At that moment [Cosette] suddenly felt that the weight of the bucket was gone.
The novel reintroduces us to Cosette on Christmas Eve of 1823, one month after Valjean disappears in the waters of Toulon. She is now eight years old and still lives with the Thénardiers in Montfermeil. They force Cosette to work, beat her, insult her mother, and practically starve her, while pampering and spoiling their own two daughters, Eponine and Azelma. But they treat their baby boy, Gavroche, as poorly as Cosette, viewing him as merely another mouth to feed.
A group of travelers arrive at the inn, and Mme. Thénardier orders Cosette to go to the woods to fetch a bucket of water. Cosette is terrified of going into the woods at night and tries to delay, but Mme. Thénardier screams at her to hurry. The forest is dark, cold, and terrifying, and when Cosette fills the bucket, she can barely carry it. She cries out to God. Out of nowhere, a large hand reaches down and lifts the bucket from her shoulders. Though Cosette does not know her rescuer, she is remarkably not afraid of the large man holding the bucket.
The man, who is Valjean, is surprised to learn that this girl is Cosette. He follows her back to the Thénardiers’ inn, where he intends to spend the night. Valjean is shocked to see how Cosette is treated at the inn, and he throws money around to persuade the Thénardiers to let her enjoy Christmas Eve. The Thénardiers realize that their guest is wealthy and begin to treat him better. They are particularly astonished when he steps out into the street and returns with an expensive doll as a gift for Cosette.
The next morning, Valjean asks the Thénardiers to give him Cosette. Mme. Thénardier jumps at the opportunity, but M. Thénardier pretends to be reluctant to part with the girl, hoping to gouge more money out of Valjean. Without haggling, Valjean pays Thénardier 1,500 francs and leaves with Cosette. Thénardier runs after them to demand more money. He says he cannot give away Cosette without permission from her mother, and Valjean produces the note from Fantine. Thénardier argues, but when he notices Valjean’s physical size, he decides it is more prudent to let the matter go. Safe at last, Cosette falls asleep in Valjean’s arms.
Valjean has been a noble figure since his redemption, but in this section he comes across as almost saintly, particularly when contrasted with the Thénardiers. Significantly, Valjean arrives in Montfermeil on Christmas Eve and seizes Cosette’s bucket at the exact moment that she cries out to God—details that make his entrance seem divine. The idea that Valjean is Cosette’s savior is reinforced by his selfless generosity. He pays money so that Cosette can take time off on Christmas Eve, and when Thénardier demands 1,500 francs to release Cosette, Valjean pays the sum without hesitation. The fact that Valjean does not haggle may come across as implausibly passive—after all, there is no reason why he cannot be compassionate but still bargain. Yet it becomes more understandable when we see Thénardier’s greedy maneuvering for the best price. Thénardier may be skilled at getting a material bargain, but his willingness to sell a child and haggle over the price shows that he is spiritually bankrupt.
Hugo’s disdain for materialism pervades his descriptions of the Thénardiers’ tavern. The detailed descriptions of the couple’s belongings and of the various ways in which they cheat others reveal how thoroughly their lives are dominated by the quest for money and possessions. The Thénardiers’ pursuit of material goods leads them to engage in an unending series of immoral acts, from tax evasion to child slavery. The fact that the Thénardiers regard their third child as little more than a drain on household finances further underscores their greed. Despite all of these schemes, the Thénardiers never feel as if they have enough cash—their love of money verges on an addiction.