Chapter 1 Since 1823, the Thenardiers had had two other boys, but had gotten rid of them both when they were small. Madame Thenardier only ever loved her daughters. This is how she got rid of the sons: a woman Magnon, the mistress of the old Gillenormand who lived on the Quai des Celestins, had lost both her (and Gillenormand’s) sons in a croup epidemic, so her monthly salary from Gillenormand was gone. Thenardier’s two boys were the same age, so they were swapped, for a payment to Madame Thenardier at 10 francs a month. As she handed them over, Madame Thenardier felt a momentary scruple, but was consoled by her husband.
Once again, Paris proves a shockingly small city, as more sets of characters’ lives intertwine—here, the Gillenormands (and by extension, Marius) with the Thenardiers and their two sons. The narrator has noted before that Madame Thenardier is not as brutal or malicious as her husband, and yet her very loyalty to her husband—in other circumstances a laudable trait—erodes her moral sense even more.
One day, the police made a raid in Magnon’s neighborhood, and she was seized for theft while the boys were playing in the backyard. They found the house locked, and began to wander the streets.
Hugo often stresses the particular misery suffered by the most innocent members of society, in this case urban children.
Chapter 2 One windy evening in 1832, Little Gavroche, wearing a woman’s shawl he picked up somewhere, is surveying a shop-front to determine whether he could steal away a bar of soap to sell in the suburbs, which could pay for his breakfast. Meanwhile, two small children enter the house sobbing, probably begging for alms. As the man shoos them out, Gavroche follows them and asks what’s wrong. They have nowhere to sleep, they say. Gavroche realizes they must be “greenies” or new to the streets; he tells them to come along with him.
Having filled in some of the background on the two children picked up by Gavroche, the narrator can now return to the present-day action. The reader now has an extra level of sympathy for these children, knowing that they are, in fact, all brothers (since Gavroche had also been abandoned by his parents, the Thenardiers). Gavroche’s selfless kindness thus becomes more poignant.
They wander up the street. At one point Gavroche sees a beggar-girl around 13 years old wearing a too-short petticoat, and he flings his shawl onto the girl’s shoulders. He shivers but with good humor, saying that if the wind keeps up he’ll cancel his weather subscription. The two children say they haven’t eaten all day; they don’t know where their parents are. Gavroche triumphantly draws a sou from the pocket, races into the baker’s shop, and cries out for bread. The baker gives them a black piece, and Gavroche coldly demands white bread. The baker can’t repress a smile. Gavroche keeps the smallest piece for himself.
Gavroche, as we’ve learned from the chapters on the “physiognomy” of the Paris gamin, is both merry and kindhearted, a troublemaker but a good person at heart. We can see both these qualities at work as he wanders the streets of Paris with the two children. Gavroche seems entirely comfortable in the city, navigating its streets and shops as well as anyone.
As they head up towards the Bastille, Gavroche calls out to a disguised Montparnasse, who says he’s going to find Babet, who’s escaped. Montparnasse tells Gavroche that the other day he met a bourgeois who made him a present of a sermon and his purse, but a minute later there was nothing left in his pocket—except the sermon, says Gavroche. Montparnasse asks Gavroche where they’re going, and he says to his lodgings, “in the elephant.” Montparnasse laughs at him, but is also troubled by how easily Gavroche recognized him in disguise. Then he says some seemingly senseless words to Gavroche, who understands, looks around, and sees a police sergeant. Gavroche says they must be off, but if Montparnasse needs him that night he can call him.
Through living on the streets, Gavroche is acquainted with Paris’s lower-level crime gangs, but we’ve also already seen him knock Valjean’s money bag out of Montparnasse’s hands and throw it to Mabeuf, thus finding—in a playful way—a measure of justice as he understands it. In one sense, the narrator suggests that Paris’s secrets are the property of one common underclass, but in another way, he proposes that we can set up a moral hierarchy of this underclass rather than judging them all indiscriminately.
Montparnasse had used a street warning that involves the syllable “dig” repeated four or five times in a sentence to mean “we can no longer talk freely,” thus the senseless phrase that warned Gavroche of the sergeant’s presence. Gavroche and the children head off towards a monument near the basin of the Bastille canal. The monument was an idea of Napoleon’s that most Parisian residents have entirely forgotten. It is a 40-foot-high timber elephant, carrying a tower on its back that resembles a house, now black with time and falling into ruins. A tribunal once was called upon to judge a child caught sleeping there, under the charge of vagabondage and mutilation of a public monument. Gavroche leads the young boys under a fence and up a ladder to the opening, telling them not to be afraid.
One of the ways this Parisian underclass operates is through its own language, allowing its members to better navigate their environment without being constantly bothered by the police. Recall that Victor Hugo is writing Les Misérables in exile, and so he depicts Paris’s eccentricities fondly, almost lovingly, even such remnants of history as an abandoned elephant statue. Again, of course, history is always present in Paris, which bears the traces of the revolutionary and Napoleonic past.
The narrator notes that while the bourgeois might look upon the elephant disapprovingly as they pass, asking what it’s good for, in fact the monument has served to protect small beings who have no parents, bread, or refuge from cold and rain: a loftier purpose than the one envisaged by Napoleon. Gavroche pushes the boys towards his bed, a straw mat with woolen stuffing for a blanket, surrounded by brass wire for a curtain. The boys look at him admiringly and ask if he’s not afraid of the police—Gavroche says they must call them “bobbies” instead, and teaches them a few more essential slang words. He says they’ll have fun, swimming in the Seine in summer, sneaking into the theater and opera, and watching the guillotine.
Just as the narrator had disapprovingly depicted the stereotype of the clergyman who spends lavishly—a stereotype to which the Bishop of D--- didn’t conform—here he positions himself somewhat against the trappings of imperial grandeur. Instead he suggests that a monument’s “use value” can be understood as the extent to which it can provide something of value to the poor. Gavroche makes this new world of homelessness seem far more inviting through his vast knowledge of Paris and its attractions.
As they lie down to sleep, the boys hear a strange scratching. Gavroche says it’s the rats—he had a cat, but they ate her. The boys begin to tremble, but Gavroche grasps their hands until they fall asleep again. Then Gavroche hears a cry, “Kirikikiou!” and descends to find Montparnasse, who tells Gavroche they need him. They criss-cross the market-gardeners’ carts to reach the Rue Saint-Antoine.
Though Gavroche can’t be more than a few years older than the two other boys, he takes on the role of their guardian and protector, at least until other requirements steal him away—though again, Gavroche’s relationship to Montparnasse is ambivalent at best.
That night, Thenardier, Brujon, and Gueulemer had planned an escape from prison. Brujon had come across a nail, which was the key to escape from the New Building—a crumbling part of the prison and its weak point. He was placed in the same dormitory as Gueulemer, their beds against the chimney. Thenardier was directly above them in the section known as “Bel-Air,” over which was an enormous black wall and an even blacker roof. Brujon, who learned that Babet had escaped that morning, began to pierce the chimney with the nail he’d found. The rain and wind covered the noise. Forty-five minutes later, they had pierced the wall, scaled the chimney and climbed down on a rope, joining Babet and Montparnasse.
Even inside the prison, the members of Paris’s underworld, the Patron-Minette gang, have managed to cluster together and cook up ideas for their escapes. We’re certainly meant to disapprove of the immoral, criminal ways of these men, but Hugo is also an expert storyteller, and sometimes it’s in the descriptions of the least ethically appealing characters that the scenes really adopt a fast-paced tempo and gain suspense.
Towards one a.m., Thenardier had seen two shadows pass in front of his dormer-window. Thenardier, as a burglar, was considered in need of greater watch, but he was also allowed to keep a metal spike to poke his bread into a hole in the wall to “keep it from the rats.” Later, a newly recruited soldier would be found asleep next to the cell. There was a hole in the ceiling and another in the roof, along with the “stupefying wine” bottle with which he’d drugged the soldier. Still, no one knows how Thenardier was able to jump from roof to roof to finally reach the Rue de Roi-de-Sicile.
We’ve seen earlier how infuriated Thenardier has become when being outsmarted by Jean Valjean. However, Valjean is a special case, and compared to many others in Paris, Thenardier is shrewd enough to get what he wants out of people and to achieve his criminal designs—shrewd enough even that the narrator himself claims not to know how he completed one leg of his escape.
Finally, though, Thenardier had reached one final roof, three stories from the ground, but the rope he had was too short. Lying in despair, asking himself if his accomplices had succeeded and would come to help him, he heard four o’clock strike. There was a sudden uproar in the prison with the discovery of the escape. Then Thenardier had seen four men stopping directly under him—his accomplices—arguing about whether to wait for him or not. Montparnasse grumbled that one doesn’t desert friends in a scrape, but Brujon said he must have been caught.
Again, the fast pacing and dramatic development of this scene has the secondary effect of making the reader root for Thenardier’s escape—perhaps a reaction that Hugo himself wants to provoke, since it underlines the ambivalence with which we are supposed to view judgment and the judged, criminality and innocence, justice and injustice.
Thenardier dared not call, instead tossing the rope. Montparnasse saw him, but Thenardier said he was paralyzed with cold and couldn’t move. Montparnasse slipped away: it was at this point that he fetched Gavroche. Now, he orders Gavroche to climb up and save the man, whom Gavroche recognizes as his father. He scurries up, ties Thenardier to a rope, and the team lowers him to the ground. At once, they discuss the next crime they’ll commit.
The various threads of the narrative join together once again, as Gavroche and Thenardier—both, in different ways, men of the Parisian streets—are made to meet again. Gavroche might lend a hand in Montparnasse’s intrigues, but he’s not one to invite them or help plan them himself.