Summary and Analysis
Part 4: St. Denis: Book VI
After 1823, the Thénardiers had two more sons whom the mother hated and managed to get rid of in a very efficient way. A friend, Magnon — the woman who had persuaded M. Gillenormand to support them — lost her two illegitimate sons in an epidemic. In order to conserve her income, she needed replacements, and these Mme. Thénardier provided, to their mutual convenience. The children benefit temporarily from the exchange. Magnon treats them kindly because of the money they represent, but she is implicated in the Thénardier affair and arrested. The children are left to wander alone in the streets of Paris.
One cold spring day of 1832, Gavroche is standing in front of the window of a barbershop. He is waiting for a propitious moment to steal a cake of soap that he hopes to sell in the suburbs. While Gavroche is preparing his bit of larceny, two little boys enter the shop to ask for help and are harshly rebuffed. Touched by their tears, the urchin takes them royally in tow and leads them in the rain to a baker's, where he manages to extract a small coin from his pocket and buy them and himself a piece of bread. On the way, he has passed a girl in rags and given her the woman's shawl he wears for warmth over his shoulders.
After their casual meal, the boys and Gavroche resume their walk until they meet Montparnasse, wearing dark glasses. Their conversation is brief, inhibited by the arrival of a policeman. At last the waifs reach the Place de la Bastille, where Gavroche has a unique domicile, the inside of the statue of an elephant that has been neglected by the authorities. Gavroche shows the children how to get in by climbing one of the elephant's legs and entering through a hole in his belly. The older boy follows Gavroche and the younger one, more timid, is carried up the ladder.
Once inside, Gavroche closes the hole and lights a candle. He comforts the frightened children with a mixture of gruffness and solicitude. Then he shows them his bedroom, a kind of cage made of metal trellis to protect him against the army of rats who share his quarters. At the thought of rats, the children begin to cry again so he cheers them by painting a picture of all the delights he has in store for them — shows, swimming, and mischief. After he blows out the candle, the older boy falls asleep but his brother is still terrified of the rats, which are excited by the presence of human flesh. Gavroche gives him a reassuring hand and soon all three are asleep, oblivious to the harsh world outside.
At dawn, Gavroche is awakened by Montparnasse. The latter needs his help and Gavroche follows him without a question. They go to La Force prison to help Brujon, Thénardier, and Gueulemer, who are planing an escape.
With a providential nail, Brujon has that night managed to make a hole in a chimney, and with Gueulemer he has climbed to the roof. Then they lower themselves with a rope they have brought along. A few minutes later, they join Montparnasse and Babet, who has escaped some time before.
Now it is Thénardier's turn. He drugs his guard with doped wine and with a metal pin breaks his chains. But he is not out of danger yet. His friends have left him a piece of rope too short to reach the ground, and he must seek a different avenue of escape. With the mysterious instinct of despair, he finds his way to the roof of a building outside the prison walls. But his prodigious effort is futile: he is too weak and the ground is too far below for him to climb down the facade of the building. Suddenly he notices his confederates below debating whether or not they should give him up and leave. Afraid to speak, he signals by throwing them his hitherto useless piece of rope.
At the instigation of the others, Gavroche, carelessly courageous, climbs a rickety pipe to the roof and carries his father another, longer rope. No sooner has Thénardier reached freedom than he and the rest of the gang begin to discuss a subject that had earlier been debated in prison: a possible coup against Valjean, Rue Plumet. Then they disband, and as Thénardier departs Babet says to him, "Did you notice the boy who brought you the rope? I think he was your son." "Bah," says Thénardier, "do you think so?" and the subject is forgotten.
Gavroche provides us with an excellent example of Hugo's technique in character development. Hugo introduces him to us first simply as a member of a species, the Paris gamin, and gives us to understand that he possesses the courage, impertinence, and ingenuity of his kind, but he says little about Gavroche as an individual. He remains for us only the silhouette of a boy with his hands in his pockets who passes us in the street whistling. In Part Four, however, Hugo begins to fill in this outline with precise details of speech and behavior. Gavroche wears a woman's shawl and gives it away on a cold day; he steals soap and buys bread for little boys; he helps criminals escape but steals from them to help poor old men; and he lives in an elephant. He becomes a contradictory, colorful, lively personality, totally unlike anyone but himself.
But this realistic character study also carries social and spiritual overtones. The picture of Gavroche aiding his little brothers and his father, quite unaware of their relationship to him, underlines a social tragedy — the disintegration of the family under the pressures of poverty. And his comment on his two little lost wards — "All the same, If I had children, I would take better care of them that that" — is a masterpiece of dramatic and social irony. This waif of the streets, to whom society has never given any material help or moral training, has a far deeper compassion for childhood and a far sharper sense of his moral responsibility toward the unprotected than an average adult French citizen like the barber.
Gavroche is also, however, a spiritual symbol. Without comment and without sentimentality, Hugo through him unfolds to us the natural simple Christianity of the gospels. With cheerful patience, Gavroche makes fun of his own troubles, but he is keenly sensitive to the sufferings of others. Hungry, he feeds M. Mabeuf; cold, he clothes the shivering girl he meets on the street. Whatever he has, he shares with the poor. He is kind to those who spitefully use him, and he even manages, against all odds, to honor his father and mother. Unlike Jean Valjean, who has to struggle with himself to achieve good, Gavroche comes by it naturally — even gaily; but neither is inferior to the other. Both are types of the Christian spirit triumphing over adversity.