Marius had just lost his father, yet he felt nothing whatsoever in the way of grief. M. Gillenormand had done a splendiferous job of making sure that Marius knew nothing whatsoever of his father. Marius attended the funeral and went through the motions of grieving, yet he felt nothing for this person whom he had never known. Within a short time, Marius completely forgot about his father.
But all that was about to change. One Sunday Marius went to Mass and just happened to meet a churchwarden. This churchwarden dropped sonething on him which completely and totally rocked his world.
Marius had been a little more absent-minded than usual that week. Apparently the pressures of college life were getting to him that week. He sat down in a red velvet chair behind a pillar without even noticing that it had a name on it.
Then an old man, a churchwarden named Monsieur Mabeuf, came up to him and asked him to give up the seat. He did. After the service, the old man insisted on telling the story of why he wanted to be in that spot even though, as a churchwarden, he was entitled to one of the prime seats up front. Marius didn’t seem to really want to hear this story, but he humored the old man and heard him out.
Mabeuf had seen an old man who would periodically come to Mass and stand in that spot. He got to know the old man, and found that he had a son whom he loved very much but was prevented by some family arrangement from seeing. He would sit in that spot because from there he could see his son without being seen by the family. This was the only contact he ever had with his son. He knew a little bit about the family situation: There was a rich aunt and a father-in-law who threatened to disinherit the boy if he ever attempted to see him. They were kept apart by political opinions. Mabeuf then went on to describe his intense distaste for politics:
Certainly I approve of political opinions, but there are people who do not know where to stop. Good Lord! Just because a man was at Waterloo doesn’t make him a monster; a father is not separated from his child for that.
He then described a distinctive scar that the old man had on his face and attempted to stumble through his last name: Pontmercy.
At this point the bells went off inside Marius’s head. Marius said that Pontmercy was his father. To which Mabeuf replied, “Well! Poor child, you can say you had a father who loved you dearly.”
In this moment Marius saw that all he had believed about his father was wrong. He walked Mabeuf home, then immediately set out to find out all that he could about his father. He did research at the library, he spent time with Mabeuf and learned everything that Mabeuf could tell, he even went so far as to track down his father’s commanding officers and interview them. In all of this, he learned that his father was not the scoundrel that Gillenormand had painted him to be, but in fact a valiant hero. He was intensely grieved that he could not talk to his father:
…he reflected with despair that he could not divulge all his inmost thoughts except to a tomb. Oh! If only his father were still living, if he still had him, if God in his mercy and goodness had allowed his father to be still alive, how he would have run, how he would have hurtled, how he would have cried out to his father, “Father! I’m here! My beliefs are the same as yours! I am your son!” How he would have embraced his white head, wet his hair with tears, gazed at his scar, taken him by the hand, admired his clothing, kissed his feet! Oh! Why had this father died so soon, so young, before justice was rendered, before the love of his son!
As a natural extension of this, Marius’s opinion of Napoleon changed as well. Prior to this, he had never known Napoleon except in a very unfavorable light, through the Royalist prejudices into which he had been indoctrinated through his upbringing. That all changed, as he started digging into the records and learning all about Napoleon’s history.
He was reading the bulletins of the Grand Army, those Homeric strophes written on the battlefield; he saw there at times his father’s name, the emperor’s name everywhere; the whole of the great Empire appeared before him; he felt as if a tide were rising and swelling within him; it sometimes seemed his father was passing by him like a breath and whispering in his ear; gradually, strange things happened; he thought he heard the drums, the cannon, the trumpets, the measured tread of the battalions, the dull and distant gallop of the cavalry; from time to time he lifted his eyes to the sky and saw the colossal constellations shining in the limitless tracts; then they fell back to the book, and saw other vast things moving about confusedly. His heart was full. He was transported, trembling, breathless; suddenly, without knowing what moved him, or what he was obeying, he rose, stretched his arms out the window, stared into the darkness, the silence, the infinite, the eternal immensity and cried out, “Vive l’empereur!”
From that moment it was all over. The Corsican Ogre–the usurper–the tyrant–the monster who had been the lover of his sisters–the mountebank who took lessons from Talma–the prisoner of Jaffa–the tiger–Buonaparte’–all this vanished, and gave way in his mind to a suffused and brilliant radiance in which from an inaccessible height the pale marble phantom of Caesar shone out. The emperor had been to his father only the beloved captain, recipient of admiration and devotion; to Marius he was something more. He was the predestined builder of the French, succeeding the Romans in the mastery of the world. He was the stupendous architect of a downfall, the successor of Charlemagne, of Louis XI, of Henry IV, of Richelieu, of Louis XIV, and of the Committee of Public Safety, undoubtedly with his blemishes, his faults, and even his crimes–that is to say, being human–but noble in his faults, brilliant in his blemishes, mighty in his crimes.
Of course, in the zeal of his newfound faith, he went too far:
We see that, like all new converts to a religion, his conversion intoxicated him, he plunged headlong into adhesion, and he went too far. His nature was such; once launched, it was almost impossible for him to hold back.
We will see more evidence of this later on in the story.
Now all of this happened without Gillenormand or anyone else in his family suspecting a thing. The first thing he did after he went through this conversion was to go to an engraver and have cards made up that said “Baron Marius Pontmercy”, in honor of the title which his father had passed on to him. But since he didn’t know anyone at this point, he just kept the cards in his pocket.
As another consequence of Marius’s drawing near to his father, he drew away from Gillenormand. Marius was revolted by Gillenormand’s frivolity, but up until this point they were still united by shared political convictions. Once this changed, they no longer had anything in common and Marius felt as if there was an abyss between them.
But of course, none of this showed through on the surface.
Marius was still living at home with Gillenormand; he would continually make short trips away in order to carry on his research into his father. On one of these trips he made an attempt to track down Thenardier; he travelled to Montfermeil in hopes of finding Thenardier’s inn and found that Thenardier had gone out of business and moved on and nobody knew what had become of him.
Remember how we met the Jondrettes earlier and saw that there was more to them than met the eye, that they had a past which alert readers might recognize? This is another piece in that puzzle.
Gillenormand and the others in his family suspected that Marius was in love and this was the reason for his now frequent disappearances. So in a somewhat comedic episode reminiscent of something out of one of the Pink Panther movies, Mlle. Gillenormand got her grand-nephew Theodule, a lancer whom we met earlier, to track Marius on one of these weekend jaunts. He followed Marius all the way to Vernon and grew increasingly intrigued as Marius bought a nice bunch of flowers right after getting off the coach, then headed over to the church, then went around the back and toward the graveyard. The punchline of the whole thing came when Theodule saw that Marius’s mysterious lover was, in fact, his father’s grave.
Marius came home after this little jaunt and went out for an early morning swim. Gillenormand wanted to clear up the mystery of Marius’s travels away from home, so he and Mlle. Gillenormand raided Marius’s room while he was away. They went through Marius’s clothes and found the cards and the slip of paper from Pontmercy that Marius had held on to. At this point Marius came home and caught them in the act. Marius made the following speech in defense of his father, reminiscent of something out of Braveheart or Gladiator:
“My father…was a humble and heroic man, who served the Republic and France gloriously, who was great in the greatest history that men have ever made, who lived a quarter of a century in the camps, under fire by day, and by night in the snow, in the mud, and the rain, who captured colors, who was twenty times wounded, who died forgotten and abandoned, and who had but one fault; that was to have too dearly loved two ingrates, his country and me.”
You can only imagine the effect that this had on M. Gillenormand. He and Marius got into it, and it all ended with Marius walking out the door and heading off toward the Latin quarter with nothing but thirty francs, his watch, and a few clothes in a small bag. Marius had no idea where he was going, or what he would do when he got there.