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Les Misérables | Part 3, Book 8 : Marius (The Noxious Poor) | Summary

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Summary

Several months go by, and Marius is still distraught over losing contact with his beloved. One day he is jostled in the street by two young girls running from the police. One of them drops a packet, which contains four letters of appeal for charity, signed by four different people. The next day a young girl, about 15, emaciated and dressed in rags, knocks on his door to deliver a letter from Jondrette with a similar appeal. Marius now understands the other letters, written in the same hand, are from the same source. As he discovers later, his neighbor Jondrette is running a scam to get money from sympathetic people of means. The two girls are Jondrette's daughters. Marius gives his visitor the packet she dropped and finds a few coins for her father, and she thanks him profusely.

When she leaves, Marius realizes his five years of poverty are nothing next to what the family next door is experiencing. He scolds himself mentally for not paying more attention to their need when they live so close, on the other side of the wall. He suddenly notices a small hole in that wall at the top and climbs on the bureau to look in on the unfortunate family. What he sees is a filthy, hideous den. The family is waiting for some guests, and when they arrive, Marius is astonished to see they are his beloved and Leblanc, who have brought some clothes and blankets. The old man promises to return at six with money for back rent. When they leave, Marius runs out, thinking he will follow them, but he has no money for a cab. When he comes back in, the eldest girl, Eponine, is in his room again. She asks him if she can help him, since he seems gloomy, and he asks her to find out the address of the visitors. After she leaves, he hears Jondrette yelling and he gets back on the bureau. Now he learns Jondrette recognized his guests from a previous era in his life. He is planning to ambush the old man when he comes back and extort money from him with the help of criminal accomplices.

Marius runs to the police and speaks to an inspector about what he witnessed. The inspector realizes Patron-Minette is involved and gives Marius two pistols. He is to observe the scene and then shoot off one of the pistols once criminal activity is underway. The police will be at the ready to catch the criminals. Marius learns the inspector's name is Javert and gives him his latch key to the building.

At the appointed time Marius takes up his watch and sees Leblanc return with the promised money but also notices thugs in the room. Jondrette soon reveals himself by his real name, Thénardier, and Marius is astonished for a second time. The former innkeeper tells Leblanc he remembers him as the man who took "the Lark"—that is, Cosette—away, but the old man denies previous acquaintance. Leblanc tries to get away, but is outnumbered seven to one. Marius is paralyzed. He does not shoot off the gun because he is bound by his promise to do service to this scoundrel on behalf of his father. Leblanc is finally subdued and tied up by the bandits. Thénardier makes Leblanc write a letter to his daughter, asking her to come immediately. He will hold her hostage until he gets 200,000 francs from Leblanc. The Thénardiess leaves to find the address given by Leblanc, but soon comes back because the address is false. This diversion has allowed Leblanc to free himself, but the outlaws attack him. Marius still can't pull the trigger, but sees a note Eponine accidentally left in his room saying "THE COPS ARE HERE." He wraps the note around a piece of plaster and throws it through the crevice, which causes some commotion. Just then Javert bursts in with a squad of policemen and arrests the whole crew. Javert them looks around for Jean Valjean, but he has already disappeared out the window.

Analysis

The Thénardiers are an archetypal example of how extreme poverty can bring out the worst in human beings. Much earlier in the novel the narrator says of the Thénardier parents, "They were among those dwarfish natures, which, if they happen to be heated by some sullen fire, easily become monstrous." The older Thénardiers are genuine villains, but society still has some responsibility for the degree to which the family has sunk. People like Jean Valjean and Marius are the exception to the rule, as Victor Hugo well knew; the majority of people are quite ordinary, and when pressed by the weight of adversity, they get worse, not better. When Marius thinks about the Thénardier girls, he sees they are "two miserable beings who were neither children, nor girls, nor women, a species of impure yet innocent monsters produced by misery." Marius realizes the family is "depraved," but he also notes people who fall so far are unlikely to keep their dignity: "There is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les misérables; whose fault is it?" he asks. Poor Eponine is already losing her teeth, her eyes are dull, and she is "misshapen." Although Marius doesn't realize it, she is in love with him, which is why she comes back to ask if she can do him a service.

When Marius decides to take a closer look at the poverty beside him, to which he has been oblivious, he gets a birds-eye view of the depth of the elder Thénardier's depravity, as he pushes his family around, completely insensitive to their misery. He feels no sympathy for the villain when he realizes he plans to rob and perhaps kill the philanthropist who has come to help him, and Marius sensibly goes to the police to stop the crime. However, when Thénardier turns out to be the man who saved his father, he refuses to bring the law down on his head.

This scene in the novel shows a deep flaw in Marius's character: a rigidity not unlike Javert's. Marius has determined a certain course of action constitutes the moral high road, and he adheres to that course despite all the evidence pointing in a different direction. If he could think about his relationship with the villain without prejudice, it would become obvious that the depth of this man's iniquity releases him from his father's command. No doubt, if the elder Pontmercy were in his son's place, he would have had no problem turning Thénardier over to the police. Marius now has enough evidence to realize that if Thénardier saved his father, there was something unsavory about the incident. Thus he is carrying out a promise to a dead man that is based on a false premise; as a lawyer he should know the contract is no longer binding. This same rigidity has kept Marius away from his family for five years, in which he has falsely assumed his grandfather has not changed. Marius's refusal to compromise is both admirable and deplorable. Once again the author is pointing out the importance of considering context in making moral decisions. Victor Hugo knew this quite intimately, since he lived through a time in French history in which the political landscape was constantly shifting and it was sometimes hard to know who were the villains and who were the heroes—and he made more than one mistake himself as a public man and advocate of democracy.

Jean Valjean is portrayed in this portion of the novel at his most heroic. He faces down his seven attackers with equanimity and has the presence of mind to neither call out nor give the villains information about his daughter, even as he plays for time so he can free himself after they tie him up. He uses a convict's trick to do this—with a little saw concealed in a coin he happened to have in his pocket. In his second round with the thugs, he pulls out of the fire the chisel they have heated to torture him and applies it himself to his own flesh to show them they have no power over him. Jean Valjean is a superhero in this moment—sucking up the pain without even wincing, transcending the limits of the body. Finally he eludes Javert and like a magician disappears out the window.

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