Let us have compassion for the chastened. Who, alas! are we ourselves? Who am I who speak to you? Who are you who listen to me? Whence do we come? And is it quite certain that we did nothing before we were born? The earth is not without resemblance to a jail. Who knows whether man is a prisoner of Divine Justice?
Look closely at life. It is so constituted that we feel punishment everywhere.
Are you what is called a lucky man? Well, you are sad every day. Each day has its great grief or its little care. Yesterday you were trembling for the health of one who is dear to you, today you fear for your own, tomorrow it will be an anxiety about money, the next day the slanders of a calumniator, the day after the misfortune of a friend, then the weather, then something broken or lost, then a pleasure for which you are reproached by your conscience or your vertebral column; another time, the course of public affairs. Not to mention heartaches. And so on. One cloud is dissipated, another gathers. Hardly one day in a hundred of unbroken joy and sunshine. And you are of that small number who are lucky! As for other men, stagnant night is upon them.
Thoughtful minds make little use of this expression; the happy and the unhappy. In this world, clearly the vestibule of another, no one is happy.
Here we see a couple of essential truths from the Christian foundation of Les Miserables laid out clearly: that there is another world coming, and that this world is broken and fallen. Why else would everyone, even the luckiest among us, endure a life where every day is filled with some great trouble or little care?
After the section on argot, Victor Hugo eases us back into the story:
The reader will remember that Eponine, having recognized through the grating the inhabitant of that Rue Plumet, to which Magnon had sent her, had begun by diverting the bandits from the Rue Plumet, had then taken Marius there, and that after several days of ecstasy in front of that iron gate, Marius, drawn by the force that propels iron toward the magnet and the lover toward the stones of his loved one’s house, had finally entered Cosette’s garden as Romeo did Juliet’s. It had even been easier for him than for Romeo; Romeo was obliged to scale a wall, Marius had only to slightly push aside one of the bars of the decrepit gate, which was loose in its rusty socket, like the teeth of old people. Marius was slender and easily slipped through.
This led to Marius’s first meeting with Cosette. He then visited her in the garden every night for several weeks. They talked of anything and everything except for anything and everything. They were so enraptured with each other that they lost all awareness of anything else, including an outbreak of cholera that swept through the city during that month. Hugo describes all of this in full detail.
Hugo bookends this section of the story with Eponine. Eponine led Marius to Cosette, and in a poignant scene Marius meets Eponine again one night as he is on his way to Cosette’s garden:
He looked up and recognized Eponine.
This produced a strange effect on him. He had not thought even once of this girl since the day she brought him to the Rue Plumet, he had not seen her again, and she had completely gone out of his mind. He had grounds for gratitude toward her; he owed his present happiness to her, and yet it annoyed him to meet her.
It is a mistake to suppose that passion, when it is fortunate and pure, leads man to a state of perfection; it leads him simply as we have said, to a state of forgetfulness. In this situation man forgets to be bad, but he also forgets to be good. Gratitude, duty, necessary and troublesome memories, vanish. At any other time Marius would have felt very differently toward Eponine. Absorbed in Cosette, he had not even clearly realized that this Eponine’s name was Eponine Thenardier, and that she bore a name written in his father’s will, that name to which he would have been, a few months earlier, so ardently devoted. We show Marius just as he was. Even his father was disappearing somewhat from his soul beneath the splendor of his love.
With some embarrassment. he answered, “Ah, you, Eponine!”
“Why do you speak to me so sternly? Have I done anything to you?”
“No,” he answered.
Certainly, he had nothing against her. Far from it. Except, he felt that he could not do otherwise, now that he had whispered to Cosette, than speak coldly to Eponine.
As he was silent, she exclaimed, “So tell me–”
Then she stopped. It seemed as if words failed this creature, once so reckless and bold. She attempted to smile and could not. She began again, “Well?”
Then she was silent again, and stood with her eyes cast down.
“Good evening, Monsieur Marius,” she said all at once abruptly, and she went off.
Marius’s love for Cosette had a dark side. In this poignant scene, Eponine caught the full brunt of it.
But note that Marius’s character flaws are not due to moral failings, as is the case with Thenardier and the other villains in this story. Rather, his flaws are due to youth and inexperience. This is the first time that Marius has ever experienced the state of being in love, and he doesn’t yet know how to do it right. He thinks that faithfulness to Cosette requires him to be cold toward Eponine. Worse still, he is unaware that he is under any sort of obligation toward Eponine, or that Eponine is tied to the will of his father whom he had earlier idolized. This is all because he allowed his first experience of being in love to wash over him and push him to the point of forgetfulness. Also, recall that in his first love letter to Cosette, he displayed views of love that were informed by youthful naivete, namely that love was such a pure passion that no corruption could taint it, any more than a nettle could grow up on a glacier.
Even so, we are not yet done with Eponine. Stay tuned to see what she will do for Marius.