Valjean and Cosette have been living blissfully together at the Rue Plumet house. Ever since their run-in with the Jondrettes/Thenardiers at Gorbeau, they have grown closer to each other. The status quo has returned; Cosette loves Valjean wholeheartedly again and Valjean is thrilled at this. But an alert reader should suspect that this state of affairs is only temporary.
Sure enough, strange things begin to happen to Cosette. First, we meet up with the officer Theodule again. Theodule is a cousin of Marius’s whom you will remember from earlier in the story. Basically, Theodule is the anti-Marius. He is a pompous ninny, and he shows himself to be exactly this.
Theodule was stationed with a regiment near the Rue Plumet. One day he saw Cosette out in the garden as he was making his rounds; after that he made it a point to pass by her place every day. Cosette was impressed with his handsome appearance. This was a very critical period in her life:
Indeed Cosette was passing through that dangerous moment, the inevitable phase of feminine reverie abandoned to itself, when the heart of an isolated young girl is like the tendrils of a vine that take hold, as chance determines, of the capital of a column or a tavern signpost. A hurried and decisive moment, critical for every orphan, whether poor or rich, for riches do not defend against a bad choice; misalliances are formed very high up; the real misalliance is that of souls; and, just as more than one unknown young man, without name, or birth, or fortune, is a marble column that sustains a temple of great sentiments and broad ideas, so too you may find a satisfied and opulent man of the world, with well-shined boots and varnished speech, who, if you look not at the exterior but the interior, that is to say, at what is reserved for the wife, is nothing but a stupid nonentity, obscurely haunted by violent, impure, and debauched passions; a tavern signpost.
Though Cosette was enchanted by Theodule’s outward appearance, something haunted her as she contemplated what she felt for him:
What was there in Cosette’s soul? A soothed or sleeping passion; love in a wavering state; something limpid, shining, disturbed to a certain depth, murky below. The image of the handsome officer was reflected from the surface. Was there a memory at the bottom? Deep down? Perhaps. Cosette did not know.
Certainly this is a veiled reference to something or someone in Cosette’s past. Thenardier? Perhaps. The line “nothing but a stupid nonentity, obscurely haunted by violent, impure, and debauched passions; a tavern signpost” definitely fits what we have seen of Thenardier. And Thenardier is someone whom Cosette would have little more than a vague recollection of, as he was only in her life during her early childhood. But Thenardier, though he managed to project a somewhat respectable appearance back while his inn was still in business, was never a satisfied or opulent man of the world. It is doubtful that his boots were ever well-shined, and his speech certainly never came across as varnished. If anything, his speech tried to come across as varnished and failed miserably.
I think Tholomyes is a better fit for this description. He certainly came across as “a satisfied and opulent man of the world, with well-shined boots and varnished speech”. He could easily be characterized as “a stupid nonentity, obscurely haunted by violent, impure, and debauched passions; a tavern signpost”. Certainly his treatment of Cosette’s mother Fantine was shameful.
Perhaps the “memory at the bottom” that Cosette felt in that moment came from Fantine’s experience with Tholomyes. Fantine had met Tholomyes at a similar stage in life and her heart had taken hold of the tavern signpost disguised as the capital of a column that was Tholomyes, with devastating consequences. Now Cosette had reached that stage in life and was about to make a similar mistake if she had allowed her heart to attach to Theodule. Certainly the “opulent man of the world” who is in reality a “stupid nonentity/tavern signpost” fits everything we have seen of Theodule. Perhaps Theodule would have treated Cosette just as shamefully as Tholomyes treated Fantine a generation earlier, with equally devastating results for Cosette as for Fantine. Perhaps the “memory at the bottom” that Cosette felt was a connection with Fantine’s spirit and a sharing in her experience with Tholomyes, and a warning from Fantine to her to not repeat the same mistakes.
Recall that Theodule is a foil to Marius. Meaning that he is everything Marius is not, and everything Marius is, he is not. In other words, he is the anti-Marius. Foils are all over the place in Les Miserables. Hugo created the character Theodule to bring out the virtues in Marius’s character by way of contrast. We have just seen how Theodule, the anti-Marius, attempted to pursue Cosette. Now we will see how Marius attempts to pursue her.
And then it starts to get really weird for Cosette. What sort of things are happening to her? You’ll just have to wait and see next time.
One more thing: Hugo says that “the real misalliance is that of souls”. This marks him as a product of the Romantic era. Up until that period in history marriages were pretty much all arranged, at least among the upper classes of society. People in the upper classes of society believed that the only fit person to let their child marry was a person of similarly prestigious social background; marrying someone of the wrong social class or background would have devastating consequences. The idea that misalliances could be formed even among people of the same social class or that the real misalliance was that of souls or personalities was revolutionary at that point in history.