Les Miserables 36: The Water Question at Montfermeil

So what happened to Jean Valjean after he fell into the ocean?  We will find out all in due time.  But first Victor Hugo takes us back to Montfermeil and turns our attention toward Cosette’s plight.

Victor Hugo begins this section of the story by discussing the water situation in the town of Montfermeil.  Montfermeil was a sprawling village on the outskirts of Paris by the time Victor Hugo wrote this story.  If you look at Montfermeil on Google Earth now, you will see that much has changed since Victor Hugo’s day.  Montfermeil is just outside the A86 perimeter highway (Paris’s version of I-285).  All of the towns in the area which Hugo mentions (Gagny, Lagny, Chelles, etc.) are still there, but they have long ago been overtaken by the outward growth of the Paris metropolitan area.  There is virtually no green space between these communities (except for a few parks); it has all been built up.  As a matter of fact, these communities are deep inside the city of Paris and very close to its center, just as Buckhead, Decatur, and Virginia Highlands are very close to downtown Atlanta.

If you look near downtown Montfermeil, you will find a church called Sts Peter and Paul, which may be the church that Victor Hugo talks about.  You will also find a park named after Jean Valjean.  (This may be the area where Cosette had to go to draw water.)

In 1823, when the story was taking place, Montfermeil was simply a small town in the woods, a haven for retirees who wished to live quietly and in luxury without having to spend a great deal.  There was just one problem:  Water was hard to come by.  This was because Montfermeil was situated on a high plateau, far away from the nearest sources of water.  If you lived on the end of town where the Thenardiers’ inn was located, the nearest source of water was a small spring located deep in the woods, a couple of miles outside of town.

Next, Victor Hugo gives a fully detailed sketch of the Thenardiers.  Here is a quote from the first introduction of the Thenardiers which best sums up their essence:

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 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.

Notice the kind of imagery that Victor Hugo uses to describe the Thenardiers.  He likens them to earthbound insects and other creatures; in the quote above they are likened to crabs.  In other places they are likened to spiders, weasels, and other such things.  Compare this to Cosette, who is likened to a lark or a bird or a fly.  This suggests that no matter how bad things may get for Cosette, she at least has some degree of power to rise above her circumstances.  The Thenardiers, on the other hand, have no such power.  Thus we shall see in them, over the course of the story, a progression to greater and greater evil.

As we know, Cosette was a source of cheap labor for the Thenardiers in the running of their inn.  One of her responsibilities was to fetch water from the spring.  Cosette knew what the water situation was like, and she knew that the route to the spring was a treacherous place to be at night.  So she went to great pains to make sure that the water was filled up during the day.

Well, one evening the water ran out.  Some guests showed up and demanded water for their horses, which meant that Cosette would have to go out and fetch more.  Now it was dark outside; this meant Cosette would have to go at night.  Madame Thenardier (Victor Hugo calls her the Thenardiess from this point on) roused Cosette with much anger and the threat of physical abuse; Cosette was deathly afraid of her.

The first thing Cosette saw when she went out was the festival which had set up in the street; it was Christmas Eve that night.  In one of the booths there was a very expensive and fancy doll which caught her fancy, but she never dared to think that she could have such a thing.  The Thenardiess came out and saw her looking at the booth.  She threatened Cosette again and Cosette moved along.

It was a cold, dark night with not a star in the sky.  Victor Hugo gives an eloquent description of what it was like for Cosette to walk out to the spring; first down the street with the light of the festival booths, then down the street where there were not any lights, then finally out of the town and into the woods.

As long as she had houses, or even walls, on the side of the road, she went on boldly enough.  From time to time, she saw the gleam of a candle through the cracks of a shutter; it was light and life to her; there were people there; that kept up her courage.  However, as she progressed, her speed slackened as if automatically.  When she was past the corner of the last house, Cosette stopped.  To go beyond the last booth had been difficult; to go further than the last house became impossible.  She put the bucket on the ground, buried her hands in her hair, and began to scratch her head slowly, a motion peculiar to terrified and hesitating children.  This was Montfermeil no longer, it was open country; dark and deserted space was before her.  She looked with despair into this darkness where there was nobody, where there were beasts, where perhaps there were ghosts.  She looked intently, and she heard the animals walking in the grass, and she distinctly saw the ghosts moving in the trees.

Yet for all her fear of the terrors of the forest, her fear of the Thenardiess was even greater, and that drove her onward.  She finally reached the spring and filled her bucket, but trying to carry the full bucket back home was just too much for her.

This took place in the depth of the woods, at night, in the winter, far from all human sight; she was a child of eight.  At that moment only the Eternal Father saw this sad thing.

And undoubtedly her mother, alas!

For there are things that open the eyes of the dead in their grave.

Then a large hand came up behind her, grabbed the bucket, and lifted it effortlessly.  A strange man was with her–and yet she felt no fear.

Who was this man?  We shall find out in due course.