Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 2, Book 3 : Cosette (Fulfillment of the Promise Made to the Departed) | Summary

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Summary

Christmas season has arrived in Montfermeil. On this evening Cosette is sitting under the kitchen table as usual, near the fireplace, knitting wool stockings for her stepsisters, Eponine and Azelma Thénardier. Thénardier and his wife are now about 40 and 50 years old, respectively; the narrator describes "the Thénardiess" as an ogress and a "cross between a whore and a fishwife." Monsieur Thénardier is "skinny, pale, angular, bony, and puny." Nonetheless, the wife is completely run by her husband, who is obsessed with getting rich. He fleeces his customers to the best of his ability, since he believes it is his duty to "empty small purses and honestly lighten larger ones." The narrator says, "this man and this woman were cunning and rage married—a hideous and terrible pair." Eight-year-old Cosette is beaten unmercifully and worked like a slave; one of her jobs is to get the water, and she does her best to haul enough during the day so she doesn't have to make the scary trip to the forest at night. Tonight the water has run out, and she is kicked out of the house to go get some, with a bucket that is larger than she. The evening is festive, since booths of the Christmas fair are strung along the street. As she steps out she is mesmerized by a large and beautiful doll in the stall opposite the tavern but then hurries toward the forest, swallowing her terror. She has a difficult time bringing back the water because the bucket is so heavy, so she has to rest every few steps. At one point she prays to God, and a man appears and picks up the bucket; together they walk back to the tavern.

This man, who is wearing a coarse yellow coat, is Jean Valjean. He takes lodging at the tavern, and the Thénardiers proceed to overcharge him for everything, once they realize he has some money. Valjean watches the interactions of the family and Cosette's mistreatment. She has no toys, so he buys her the beautiful doll. The next morning, the Thénardiess complains the family can't afford to pay for other people's children, and Jean Valjean offers to take Cosette off her hands. When her husband realizes he wants the child, he pretends to love her, all in the interest of selling her at a high price. When he asks for 1,500 francs, Valjean hands the money over. But after they leave, the villain has a change of heart and thinks he let the stranger off too easily. Thus he runs into the woods and tries to renegotiate the deal, saying he can't give her up without permission from her mother. Jean Valjean calls his bluff, taking out an old message from Fantine that tells Thénardier to hand over the child to the bearer of the note. The innkeeper recognizes her signature, but still asks for 1,000 crowns. At this point Jean Valjean simply ignores him and walks on. When he tries to pursue them, Cosette's new guardian gives him a look that tells him it's time to cut his losses. The reader now learns the hero deliberately threw himself into the sea and hid until he could get away. With some help from the fugitive underground, he found his way back to Paris, rented lodgings, bought clothes for himself and mourning clothes for the child, before going to Montfermeil to collect Cosette.

Analysis

Jean Valjean breaks out of jail primarily to keep his promise to Fantine. Although he had no knowledge of her firing, the young woman loses her life on his watch, and he feels both responsibility and great compassion for the dead woman. He has also failed her, through no fault of his own, and that failure results in her death. He is duty bound to at least save her child, which is what he sets out to do. Once again divine intervention seems to be at work. Cosette prays to God in her hopelessness and misery, and a savior appears.

Jean Valjean doesn't approach the Thénardiers immediately about taking Cosette because he soon realizes what kind of people they are and knows they will want to wring the most profit out of the transaction. He gladly pays a large sum of money to take the child since it is not in his best interest to make a fuss or risk the chance the authorities might be called. When Thénardier goes too far, however, he indirectly threatens him with his superior physical strength, and the innkeeper backs off.

It is not so surprising Cosette willingly goes with Jean Valjean and asks no questions. She immediately senses, with the heightened instincts of the downtrodden, that he is friend, not foe. Moreover, she has been treated like a thing for almost all her life so far, so she is schooled in submission. She doesn't have an idea that she might have a right to choose anything. First she was passed to the Thénardiers, and now she is being passed to this stranger.

It is somewhat miraculous that the hero has been able to escape again, which can be read as Providence or divine intervention. But perhaps even more miraculous is how he is able to access his money before he actually gets to Cosette. Toulon is over 500 miles from Paris. How he gets the money (he obviously needs to make the trip—not to mention buy clothes and get lodgings once he gets to Paris) is not explained. It seems clear he has buried money in Montfermeil, but was he somehow able to take money with him to jail? The reader would expect the prison authorities to have confiscated any money he might have on his person. The narrator tells the reader that when he reached Cap Brun, not far from his starting point, he was able to buy clothes for himself because he did not lack money. But where did it come from? Such questions do not have plausible answers, but the modern reader must take the narrator at his word. At times it is important to remember Les Misérables is written in a romantic, highly melodramatic style. Much of what it conveys—with regard to the plight of the poor, the infant days of representative government in France, and the yearnings of the human soul—are real, even if the details of the story are sometimes less than believable.

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