Les Miserables 15: First Sketch of Two Equivocal Faces

It is here that we first meet the Thenardiers.

The section entitled “In the Year 1817” closes out with the four girls just having received their nasty “surprise” from their boyfriends.  Fantine is devastated by this, laughing along with the others on the outside but weeping quietly in her heart.  And then Victor Hugo drops it on us that Fantine had a child whom Tholomyes was the father of.

We catch up with Fantine a little less than a year after the “surprise” went down.  She and her daughter are leaving Paris and passing through the town of Montfermeil, which nowadays is a suburb of Paris but back then was just a little town way out in the middle of nowhere.  As they pass through the town’s main street, they pass an inn with an old, rusted-out cart in front.  This cart takes the brunt of a progressive, anti-institutional diatribe from Victor Hugo, as follows:

Nothing is more ordinary than a cart or wagon in front of the door to an inn; nevertheless the vehicle or, more properly speaking, the fragment of a vehicle obstructing the street in front of the Sergeant of Waterloo one evening in the spring of 1818 certainly, by its bulk, would have attracted the attention of any passing painter….

Why was this vehicle in this place on the street?  First to obstruct the lane, and then to complete its work of rusting.  In the old social order we find a host of institutions like this across our path in the full light of day, with no reasons for being there.

This inn, the Sergeant of Waterloo, was of course the Thenardiers’ inn.

Well it just so happened that a mother had found this to be a delightful toy for her two preschool-aged children.  All she had to do was tie a bandanna to a swinging chain under one of the axles so that they couldn’t fall off, and they were good to go.

As the mother is swinging her children on this chain, she is approached by a stranger who says, “You have two lovely children, madame”.  Victor Hugo clues us in to the fact that this stranger is Fantine, and then he breaks off to fill us in on what had happened in the previous ten months.

It was not a pretty sight.  After the four guys left, the four girls had scarcely any reason to stay together anymore, so they all went their separate ways.  Fantine could not find work; she didn’t have to work while she was with Tholomyes and so she lost her skills and the contacts that she needed to find work.  She tried writing to Tholomyes; she had three letters written to him by a public letter-writer (she could not read or write), but he did not respond to anything from her.  And for the rest of the story Tholomyes is never seen or heard from again:

We shall have no further need to speak of M. Felix Tholomyes.  We will only say that twenty years later under king Louis Philippe, he was a fat provincial attorney, rich and influential, a wise and rigid juror, but as always, a man of pleasure.

Now doesn’t that just make your blood boil?  Tholomyes knocked Fantine up and fathered a child through her, and then disappeared completely and totally from her world, leaving her all alone to raise his child.  And he apparently suffered no adverse consequences for his unjust treatment of Fantine; he just kept on moving forward in his life with nary a thought of her or her child whom he had fathered.  Yet that sort of thing happened all the time in early 19th century France; it was acceptable and even encouraged for upper-class men to take lower-class women as mistresses, impregnate them possibly, and then leave them behind like yesterday’s news.  This was completely and totally wrong, and it made Victor Hugo mad to see the injustice which working-class women such as Fantine routinely received from upper-class men such as Tholomyes; that is part of the reason why he wrote Les Miserables in the first place.  So as you read these lines, try to imagine Victor Hugo saying to you sarcastically, “Am I buggin’ ya?  Don’t mean to bug ya.”

This left Fantine all alone in the world, with nothing left for her in Paris.  So she decided to sell everything she had and go back to her hometown of Montreuil-sur-mer, in hopes that someone there would remember her and give her work.

But there was a problem.  You see, MSM was a small town.  And in small towns, people don’t take too kindly to people showing up with children born out of wedlock.  And they tend to gossip about it, as well as any other perceived moral shortcoming of anyone in their midst, which only makes matters worse.

This meant that Fantine would have to lose her child somewhere before going back to MSM.  But where?  This was the question which weighed heavily on her mind and heart as she passed the inn at Montfermeil.

And then she saw it.  She saw the two kids and their mother playing on the rusted-out cart.  Feel the full force of Victor Hugo’s words as he describes the rapture which flooded through Fantine’s soul in that moment:

Magic charms do exist.  These two little girls were one for this mother.

Grimming with emotion, she watched them.  The presence of angels is a herald of paradise.  She thought she saw above this inn the mysterious “here” of Providence.  These children were so clearly happy:  She gazed at them, admired them, so much affected that as the mother was taking a breath between verses of her song, she could not help saying what we have just read.

“You have two lovely children there, madame.”

The most ferocious animals are disarmed by caresses to their young.

Hmmm…could that last sentence be a hint that something here is amiss?  That some ill fortune awaits Fantine and her child if she entrusts her to the care of this mother?  With Victor Hugo it usually is, but you’ll have to see for yourself.  Keep reading and find out.

As it turns out, the mother of the two girls is none other than Madame Thenardier, who along with her husband, is the proprietor of the inn in front of which the rusted-out cart is parked.  Victor Hugo gives a description of her, and then adds this note which only adds to the sense of ominousness which we may have begun to feel a few sentences back:

If this woman [Madame Thenardier], now seated bent over, had been upright, perhaps her towering form and broad shoulders, those of a movable colossus, fit for a market woman, would have dismayed the traveler, disturbed her confidence, and prevented what we have to tell.  A person seated instead of standing:  Fate hangs on just such a thread.

This sort of thing is prevalent throughout the writing of Victor Hugo:  seemingly trivial and insignificant details in the story whose consequences cascade until they become truly momentous.  Hugo apparently believed in the old poem which goes something like “For want of a nail the shoe was lost / For want of a shoe the horse was lost / For want of a horse the general was lost / For want of a general the battle was lost / For want of a battle the war was lost”.  This is part of the genius of Victor Hugo’s plot writing:  the contrast between the apparent triviality of a certain detail in the story and the huge importance of the plot element which hangs upon it.

So Fantine tells her story to Madame Thenardier.  And then Fantine’s daughter, who up until that point had been sleeping soundly in Fantine’s arms, wakes up.  Fantine puts her down and she goes to play with the Thenardier girls.  We learn that Fantine’s daughter’s name is Cosette; her actual name was Euphrasie and Cosette was merely a nickname.  We also learn that Cosette is now almost three years old, the same age as the older of the two Thenardier girls.  And then Fantine and Madame Thenardier come to terms for them to keep Cosette, with some help from the husband’s voice inside.

Fantine left the next day after spending a night at the Thenardiers’ inn, fully confident that she would be coming back soon for Cosette.  Still, it was a very difficult thing for her to leave Cosette behind; Victor Hugo notes that a neighbor saw her going away, “crying as if her heart would break”.

And then the Thenardiers have a conversation which shows us a great deal about what is really in their hearts:

When Cosette’s mother had gone, the man said to his wife, “That’s enough for my debt of 110 francs, which falls due tomorrow; I was fifty francs short.  Do you realize a sheriff would have come and they’d have brought charges against me?  You’ve built a good mousetrap with your little ones.”

“Without even knowing it,” the woman said.

The captured mouse was very puny, but the cat exults even over a lean mouse.

And now, Victor Hugo breaks off into a brief description of the Thenardiers.  Now that Fantine has left her daughter Cosette in their care, we begin to see what kind of people they truly are.  I will let Victor Hugo’s words speak for themselves:

They belonged to that bastard class composed of rough people who have risen and intelligent people who have fallen, which lies between the so-called middle and lower classes and unites some of the faults of the latter with nearly all of the vices of the former, without possessing the generous impulses of the worker or the respectability of the bourgeois.

They were among those dwarfish natures, which, if they happen to be heated by some sullen fire, easily become monstrous.  The woman was at heart a brute, the man a blackguard, both in the highest degree capable of that hideous sort of progression that can be made toward evil.  There are souls that, crablike, crawl continually toward darkness, going backward in life rather than advancing, using their experience to increase their deformity, growing continually worse, and becoming steeped more and more thoroughly in an intensifying viciousness.  That was the case with this man and this woman.

The man especially would have been a puzzle to a physiognomist.  We have only to look at some men to distrust them, for we feel the darkness of their souls in two directions.  They are restless as to what is behind them, and threatening as to what is in front of them.  They are full of mystery.  We can answer no more for what they have done than for what they will do.  The shadows in their eyes give them away.  Hearing them utter a single word, or seeing them make one gesture, we catch glimpses of guilty secrets in their past and dark mysteries in their future.

This Thenardier, if we can believe him, had been a soldier, a sergeant he said; he probably had been in the campaign of 1815, and had even been brave.  Later, we shall see what his bravery consisted of.  The sign of his inn was an allusion to one of his feats of arms.  He had painted it himself, for he knew how to do a little of everything–all badly.

Makes you feel really good about the people to whose care Fantine has entrusted Cosette, doesn’t it?  If you came to this story with the notion that Victor Hugo believed the lower classes of society to possess some sort of inherent nobility, this description of the Thenardiers should be sufficient to disabuse you of all such notions.

We learn a little bit more about the Thenardiers, namely that Madame Thenardier had a penchant for bad romantic novels and that was where she got the names for her daughters.  The older was named Eponine; the younger was almost called Gulnare but she later settled on the less problematic name Azelma.

Victor Hugo noted that the Thenardiers were of just the sort of nature that can easily metastasize into dreadful evil if the circumstances are right; we shall see this quite clearly as we progress through the story.