Bonjour mes amis et bienvenue à la troisième semaine de #MiserablesMay! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, long story short: I decided reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the space of the month of May would be a good idea. (I was wrong.) If you’re curious about the intended weekly schedule and organisation of this, be sure to check out my announcement post or the post of my co-host Liz.
Despite the fact that “week two” ended up extending into quite a lot of the third week, I knew that we were reaching a part of the book that I had read (and studied) before so I was hopeful that this would be a saving grace when it came to catching up to my (in hindsight, rather optimistic) reading schedule for Les Misérables. This week I also went to see a couple of shows at the theatre and whilst you think that would mean I struggled more to keep up, in fact, it helped; I went to see Ian McKellen’s tour when he swung by Liverpool on Friday night and I had a good two hours to kill between work and heading over to the theatre so I camped out in Pret and read some of the Brick. I’m glad I did because it meant I’m here, on Sunday afternoon, not as stressed as normal whilst I frantically try to catch up with my reading.
Recap of Volume Three: Marius
The last volume finished on a potentially optimistic note: Valjean had firmly become a Fauchelevent and he and Cosette were semi-safely cloistered (literally) in a convent, so it wouldn’t be ridiculous to presume that we’re setting up for Valjean to have yet another miraculous transformation in Paris. Speaking of Paris, the volume opens with ‘Paris Atomized’, that is to say, Victor Hugo explores the city of Paris of the time through the figure of the gamin, the street urchin, which he says expresses the city and the city expresses the world. Although these semi-digressions have absolutely nothing to do with the story itself, I kind of love getting lost in Hugo’s prose when he talks about Paris.
Hugo refocuses his attention to one particular gamin, Gavroche, whose parents deserted him to the streets but whom he still goes home to visit, at number 50-52, the Gorbeau building. Because Hugo never reveals a number of a prisoner or house without it being important, it’s safe to assume the building and its occupants (the wretchedly poor Jondrette family and a very poor young man named M. Marius) will be vitally important to the rest of the tale.
This is where the narrative takes a detour, however, to the character of M. Gillenormand who is one of those “grand bourgeois” sorts that this section of the book is named after. Basically he’s very rich and pompous and he doesn’t bother to let his servants have their own names – he calls all the female servants Nicolette, presumably so he doesn’t have to bother remembering more than one name. I think saying that tells you everything you would need to know about the man. He had two wives by whom he had a daughter each, one of whom remained unmarried and kept his home for him and the other of whom married (for love) a soldier who had served at Austerlitz and made a colonel at Waterloo, something Gillenormand considers a disgrace to his family. Despite all this, he took in his grandson from this union and the quiet little boy could often be seen trailing M. Gillenormand at church.
We diverge for a moment to talk about Georges Pontmercy, that is to say the aforementioned soldier of fortune whom Mademoiselle Gillenormand married, bore a child to, and then died. The grandfather, we learn, demanded custody of the child amd threatened to disinherit the grandson if he wasn’t given over to him to be raised in his household. Pontmercy did the only thing he could, he allowed him to take the child and so allowed his father-in-law to slowly poison the child’s mind with all the bad things Gillenormand could think of to say about the father. Meanwhile the grandson (Marius, of course) is classically educated and enters law school, being described as royalist, austere, honourable to the point of harshness and pure to the point of unsociability!
News strikes Marius when least expected – his father, that he has never known, is dying and has sent for him. Marius arrives at his dying father’s bedside but, obviously, because no one in this novel can catch a break, he arrives too late. Observing the dead man and knowing it is his father, Marius feels ashamed that he isn’t more sad than he feels. He also is given a scrap of paper, taken from his father by a servant after his death, that tells him that Napoleon made him a baron on the battlefield of Waterloo and that his son is entitled to that designation too, no matter what the Restoration powers-that-be would say. This seems like a silly detail but will become important later undoubtedly. Similarly, the note goes on to say that at Waterloo his life was saved by a man named Thénardier, so he begs Marius to do the man any service he is able, if the two of them should meet. Considering it’s Les Misérables, I think it’s safe to assume that they will meet. (Coincidence? I don’t know her.)
Marius returns slightly ashamed but mostly ready to put his mourning behind him until he goes to church and gets talking to the churchwarden who tells him that, unbeknownst to him, Georges Pontmercy used to come to church every Sunday just to watch little Marius from afar, because he wasn’t allowed to have any contact with his son at the grandfather’s order. Considering everything Marius has learnt about his father over the past few days, the false picture previously painted by Gillenormand is starting to fade – Marius makes his excuses to his grandfather and starts to go away for days at a time, searching old records and talking to people who served on the battlefield with his father and, in doing so, helps to recreate a more true account of his father’s character. (He also searches frantically for this Thénardier fellow, to no avail.) Just like that, Marius’ entire political views change and he even mutters, surprising himself, “Vive l’empereur”! High on his change of opinion, he takes his father’s note to heart and even orders himself business cards with his new styling on there – Baron Marius Pontmercy – but as he doesn’t know anybody or have any friends, he has no one to give them to, which is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. Obviously, obviously, though his grandfather finds them and goes apeshit about it.
Meanwhile the unmarried Mademoiselle Gillenormand is trying to push Marius out of the inheritance picture and instead lines up Gillenormand’s great nephew (who? yeah, exactly…), Théodule as a worthy successor instead. He doesn’t seem to have anything to add to the story except for providing intel that his cousin Marius has booked a place on the coach he will be travelling on – when she hears this she persuades Théodule to follow him and report back. He does and that’s how the Gillenormands find out that Marius is visiting his father’s grave. That’s when Gillenormand becomes suspicious of Marius and uncovers the aforemention business cards and goes, as aforementioned, absolute apeshit about them. He chucks Marius out… but not without saying to his daughter that she should organise for Marius to be sent sixty pistoles every six month to tide him over (see, he’s not a complete ogre). We learn later that Marius, even when in slightly dire straits, refuses the money.
After all this setup we meet my favourite group in the entire book: the Friends of the ABC. (Yes, that’s a pun in French, no it isn’t funny at all because even when it’s explained it’s not funny.) A revolutionary group of (mainly) students, they meet in the backroom of Café Musain to talk politics and all sorts of seditious things. They’re Enjolras, Combeferre, Jean Prouvaire, Feuilly, Courfeyrac, Bahorel, Lesgle or Laigle, Joly, and Grantaire. Hugo takes the time to introduce each of them, their appearances, their background, and their personalities. I can wax lyrical about this entire section because this is basically what my undergraduate dissertation was all about but, basically, Enjolras is the leader because he is angelic-looking and charming and looks like he’s already been through revolutions in a past life. Combeferre is another corner of a triangle of the leaders of the group and he is the logic/brains of the group, grounding Enjolras’ lofty ideas with the realistic and practical considerations. Courfeyrac makes up the last corner of the triangle and he is basically Tholomyès (remember him? Fantine’s boyfriend who unceremoniously dumped her?) mark 2, except he’s also described as a splendid fellow so I suppose he has more of a heart and conscience that Tholomyès did. I won’t get into the personalities of the rest of the student group – except to say Enjolras/Grantaire is a thing from Grantaire’s POV at least, and the novel doesn’t really make that all that ambiguous, to be honest – but needless to say Marius becomes entwined with them through being at the same law school as Lesgle and then Courfeyrac befriends Marius because it seems Courfeyrac is incapable of not befriending anyone he meets.
Marius refuses politely Courfeyrac’s charity and falls on hard times, prompting him to move into the Gorbeau house and become neighbours to the Jondrettes. Remember that, that was mentioned way back at the start of this post/volume? Well, finally, Hugo gets round to the point. Basically Marius becomes poorer but manages his very little money enough to have a very small room, clothe himself (in only two outfits) and feed himself (most of the time). At this point in the story, he’s twenty, and has had quite a life already – poverty, also, sees him have to grow up and fend for himself. Hugo’s commentary on this kind of poverty is actually incredibly moving but I really don’t have the time to dwell on that, and neither does Hugo for too long – he has plot to get back to. Kind of randomly (except not because, again, it’s Les Mis) Marius in a fit of charity and morality agrees to pay the debts of the family who live next door to him, the Jondrettes, when he hears that his landlady is about to throw them out onto the streets.
We take another detour at this point in the narrative to allow Marius some long overdue hormones. He spots a man and his pretty daughter walking in the street and he proceeds to stare like a creep (he’s falling in love with her so it’s ok???) and embarrass himself and generally just be an adorable idiot of the highest order. He tries to follow her and track her down but she remains elusive to him and he remains her admirer from afar. This will become important very soon for more than just romantic reasons. But first, we detour to have Hugo tell us about the lowest of the low, the absolute scum criminals of Paris, a dangerous gang of bandits who go by the name Patron-Minette. We’re talking properly disgusting and dangerous, ok? Remember that.
Whilst taking a walk Marius goes past two girls, one of whom says she got away from the police (so clearly they’re the suspicious and no good sorts), and the other of whom he accidentally jostles as they pass by. Once they’re gone Marius spots a bundle of letters they must have dropped and the plot thickens as he looks at the letters, realises they’re all written in the same handwriting, but allegedly bear different writers. Each of the letters is a plea to a generous/rich person’s charity. He ends up finding out that the letters (and the girls) belong to the Jondrette family when Eponine delivers a letter to him from her father (thanking him for bailing them out for their rent previously) and he realises the handwriting (and spelling mistakes) matches. The plot thickens, but not before Marius gives Eponine some money because… well, he has a human heart and she looks pitiful.
Now knowing his neighbours a little better he is curious and discovers a convenient peep hole in the wall between their rooms, so he can now spy on them because that’s not creepy at all. The room he sees is disgusting and squalid and nothing of the scene is at all redeeming – it’s cold, bare, they haven’t really any proper bedding or clothing, and barely any food. However, it soon becomes pretty obvious to readers, if not to Marius immediately, that the family are writing to anybody they think they can prey on to beg them for money, tricking them to come see their poverty-ridden state – and even doing things like smashing the glass from their window and dampening their fire to make themselves appear even more destitute than they are.
One of these hopeful benefactors? Why, it’s none other than the man and pretty daughter who Marius had been moon-eyed over chapters before. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES??? The man (who readers can easily assume is Valjean because I mean come on a mysterious stranger is always Valjean) takes pity on the family and brings them clothes, promising to return later that day with more money for them. Marius watches all this through his little peep-hole and discovers, after the benefactors leave, that perhaps the Jondrettes’ intentions aren’t all that noble as they plot with the Patron-Minette gang to ambush him when he returns and do him in, presumably to get all this rich man’s money. Marius, unsure what to do, goes to the police and talks with an inspector who is none other than… Javert. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES??? Javert gives him a pistol and tells him to watch through his peep-show and fire it when he sees the gang in the room to give the police waiting nearby the go signal to burst in and arrest them.
Suffice it to say this all starts to unwind pretty nastily once the man returns to the Jondrette family’s hovel. Some suspicious looking strangers lurk nearby and then, one by one, come into the shadowy room, all stocky and intimidating. Valjean works out what’s going on pretty quickly, but seemingly refuses to be scared. By this point, Thénardier has recognised him and realises he is the man who took away Cosette from their family all those years ago – in the course of his ranting and raving at a now-tied-up Valjean, he blurts out about him being a soldier at Waterloo and that he should have been given a medal for his bravery of saving a wounded general. Marius stage gasps at the realisation that this bandit is the man who saved his father’s life all those years ago. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES??? Anyway, there ends up being more threatening, more scheming, more fighting as Valjean unties himself sneakily and engages in fisticuffs with the shady af gang of bandits. Marius, unsure what to do, drops a note through the peep-hole on which Eponine had previously written “the cops are here”. Recognising their daughter’s handwriting, the Jondrettes think it is her warning them to clear out before they are caught and they royally panic, arguing amongst themselves about who should flee through the window first. They sarcastically talk of drawing lots from a hat at which point the single greatest thing to happen in this book happens – Javert’s voice suddenly pipes up from the corner of the room asking them if they would like to borrow his hat to do so.
The scene quickly wraps up with Valjean escaping in the midst of the confusion and arrests – he escapes out of the window, just like the criminals had been planning to, which makes Javert suddenly think… why would the victim of this obvious crime be the first one trying to make a run for it? HMMMMMM??? The volume comes full circle as the very last part of this chapter sees Gavroche the gamin come back to No. 50-52 as usual, only to find his family have been taken away and imprisoned. What a jolly note to end this volume on.
My reading experience of Volume Three: Marius
Last week was a struggle – I skim-read a lot of battle scenes and digressions which apparently Victor Hugo thought at least semi-important to the tale he was telling. As you can tell from how long this summary is, this week was A LOT, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience. I always knew I would, as volume 3 is the volume I studied, as I said before, and it’s one whose characters I really enjoy too. I was a sucker for the Les Amis fandom on Tumblr back in the day and I still frequent the odd fanfic or fanvid to be honest. There were digressions this week as usual (*cough* Gillenormand *cough*) but it usually came back around to being important, so I didn’t mind it as much as I did in previous instances (*cough* Waterloo *cough*). Overall, I’m going to let the summary speak for itself since it’s quite long enough and I say onwards and upwards to week four and volume four!
Are you taking part in the readalong? How did you find Volume Three? Are you enjoying reading the book? Let’s chat in the comments below!