Les Miserables 63: Eponine

We now ease back in to the action of the story.  We catch up with Marius on the back side of the tumultous events at Gorbeau House.  Immediately afterward, he disappeared and went to move in with his friend Courfeyrac.  Why?  He hated the spectacle of the evil poor that he had seen on full display at Gorbeau that night, and he did not want to be questioned by Javert in relation to the incident.  Recall that his father had given him a debt of honor to repay Thenardier for saving his life by doing him some kindness, and he did not want to repay this debt by sending him to jail.

Marius had lots of questions concerning what he had seen at Gorbeau, but no answers.

For a moment he had again seen close at hand in that obscurity the young girl whom he loved, the old man who seemed her father, these unknown beings who were his only interest and his only hope in all the world; and at the very moment he had thought to hold on to them, a gust had swept all the shadows away.  Not a spark of certainty or truth had escaped even from that most fearful shock.  No conjecture was possible.  He did not even know the name he had thought he knew.  Certainly it was no longer Ursula.  And the Lark was a nickname.  And what should he think about the old man?  Was he really hiding from the police?  The white-haired workingman whom Marius had met near the Invalides suddenly came back to mind.  It now seemed probable that the workingman and M. Leblanc were the same.  He had disguised himself then?  This man had heroic sides and equivocal sides.  Why had he not called for help?  Why had he escaped?  Was he, yes or no, the father of the young girl?  Finally, was he really the man whom Thenardier thought he recognized?  Thenardier could have been mistaken.  So many problems without a solution.

Moreover, Marius was distressed over the fact that he was still in love with Cosette, but with no earthly idea of where he could possibly go to see her again.  This caused him to pretty much shut down and lapse into idleness.

So one day he was walking down the street and saw a beautiful field in an isolated part of town.  He learned from a passerby that this place was called “The Field of the Lark”.  Of course this had nothing to do with “The Lark” whom we know as Cosette (Marius did not yet know her real name), but Marius was anxious to grasp on to something.  So he began to visit this field frequently, thinking that here he would eventually learn “The Lark’s” whereabouts.

Meanwhile Thenardier, along with most of the principals of Patron-Minette, had been hauled off to prison.  A couple (Claquesous and Montparnesse) managed to slip through the authorities’ fingers while in transit.  We don’t know if they were really that good or if there might have been something going on with the police that wasn’t exactly on the up-and-up.  Perhaps it may have been a little of both.

And herein lies Victor Hugo’s critique of the French justice system of that day:  it came down hardest upon people like Valjean who were basically honest and trying to make it through, forced by their circumstances to run slightly afoul of the law, while the real criminals like the Patron-Minette principals always had ways to escape being punished for their crimes–whether through their own resourcefulness and ingenuity or through the help of corrupt police officials who could be paid to turn a blind eye to their doings.

It was here that Patron-Minette hatched a plan to attack a house on Rue Plumet.  The principals were in prison, yet the security issues at their prison were so profound that they had ways of communicating with the outside world and causing more crime to go down.  In this chapter Victor Hugo goes to great lengths to describe the ways prisoners had to circumvent the authorities and communicate with each other and the outside world.  Eponine was enlisted to scout out the Rue Plumet property and see if it could be successfully robbed.  She sent back a biscuit, which in the Patron-Minette parlance signified “no-go”.

We meet M. Mabeuf again in this section.  Sales of his book, a volume on horticulture, had completely and totally dried up because of the economic changes brought about by the July Revolution.  He had had to pawn the plates of his book and learn to do without many of the things he was accustomed to, yet he continued to experiment with blueberry plants.  He dreamed that one day he would make a discovery that would result in a bonanza, and he would be able to un-pawn his plates and go back to life as it was before.

One night, it is in the middle of a dry stretch.  No rain anywhere in sight.  Mabeuf’s plants are in desperate need of water, yet he no longer has the strength to pull the water bucket out of the well.  Eponine, in the course of carrying out her errand for the Thenardiers, happened along at just the right time, and she watered all of Mabeuf’s plants for him.  Eponine did the deed and disappeared so quickly that Mabeuf could have sworn he saw a goblin.

This encounter between Eponine and Mabeuf is an example of what is known in moviemaking parlance as “saving the cat”.  This name came about because, when you introduce a hero at the beginning of a movie, you usually show him doing some good deed, such as saving a cat (or something else of that nature).  This is necessary because it is not enough to say that a character is good, you have to show him or her doing good things.  And you have to establish that a character is good by showing him or her doing good things–“saving the cat”, if you will–if you want the audience to have any concern whatsoever for that character.

And as this section closes we circle back around to Marius.  He is poor, but he still manages to give five francs regularly to Thenardier while he is in prison, acting out of the debt of honor that his father has laid upon him.  One day he borrows five francs from Courfeyrac for this purpose; Courfeyrac is totally mystified.  Thenardier is mystified as well; he has no idea where this money is coming from.

He is still going out to the Field of the Lark every day; he is so preoccupied with the loss of Cosette that he can’t do a lick of work.  Eponine has been looking for Marius ever since he moved out of Gorbeau, and it is at the Field of the Lark that she finally catches up with him.  She has found out Cosette’s address, and she tells it to him.

This is a very poignant scene.  Eponine loves Marius and is dying for him to love her back.  Yet at the same time she wants him to be happy, even if that happiness does not come from loving her, and she is willing to sacrifice herself in order to make him happy.  Contrast this with Marius’s shameful treatment of her; he is so enraptured with the prospect of seeing Cosette again that he does not even have a scrap of attention to give to her.  When she reminds Marius that he had promised to give her anything she wanted, all he can think to do is give her the five-franc piece that he would have given to Thenardier.  She drops it to the ground, saying, “I don’t want your money.”

Victor Hugo waxes eloquently on the love that Marius feels for Cosette (he does not know her name at this point), but he is very minimalist when talking of Eponine’s love for Marius.  He does not take us inside Eponine’s head to let us see what she thinks and feels for Marius the way he does to let us see Marius’s feelings for Cosette.  But there is just enough here and in earlier scenes for us to be able to see that Eponine does love Marius.

For Victor Hugo, who loves to wax eloquently and grandiosely, especially on the subject of love, this is quite a departure.  Take note of this, readers.  If your English teacher is worth his/her salt, then he/she will probably ask you to discuss why Victor Hugo goes all minimalist when speaking of Eponine’s love for Marius.  Be prepared to give an answer for this.  I don’t have one; I wish I did.  I leave that for better minds than me to figure out.

I will, however, take a stab at it by saying that Eponine is not one of the principal characters in the story; therefore, Hugo does not consider it important for us to get inside her head and see what she is feeling for Marius.  Also, Hugo has already gone to such great lengths to describe Marius’s love for Cosette, that his minimalist treatment of Eponine’s love for Marius stands as a stark counterpoint.

In the course of this section we see that Eponine is a very complex character.  As the Thenardiers’ daughter, she is involved in some very crazy criminal shit.  But at the same time she is capable of great goodness and noble feeling; her willingness to help Mabeuf and her love for Marius show us that.

Marius is quite shameful in his treatment of Eponine; this is largely due to youthful inexperience.  But it is something that he will have to die to.  We will see how this happens later in the story.