Hugo opens Part Three with a depiction of a street urchin: known simply as le gamin. Such children were turned out to live in the streets because of abject poverty or, as in the case of the Thénardiers and their son Gavroche, the families simply didn’t want them. There, in the streets, these children learned to survive—or they died. If they survived, they lived lives that were amazingly free, to barely paraphrase Kris Kristofferson’s famous song. So Hugo’s gamin becomes an archetype of the underclass, free to express oneself as one chooses, to live as one chooses, but in poverty.
Once again Hugo follows with a study in contrasts. In a subsequent chapter, we learn in detail of the family and lifestyle of Monsieur Gillenormand, an old man who had been a carefree rake in his youth. The Revolution had left his understanding of French society stranded in another century; hence he was a Royalist. To add to his angst, his daughter had married a soldier of Napoleon’s Republican army. And who was this soldier? Baron Pontmercy, who had died at Waterloo and who Thénardier claims to have saved.
Now Hugo introduces us to Gillenormand’s grandson, Marius. The old man would have loved to have made of his grandson an extension of his own ego, but as we in modern times know, this sort of aspiration for our descendants rarely works out. Marius has grown up as a rather serious, austere young man; he takes life seriously, intends his life to be meaningful. Quite the opposite of the formerly philandering old man.
Marius’ father is an unknown in the boy’s life until an accidental comment or two by M. Mabeuf, the churchwarden, informs him that Marius is the son of Baron Pontmercy. And Marius soon discovers that the Baron believed a soldier named Thénardier saved his life.
This mesmerizes Marius. He begins to visit his father’s grave— secretly, of course—and searches for Thénardier.
As Marius fumbles his way through this segment of his life, he makes the acquaintance of other young men destined to be revolutionary street fighters: Enjolras, Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Prouvaire, Bahorel, and others. Marius, who is hardly one to strike a political pose, slowly comes under these young men’s influence. Liberty, particularly of the social kind, has been an undercurrent in France since the Revolution, and that seems to be what these men are after. From them, Marius comes to understand that while such freedom can be an indulgence, it can also hold more substance than the sort of nationalistic “freedom” Napoleon was famous for. He begins to carve out his own version of freedom, becoming a lawyer, but choosing to life in virtual poverty and making his living from translating books—his newly discovered passion.
His passion, that is, until he sees a fetching young lady on the mean streets where he lives. Of course, it’s Cosette, accompanied by M. Fauchelevent, our Valjean.
While Marius falls in love with Cosette from afar, other characters lurk these streets, these destined to cause trouble for Marius, Cosette, and Valjean: four men with alias names, Babet, Claquesous, Montparnasse, and Gueulemer. He also encounters Éponine, a daughter of the Jondrette family (this is our Thénardier family again), who is also destined to meddle in the story's affairs.
As the meddling begins, Javert returns to add his own to the mix. He recruits Marius to spy on the Thénardiers. Watching through a peephole, Marius is aghast to discover that the four above-named villains are set to accost Cosette’s father, to rob and possibly kill him, that the Jondrette man is Thénardier, Marius’ father's supposed savior. (Oh, and by the way, Valjean escapes both Javert and Thénardier.)
And so Marius is quickly torn between the father of Cosette and the man for whom he has been searching, Thénardier.
This Part ends with the Thénardier son, Gavroche, discovering that his mother and father have been taken to prison by Javert. Not so oddly, it turns out, Gavroche doesn’t mind.
What’s Hugo up to in this Part Three? Two things come to mind:
· In a broad-brush manner, Hugo wants us to see that personal freedom can be a chaotic albatross on society if handled immaturely, but that, handled in a constructive manner, it can also be a saving grace to the well-off, who are cramped by social position. It can also be a godsend to the poor, who find their only liberation within an oppressive social structure in such individuated liberty.
· In a personal context, as in Hugo’s depiction of characters as divergent as Gavroche and Marius, this part of the novel demonstrates that personal freedoms of the sort that had yet to permeate French society could actually add new structure to social life, and in a more meaningful and benevolent way.
Next post will take us to the most exciting and cinematic section of Hugo’s book, events leading to and including the April Revolution of 1832.