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On the streets of Paris lives a young street urchin named
Gavroche. He is one of several hundred homeless children who roam
the city, living in abandoned lots and underneath bridges. Gavroche’s
parents are none other than the Thénardiers—he is the unwanted third child
whom we see as an infant in Montfermeil. The Thénardiers now live
in the Gorbeau House under the pseudonym Jondrette. Cast out by
his parents, Gavroche fends for himself on the street, begging and
picking pockets to survive. He is only eleven or twelve years old,
but he does not blame his parents for their neglect, since he has
no idea how parents are supposed to behave.
The novel focuses on the life of Marius Pontmercy. Marius
is a young man who has grown up under the care of his ninety-year-old maternal
grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand, a staunch supporter of the monarchy.
Marius’s father is Georges Pontmercy, a colonel in Napoléon’s army.
Pontmercy, persecuted for his support of Napoléon and plagued by
Gillenormand’s threats to disinherit Marius, eventually gives custody
of Marius to his father-in-law.
Marius does not hold much affection for his father, because
Gillenormand has told him that his father abandoned him. In 1827, shortly
after Marius turns eighteen, Gillenormand tells him that Marius’s
father is ill and orders him to visit his father. Marius rides out
to Vernon, his father’s hometown, the following morning but arrives
a few minutes after his father dies. Since Marius has always believed
that his father did not love him, he finds it difficult to grieve. Marius
discovers a note among Pontmercy’s belongings asking Marius to find
a man named Thénardier, who once saved Pontmercy’s life at Waterloo.
The note instructs Marius to help Thénardier in any way he can.
Back in Paris, Marius struggles to understand his father’s
legacy. He wonders why his father, who supposedly did not love him,
asked to see him before he died. The churchwarden, Mabeuf, tells
Marius that his father came to Paris every two or three months to
watch his son at Mass. This knowledge further confuses Marius. He
immediately returns to Vernon to learn everything he can.
Marius devours history books and bulletins about his
father’s exploits in Napoléon’s army and comes to admire the dead
Pontmercy. To the chagrin of his grandfather, Marius also becomes
a passionate follower of Napoléon. Gillenormand learns of Marius’s
new political views, and the two get into a heated argument. Marius moves
out, refusing any help or money from his family.
The different politics of the Gillenormand and Pontmercy
households represent the political trends dividing France in Hugo’s
time. Gillenormand, Pontmercy, and Marius each symbolize the major political
trends of their respective generations. Gillenormand, the eldest
of the three men, is a staunch supporter of the kings who ruled France
in the centuries prior to the French Revolution of 1789. Pontmercy,
on the other hand, is an ardent follower of Napoléon, who inherited
the legacy of the 1789 revolution and acted
as emperor of France until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
After 1815, the royal family, the Bourbons,
returned to power. To ensure that belief in the Napoléonic tradition
is not passed down from father to son, Gillenormand intentionally
isolates Marius from Pontmercy, raising him to support the Bourbons
and oppose Napoléon. When Marius discovers that his father secretly
loved him, however, he becomes more receptive to his father’s beliefs
and begins to examine them without prejudice. As a result of his
research, Marius radically changes his political beliefs, which
ultimately creates a rift between him and his grandfather. The split
between Marius and Gillenormand, along with Marius’s embrace of
Napoléon, symbolizes the younger generation’s rediscovery of the
Napoléonic values and the principles of democracy.
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!