Les Miserables 79: Cab Rolls in English and Yelps in Argot

lesmiserablesThe next day was June 3, 1832, just a couple of days away from the events that would mark the climax of this story.  Marius was on his way to meet Cosette at the Rue Plumet again that night, when he recognized Eponine standing in the same spot where she had met him the previous night.  This time Marius changed his route.  We learn that Eponine had camped out in that spot and watched Marius go by every night when he went to see Cosette, but only on the previous night did she attempt to speak to him.  This time she followed him, something she had never done before.  This time she saw him go through the gate and into Cosette’s garden.  In a poignant scene she thinks about following him in but decides against it:

“Why!” she said.  “He’s going into the house.”

She went up to the gate, felt the bars one after another, and easily recognized the one Marius had moved.

In an undertone she murmured mournfully, “None of that, Lisette!”

Victor Hugo has gone all minimalist in his treatment of Eponine’s love for Marius, but here we have another indication that she has very strong feelings for him.

Instead of entering the garden, Eponine finds a nook in the wall where she is completely hidden, and sits and waits.

About an hour later, six men show up at the gate.  They intend to force it and rob the house.  One of the men steps up and examines the bars of the gate one by one, just as Eponine had done earlier.  Just as he gets to the one Marius had moved, Eponine reaches out her hand and stops him.  In that moment, we recognize him as Thenardier, her father.  The other men with him are the Patron-Minette principals.  What follows is an almost comical exchange where Eponine is playing the spoiled daughter who misses her father terribly while Thenardier is trying to brush her aside and get to work.  This exchange further shows what a horrible father he is, but we knew that already.

Throughout the exchange Thenardier and the others are speaking argot quite liberally, but Eponine avoids it:

It is remarkable that Eponine was not speaking argot.  Since she had known Marius, that awful language had become impossible to her.

And here lies the point of Hugo’s essay on argot a couple of chapters back.  Ever since the Thenardiers closed their inn and moved to the city to join the Parisian underworld, they (including Eponine) had lived and breathed argot.  Victor Hugo took tremendous pains to show us what a horrible thing the language of argot was, and how it was a fact of life in the Parisian underworld.  Anything that could make Eponine want to give that up would have to have had a tremendous impact on her.  And here we see Marius had in fact had that effect on her.  Yet another indication that Eponine had very strong feelings for Marius.

This was the possible robbery that Eponine had scouted out earlier, and about which she had sent back the biscuit signifying no-go.  Obviously Thenardier and the others were not convinced.  Despite all her objections they were determined to press ahead.  Finally she said in a low but firm voice, “Well, I don’t want you to.”  She went on to threaten to wake the neighbors and call the cops.  She explained that they could do their worst to her but she didn’t care.  In the midst of this speech we see that Eponine has gotten very thin and sickly, that she is perhaps no more than a year away from death.

The men conferred quietly, and then they left.  Eponine followed them to make sure they would not return, and saw them leave the street and disperse.

Now Victor Hugo offers his own commentary on what just happened:

What had just taken place in this street would not have surprised a forest.  The clumps of trees, underbrush, briars, the branches roughly intertwined, the tall grass, have a darkly mysterious existence; this wild, teeming mass has sudden glimpses of the invisible; there, what is below man distinguishes through the dark what is above man, and things unknown to us the living confront one another in the night.  Nature, bristling and untamed, takes fright at certain approaches in which she suspects the supernatural.  The forces of the shadows know each other and have mysterious equilibrium among them.  Teeth and claws dread the intangible.  Bloodthirsty brutality, voracious and starving appetites in quest of prey, instincts armed with claws and jaws, which find in the belly their origin and their object, anxiously watch and sniff the impassive spectral figure prowling beneath a shroud, standing in its hazy trembling robe, and seeming to them to live with a dead and terrible life.  These brutalities, nothing more than matter, confusedly dread having anything to do with the boundless darkness condensed into an unknown being.  A black figure barring the passage stops the wild beast dead.  What comes from the graveyard intimidates and disconcerts what comes from the den:  the ferocious is afraid of the sinister:  Wolves recoil before a ghoul.

Eponine, in her sickly, near-death state, had become like a ghost.  As such she frightened Thenardier and the others, who were like animals.

The imagery is significant here, because throughout the story animal imagery is linked to the Thenardiers.  Eponine is a Thenardier, and yet she is not likened to an animal but to a ghost.  As animals, the Thenardiers are hopelessly earthbound creatures with no chance or hope of rising above their circumstances.  As a ghost, Eponine is as completely opposite of this as it is possible to be and still be in this world.  This shows that Eponine is made of different stuff from the rest of the Thenardiers.  Though she lives the same miserable life as they do, she is not at all affected by it in the way that they are.

As the Thenardier gang is leaving the Rue Plumet we catch this cryptic snatch of dialogue:

“Where’re we going to sleep tonight?”

“Under Pantin.”

“Do you have the key to the grate with you, Thenardier?”

“What do you expect?”

Under Pantin, meaning under Paris, which is to say in the sewers of Paris.  Hold this scene in mind, because Victor Hugo is planting a clue about something that will happen.  At some critical point later on in the story, we should not be surprised to see the action shift to the sewers of Paris, and we should not be surprised to run into Thenardier there.

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