Last time we saw Marius and Cosette meet for the first time in a powerful love scene, in which they finally learned each other’s names. True to the pattern of the story that we have seen so far, Victor Hugo brings us right up to a climactic moment and then breaks off to something completely different.
In this section of the story he deals with the character of Gavroche. We have already met Gavroche and seen him in action on a couple of earlier occasions. Now we are about to see him up close and personal.
We start with the Thenardiers. We learn that they had two boys who were born after Gavroche. Madame Thenardier despised all three of her boys. Gavroche left of his own accord; later the Thenardiers devised a scheme to get rid of the other two boys and even make a profit.
This scheme involved Magnon, whom we have met earlier. She had had two boys, and had succeeded in getting Gillenormand (Marius’s grandfather) to spring for their support. But then there was a plague in the city and both boys died. Losing them would mean losing Gillenormand’s support. (This goes to show what kind of mother Magnon was–she cared more for the money she got from Gillenormand for her boys than for the boys.) Somehow Magnon and the Thenardiers got connected. They agreed that Magnon would take the two youngest Thenardier boys and raise them (Gillenormand would never know the difference), and give the Thenardiers a cut of the money she received from Gillenormand.
The two boys were well provided for under Magnon’s care, better than they had been by the Thenardiers. But then a stroke of ill fortune fell. Somehow Magnon was implicated in the police raid on the Jondrettes’ garret at Gorbeau House, and there was a later raid on Magnon’s house. The boys were out playing in the backyard when this happened. They didn’t find out until they went inside and found the house closed and empty. Victor Hugo comments thus:
A mass arrest of malefactors like that at the Jondrette garret, necessarily complicated with subsequent searches and seizures, is truly a disaster for this hideous occult counter-society living beneath the public society; an event like this brings on all manner of collapse in that gloomy world. The catastrophe of the Thenardiers produced the catastrophe of Magnon.
A neighbor across the street saw the whole thing go down. Magnon gave him a note with an address where the boys were to go, and he gave it to the boys when he saw them trying to get into their house. But as they were heading out, a gust of wind caught the paper and blew it away from them. And now they were orphans.
This is how it is in the lowest levels of society. Family structures are very flimsy, so flimsy that police raids can tear whole families apart and an inopportune gust of wind can instantaneously turn well cared-for children into orphans forced to live on the street.
It was at this point that they met Gavroche. Gavroche took them under his wing and sought to show them the ropes of living on the street. He bought bread for them at a bakery, and took them to spend the night at an elephant monument in an abandoned corner of a city park where he lived as a squatter.
Along the way, we see several instances of Gavroche’s character. As they were passing a fourteen-year-old girl who had no warm clothes, Gavroche pulled off his muffler and gave it to her with hardly any thought at all. At the baker’s, he gave the largest piece of bread to the older boy, saying “Pop that in your gun”, and kept the smallest piece for himself. This despite the fact that the boys had eaten that morning while he had not eaten for three days.
Here we see Gavroche as something of a Christ figure, a character who models certain traits of Jesus Christ. Like Jesus (during his ministry years), Gavroche had next to nothing and roamed the streets freely. Though he had next to nothing, he was very generous with what he did have, always finding ways to bless others who were worse off than he was.
To Gavroche, these boys were just random strangers. At no point in the story does he realize that these boys are his younger brothers.
This section of the story closes with a high-action segment describing Thenardier’s and the Patron-Minette principals’ escape from prison. Gavroche is awakened very early in the morning and called upon to assist. This he does in dramatic fashion, climbing three stories up a gutter pipe to rescue his father Thenardier who is stuck on top of a high wall.
In the moment when Thenardier is rescued, we see his character in gruesome detail:
As soon as he had touched the pavement, as soon as he felt himself out of danger, he was no longer either fatigued, benumbed, or trembling; the terrible things he had undergone vanished like a whiff of smoke, all that strange and ferocious intellect awoke, and found itself breathing and free, ready to march on. The man’s first words were these: “Now, who’re we going to eat?”
It is needless to explain the meaning of this frightfully transparent word, which signifies all together to kill, assassinate, and plunder. Eat, real meaning: devour.
Thenardier has just narrowly escaped death, and the very first thing he can think of is who he can bring death upon.
His cohorts discuss the Rue Plumet. Eponine had brought back the biscuit, signifying that that was a no-go. But they still wanted to check it out for themselves. An ominous portent of things to come.
Another instance of Thenardier’s character: At the end, as everyone is leaving, Babet pulls Thenardier aside and says that the child who rescued him looks an awful lot like his son. Thenardier responds with shock and indifference, “What?…You think so?”, and leaves. Thenardier’s son has just saved him from almost certain death, and the most he can feel for him is indifference. Some kind of father.