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While the Thénardiers’ values have remained much the same, their move to Paris is a comment on the uprooted and debased nature of the French middle class following the restoration of the monarchy. Since leaving their inn in Montfermeil, the Thénardiers have become much poorer, and their greedy misbehavior has degenerated into serious con artistry and fraud. The Thénardiers’ debased status is largely due to their obsession with money. Despite—or perhaps because of—their singular pursuit of francs, the Thénardiers are now worse off than they were in Montfermeil, since all of them are now packed into a wretched one-room tenement. Regardless of the cause of their misfortunes, however, the Thénardiers are a warning of what happens when one social class loses so much so quickly. Early on, the Thénardiers are petty swindlers, but their increasing poverty has made them so desperate and selfish that they go so far as to throw their youngest son, Gavroche, out onto the streets.
Gavroche exemplifies Hugo’s belief that material wealth is unnecessary for—and can even impede—true happiness. Although Gavroche is the Thénardier who possesses the least, he is the happiest and most generous of the lot. He is less driven by the need for wealth and possessions, which makes him freer than the other Thénardiers to pursue his more authentic desires. Gavroche’s carefree existence stands in striking contrast to the Thénardiers’ home life, which consists of sitting idly in a cold, dark room all day, waiting for money from one of their schemes to come in. The difference between Gavroche and the rest of his family shows the misery that can accompany an obsession with money, as opposed to the happiness that can come with freedom.
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