Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 4, Book 6 : Saint-Denis and Idyll of the Rue Plumet (Little Gavroche) | Summary

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Summary

Earlier in the novel when Monsieur Gillenormand is first introduced (Part 3, Book 2), the narrator notes he has taken responsibility for two illegitimate children his former servant Magnon claims he fathered; at the time Gillenormand is in his mid-80s. He sends the children back but gives the mother 80 francs a month for their upkeep and visits them twice a year. In Part 4, Book 6, the reader learns these two boys actually died of the croup when they were very young and were replaced by two new boys of about the same age. The replacement boys, who will provide Magnon with continued income, are none other than the two youngest Thénardier children. Their father rents them at ten francs a month, and no one is the wiser. Magnon has long since graduated to the criminal class and is involved with the Patron-Minette gang. She treats the Thénardier children well, but she is arrested a short time after the raid on the Thénardiers.

Magnon has time to write a hasty note about the children and give it to the cobbler across the street. The note has a name and address on it, and he points them in the right direction, but the paper blows away and they get lost. Gavroche happens to find them crying on the street (although he doesn't know they are related to him) and takes them under his wing. After he buys them some bread he runs into Montparnasse, who tells him Babet has escaped from prison and a job might be in the offing. Gavroche tells him where he will be if something materializes. The gamin then takes the children to his "place" to sleep, which is a large, 40-foot elephant made of plaster on the Place de la Bastille. The deteriorating sculpture has a convenient hole in it. Gavroche uses a workman's ladder to climb up and helps the children in. He has set up an alcove with a mattress and curtains, and he uses wire and stones as a barrier to keep the rats out, since the monument is overrun with vermin. When Gavroche blows out the candle, the younger boy, a five-year-old, asks him about the noises and cries, and Gavroche tells him not to worry: the rats can't get past the netting.

In the morning Montparnasse calls for Gavroche, and he leaves the sleeping children. The young criminal wants the child Gavroche to help Thénardier break out of prison. Brujon and Guelemer are already free, but they are now trying to rescue Thénardier, stuck at the top of a wall between two tall prison buildings. When Montparnasse and Gavroche get to the prison, the gang members tell him to climb up the chimney flue with a rope. Gavroche puts the rope in his teeth, climbs up and ties the rope to an upper crossbar of a window, and soon Thénardier is down. As soon as he is on the street, he asks the gang about the Rue Plumet, which warrants further investigation they say, despite what Eponine has reported. Meanwhile they completely ignore Gavroche. After the boy leaves, Babet asks Thénardier if he noticed the boy that rescued him and says he seems to be his son; Thénardier answers, "You think so?"

Analysis

The abuse of orphaned and abandoned children continues as a motif in this book of the novel, in which children are invisible to adults. Marius's grandfather Gillenormand takes responsibility for two children that do not belong to him—an admirable act in a society in which bourgeois men so often take advantage of poor or working class women and then leave them high and dry. Gillenormand is the opposite of Félix Tholomyès, a bourgeoisie who refuses to accept his paternity but later in life becomes a fat, respectable provincial lawyer. Nonetheless, Gillenormand pays so little attention to these children when he sees them that he hasn't noticed they've been replaced.

Magnon's parental instincts leave a lot to be desired: first she tries to get rid of her real children by sending them to Gillenormand; then she turns them into a profit center; and finally she easily replaces them with a new set of strangers. Meanwhile the Thénardiers easily abandon their own children in a nefarious scheme that goes unnoticed by the authorities. When the Thénardiess asks her husband whether what they are doing is legal, he responds, "Everything is legal ... Besides, with children who don't have a sou, nobody cares to look into it closely."

Neither the authorities who arrest Magnon nor the neighbors seem too worried about her children who are now alone because she has been hauled off to jail. The cobbler doesn't see any need to walk the children over to the place where they are supposed to go, just on the next street, and as a result they get lost. Gavroche, an orphaned child himself, is the one who rescues the crying children. In this episode Gavroche saves both his siblings and his father, although his father shows no gratitude and doesn't seem to remember the boy is his son. Gavroche hangs around for a few minutes, waiting for his father to recognize him, but he remains invisible to him. The plight of the children of the poor is indeed heartbreaking, and society provides no safety net for these most vulnerable of citizens. There is some situational irony that Gavroche finds refuge in the plaster elephant that was the model for a bronze sculpture Napoleon had commissioned to commemorate his victories, but which was never built. The mouldering elephant is falling apart and offers a precarious refuge; likewise the republican dream is collapsing, and the political system falls far short of what is needed by the poor and working classes.

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