eponine and Azelma were, at Montfermeil, and are still, only children and no more deserve their present fate than Cosette deserved her ill-treatment at the inn. All three have been equally victims of Thénardier.
Thénardier is the most enigmatic of the characters in Les Misérables, and during most of Book VIII he has us, like Marius, standing on tiptoe with an eye to the peephole to see what he will do next.
"Evil" is not an exact adjective for Thénardier, nor is "criminal," though he is both. "Perverse" describes him more precisely; he is incurably perverse, and his perversity ruins his own life as well as that of others. He is not without intelligence and education, and when we saw him last he was proprietor of his own inn, with 1,550 francs of debts, of which Jean Valjean had just relieved him by buying Cosette. There was no reason why he could not have led a reasonably prosperous life. However, even then, far from being content with his luck, he followed Jean Valjean to extort more funds. As Jondrette, he behaves in exactly the same way: In the hope of one extra franc of charity, he destroys two francs' worth of chair, window, and fire, not to speak of injuring Azelma, and when he is assured of regular help from Valjean-Leblanc, he throws it away in the vain hope of wringing his whole fortune from the ex-convict. Never satisfied with what he has, each failure leaves him poorer and more embittered.
The most dangerous thing about him, however, is the power of his fantasy to obscure the truth. When he tells Valjean in Part Two how fond he is of Cosette, how much he will miss her, we have to think twice to reestablish the real facts; when he rails against society in the garret, he almost convinces us that it is the world and not himself who is responsible for all his troubles. In his presence, even Jean Valjean's image becomes distorted, and from behind the facade of the philanthropist emerges again the figure of the convict, complete with prison ruses, secret escape coin, and superhuman strength. As for Marius, Thénardier's old lie on the field of Waterloo has him so confused he does not know whether or how to come to Jean Valjean's aid. This, however, is the least of Marius' unwitting sins against Cosette's foster-father; by notifying the police, he has put Javert back on Jean Valjean's track again.
The "recognition scene," in which one character turns out to be other than he appears, has been a common device for achieving dramatic surprise since the Greeks; with the superb nonchalance of a great writer, Hugo tops off Part Three with a quintuple recognition scene. We have, of course, suspected for a long time that the Jondrettes are really the Thénardiers, but the confirmation is satisfying; and there is even some genuine surprise in our realization that Gavroche is the baby we heard wailing, neglected, at the inn when Jean Valjean came to find Cosette.
Les Misérables is, like a drama, divided into five sections, and its inner structure parallels that of a drama as well. The first act is a highly suspenseful exposition; the second one, unfortunately, drags; the fourth and fifth are reserved for climax and denouement. At the end of the third act, most dramatists like to provide a sub-climax, only slightly less powerful than that at the end of the fourth. This is the pattern of most of Shakespeare's tragedies, and it is the pattern Hugo follows here, bringing together, at almost exactly the midpoint of the book, all his key characters in a dramatic confrontation. The confrontation is, however, inconclusive for all of them, and we are left in the expectation of a more decisive encounter later on.