Chapter 1 In 1823, Montfermeil is only a village, not the large town it later became. Each household must fetch drinking water from a spring about 15 minutes away. Households like the Thenardiers pay a man to fetch it, but he only works until early evening. When he’s not working, the Thenardiers send Cosette out, though it terrifies her to go to the spring at night.
The narrator situates Montfermeil within a particular historical moment (different from the one in which he’s writing), setting the stage for a scene that follows Cosette through what is her greatest fear.
It’s Christmas eve, and a number of people are drinking in the tavern of the Thenardier inn. As they talk merrily, Cosette is seated near the chimney, dressed in rags. Eponine and Azelma laugh happily in the room next to them, but the crying of a baby—born by accident to the Thenardiers—continues, since the mother can’t be bothered to see to him.
The joyful holiday spirit of the tavern-goers is juxtaposed against Cosette’s isolation and misery. The constant crying of the baby is another reminder that for the Thenardiers, love is limited, when it exists at all.
Chapter 2 Thenardier is around fifty, his wife a little less. Madame Thenardier has a big blotchy face and a beard. She’s loud and brusque, whereas her husband is small, pale, and feeble, though extremely cunning. He is a swindler and pretends to have served in the army. He often talks about how he was a sergeant at Waterloo, and had saved a wounded general from death. He is a Bonapartist and liberal, spreading the rumor that he had studied to be a priest, though he had only studied in Holland to be an inn-keeper. He had returned from Waterloo stealing and selling items throughout the country, before settling in Montfermeil.
The physical (or “physiognomic”) descriptions of Thenardier and his wife serve, as is often the case in Hugo, to make a point about their inner characters. Because of the earlier section on Waterloo, the reader knows enough to be suspicious of Thenardier’s claims about the battle. In addition to his dishonesty and criminal activity, Thenardier hides his lack of integrity and claims to be the opposite kind of man.
Thenardier is the kind of man who accuses everyone else of being responsible for all his wrongs. Though Madame Thenardier’s loudness makes people think that she is the master of the house, in fact he rules everything, and she submits to all his wishes. Thenardier thinks only about how to enrich himself, though in fact he’s slowly ruining himself, burdened with petty debts. As a result, he is committed to wringing all the extra fees he can get out of all the travellers that come to the inn, and to get Cosette to do as much work as possible.
Thenardier is portrayed as a far different kind of criminal than Jean Valjean. Rather than being driven to crime through desperation, Thenardier is selfish, lazy, and greedy. By depicting him in such a way, the narrator suggests that mercy and forgiveness are not to be bestowed upon his type as easily as upon some other men of crime.
Chapter 3 That evening, Cosette is meditating sadly, worrying the water will run out and she will have to go the spring. Finally, one traveler says that his horse has not been watered. Cosette protests, and lies that it has. She creeps back under the table, and Madame Thenardier yells at her to take the bucket—which is bigger than she is—and go fetch water. She gives her a 15-sou piece to get bread from the baker’s as well.
In Cosette’s case, on the other hand, a “sin” such as lying is portrayed sympathetically, given that it stems from an innocent child’s fear, which is itself exacerbated by the lack of love, care, or attention from the Thenardiers or anyone else around her.
Chapter 4 Not a star can be seen in the sky. As Cosette passes the shop stalls, she gazes at a beautiful doll in one window, saying to herself that one must be a princess to have such a toy. But then Madame Thenardier Thenardier screeches at her to hurry, and she flees.
Cosette is depicted as being not too different from other small girls in her dreams and desires, and it is only her situation of abject misery that distinguishes her.
After Cosette makes it past the stalls, the light vanishes. But she pauses at the last house before the open fields, gazing at them in despair. She suddenly runs forward, not daring to look right or left before she reaches the spring. She draws out water, and is forced to pause to rest before carrying the heavy bucket back. She is terrified by the darkness: the narrator notes that all humans require light, and shadows are even more sinister for a child. She begins to shiver, and then counts aloud. She seizes the pail but can hardly carry it a dozen paces before she has to put it down and rest before picking it up again.
The scene of Cosette plunging into the forest gives the narrator the chance to portray a brief allegory of the moral “darkness” that all those who live without love inhabit. This moral darkness becomes a physical, material reality for Cosette here. It’s not just unpleasant but terrifying for her, and her fear is exacerbated even more by the weight of the water, which makes her task near impossible.
Suddenly she realizes that the bucket no longer seems to weigh much. She looks up and sees a tall man who has seized the handle: somehow, Cosette is not afraid.
In the midst of the darkness, the narrator suggests, enters a kind of light in the form of the stranger.
Chapter 6 Earlier that day, a man had walked across the Boulevard de l’Hopital in Paris, his apparent poverty combined with extreme cleanliness. His coat was threadbare and, from his white hair, he looked to be around 60. Around that time, Louis XVIII was known to promenade on that street, and the man, seeing the royal carriage, withdrew quickly, though not before the Duc de Havre, seated in the carriage opposite the king, noted that he had an evil look. The man slipped away, and reached the office of a coach going towards Lagny. He paid for the trip, but descended at Chelles, without entering the inn. The coachman told the other passengers that the man was unknown in these parts.
Once again, we are introduced to a man not necessarily through the narrator’s eyes but rather through the perspective of witnesses—passersby, Parisian inhabitants, and even dukes and royal figures. All these witnesses note that there is something about the man that suggests he doesn’t belong in the city. While he doesn’t escape notice, the figure is relatively successful at remaining shadowy and anonymous, at least making his way through urban areas without being stopped.
The man followed the road to Montfermeil, arriving in the forest and carefully examining all the trees. He stopped at one, to which a band of zinc had been nailed, but then continued on. It is this man who has just met Cosette, whom he’d spied through the trees.
The second time the Montfermeil forest appears, the narrator clearly wants us to make the link to Boulatruelle and the mysterious pile of money supposedly hidden there.
Chapter 7 The man tells Cosette to let go of the bucket. He asks where her mother is, and she says she doesn’t think she has one. When she tells him her name is Cosette, he seems shocked. He tells her to lead him to the inn, where he wants to stay. He asks her if there are other children there. She says Eponine and Azelma, who have beautiful dolls and play all day, while she must work. They walk through the town’s shop stalls, and Cosette says they are set up for Christmas. As they reach the house, Cosette asks for her bucket back. If Madame Thenardier sees that someone has carried it for her, she will beat her.
In this scene, we as readers are introduced to the “man” as the stranger encountered by Cosette. This defamiliarizing device underlines Cosette’s innocence and emphasizes how remarkable it is that she immediately trusts this stranger—quite possibly because he’s the first person who has taken a physical burden off her shoulders, and shown her kindness in a way “Madame” and her family have not.
Chapter 8 Madame Thenardier opens the door and says Cosette has taken her time fetching the water, but as soon as Cosette introduces the man as someone who wants lodging, Madame becomes friendly. But then she notices the threadbare coat, and says there’s no room. He asks only for an attic, and she charges him double—40 sous, since, as her husband says, it “ruins” houses to have such people in it.
The different ways that Madame Thenardier treats people depending on who they are and what they can do for her is portrayed as the height of hypocrisy. The narrator also disapprovingly describes the couple’s eagerness to take advantage of the poor by overcharging them.
The man sits to drink, and observes the child, whose ugliness stems only from her misery. Her skin is covered with bruises and her legs are thin and red. She seems defined by fear. She’s never known how to pray, since Thenardier says he doesn’t have time for church. Madame Thenardier asks Cosette where the bread is: she’s forgotten about it, but says the baker’s shop was closed. When Madame demands the 15-sou piece, Cosette reaches into her pocket but can’t find it. Madame screeches that she’s robbed her, and gets her whip, as Cosette curls up into a ball. At once, the man says he’s found it on the floor. It’s 20 sous rather than 15, but Madame thinks this is to her advantage.
Once again, beauty is tied to goodness and its opposite to moral ill. Here, the evil of Cosette’s ugliness is not her own but rather the evil ways of her adopted “family.” The very first observation that the traveling stranger can make is the harshness and suspicion with which Madame Thenardier treats Cosette, suspecting her of the theft of a small coin and assuming that the little girl is somehow cheating her out of what she deserves.
Eponine and Azelma enter: they are both very pretty and healthy-looking. They go off to play with their dolls in a corner, as Cosette watches them sadly. Madame Thenardier sees that she’s distracted, and threatens the whip again, before the stranger asks Madame to let her play. Madame looks at him scornfully—he’s barely spent any money there—and says she must work in order to eat. He asks Cosette what she’s doing: she’s making stockings, which will be worth at least 30 sous. He offers to pay 5 francs for them: he sets the coins down, and then tells the child to play.
The beauty of Eponine and Azelma reflects that these small children, unlike Cosette, are well-loved and well-treated by their parents. Again, Madame Thenardier treats people only as well as she thinks they deserve, or rather as she thinks they can benefit her and her husband. Judging the traveling stranger by his threadbare costume, she assumes, wrongly, that he is poor.
Thenardier and his wife whisper to each other about whether the man is in fact a hidden millionaire. The two daughters have seized the cat and are pretending it’s a baby, while the inn guests have begun to sing an obscene song. Cosette, meanwhile, plays with a little lead knife, pretending it’s a doll, as girls instinctively take care of imaginary things.
Suddenly, it turns out that the Thenardiers’ original judgment of the stranger may have been mistaken, and this transforms their attitude towards him. They now see him as someone whom they might be able to swindle out of some money.
Madame Thenardier tells the stranger that Cosette is a little beggar whom they’ve taken in through charity. They haven’t been paid for 6 months, and it seems the mother is dead. Cosette catches a few words of this. Eponine and Azelma have abandoned their doll for the cat, and Cosette goes up to it and holds it adoringly. Then Eponine notices, and yells for her mother, who screams at Cosette for daring to touch the children’s doll with her dirty hands. Cosette begins to sob, and the man steps out from the room. He reenters with the beautiful doll that Cosette had stared at in the window. Everyone in the room stops what they’re doing and is silent. Thenardier whispers to his wife that the doll costs at least thirty francs, and he tells Cosette sweetly to take the doll. She doesn’t dare at first. The stranger’s eyes seem to be filled with tears, and he nods at her as he gives her the doll.
Madame Thenardier shows her hypocrisy yet again through her syrupy, newly gracious words to the stranger, claiming for herself the moral high ground of taking in an orphan. That Madame can switch instantly from smarmy whining to raging anger just goes to show how insincere she is—especially in that she screams at Cosette right after having boasted about her kindness towards the girl. In the midst of this uproar, the man—who has remained largely silent all along—finally betrays his sympathies (and confirms for the Thenardiers his great wealth) by buying an extravagant doll for Cosette.
Madame Thenardier Thenardier despises the man at this moment, but tries to be cordial as her husband seems to want. She sends the children to bed, and rages to herself about this man’s inexplicable generosity, though Thenardier doesn’t care what a man with money does. Late at night, he leads the stranger to the nicest room in the inn, though the man says he would have liked the stable just as well. After saying goodnight, the man creeps out of his room and up to Cosette’s cupboard under the attic. He then looks into the other children’s room and sees their shoes placed on the hearth, where the “fairy” has placed a 10-sou piece in each of them. Cosette has set her shoe in the corner. He places a coin in it and returns to his room.
For Madame Thenardier, anyone who both challenges her authority and acts against the interest of her own daughters is to be despised. Thenardier, meanwhile, couldn’t care less about his daughters (this reminds us that he is even more coldhearted than his wife), and continues to preoccupy himself with how he’ll benefit from the stranger’s generosity. Meanwhile, the stranger continues to correct small injustices done against Cosette, here by giving her first Christmas present.
Chapter 9 The next morning, Thenardier makes up a bill for 23 francs, fabricating all kinds of charges. His wife exclaims at the price, but he says the man will pay. The traveler enters the room, and asks if business is good in town. Madame Thenardier remarks drearily that times are difficult, and the child Cosette is incredibly expensive. The traveler offers to take her away himself. He raises his eyebrows at the price, but immediately Thenardier comes into the room and says there’s been a mistake: it’s only 26 sous.
Twenty-three francs is many times more than a regular customer would pay—Thenardier is attempting to take advantage of the stranger’s wealth, and Madame Thenardier, though she doesn’t have the initiative to concoct these schemes herself, goes along unthinkingly with whatever her husband tells her to do.
Thenardier asks his wife to leave the room, and, pulling up a chair, confides to the stranger that he adores the child, and he could not possibly think of abandoning her to a stranger. He must see the stranger’s passport and be able to go see Cosette once in a while. The stranger refuses, saying he must break the thread definitively. Thenardier recognizes he’s dealing with a strong personality. He is struggling to figure out why the man is so interested in Cosette. Finally, he demands 1500 francs. The stranger puts the bills on the table, and tells him to fetch Cosette.
Thenardier has discarded one money-making scheme for another, apparently deciding that he would be able to wring more out of the stranger by pretending to adore Cosette—a ruse that, he’s perfectly aware, the stranger need not believe for it to work. Failing to learn more about the stranger (and thus gain greater leverage in wringing more money out of him), Thenardier finally gives up and simply asks for it.
Cosette had awoken stunned by the presence of the gold piece, which she’s never seen before, in her shoe. She goes about her morning errands in a kind of haze, when Madame Thenardier approaches her and tells her, almost gently, to follow her. The traveler gives her a proper outfit for an eight-year-old. She changes, and the pair sets off in the direction of Paris. Cosette continues to gaze sidelong at the man beside her, feeling as though she’s standing next to God.
For Cosette, the affair of the traveling stranger is mind-boggling: in an instant, her entire world seems to shift on its axis, and suddenly she can leave the nightmare of her childhood at the Thenardiers’ behind. Her association of the man with God underlines his merciful, kind, and non-judgmental nature.
Chapter 10 After their departure, Thenardier shows his wife the 1500 francs. She exclaims, “Is that all?” and he says she’s right—he runs out of the house in haste. He rushes in the direction of Livry, finally catching sight of the pair far ahead. He follows close behind, and finally catches up to them as they’re resting beside the road. Thenardier rushes up to them and hands the traveler the bills, saying he will take back Cosette. He can only give her to her mother, or to the person who has a note signed from her. The man takes out his wallet, and Thenardier shivers in pleasure: but he draws out a letter written and signed by Fantine. He is shocked, but soon recovers and says that he must be paid for many small expenses.
Here the Thenardiers’ greediness allows them to feed off each other, as the husband seems almost to want to impress his wife by wrangling more francs out of the stranger. Thenardier also seizes upon yet another strategy: demand legal proof that the stranger has the right to take Cosette away—proof that Thenardier is confident the man won’t have. Thenardier may not be as clever as the stranger, but he’s certainly tenacious, as shown by his rapid transition from one trick to another.
The stranger counts up out loud all the bills that Thenardier had sent to Fantine over the years: he says 1500 francs is more than enough. Thenardier, shocked but still determined, says he must have 1,000 crowns. The man tells Cosette to follow him, and picks up his cudgel. Thenardier notes how large it is, and how empty and silent the space is. But he continues to follow the pair from afar, until they reach a thick forest, and he finally gives up.
Again, Thenardier had counted on an unequal amount of knowledge between himself and the stranger, and again he turns out to be wrong. His demands grow increasingly desperate, and finally it is only the threat of physical harm (the narrator thus suggesting Thenardier’s cowardice) that makes him slink away.
Chapter 11 As we have seen, Valjean had not drowned by the ship at Orion, but had swum underwater until reaching a boat at anchor, where he had hidden before swimming off again to Cape Brun. He crept towards the Hautes-Alpes, then to the Pyrenees, Paris, and finally Montfermeil. He is relieved to find in a newspaper that he is believed to be dead. With Cosette, he returns to Paris and walks along the Boulevard de l’Hopital. Cosette is tired, and he hoists her onto his shoulders; she falls asleep.
Finally, at the end of this section, the narrator reveals what shouldn’t be a secret to the reader: the identity of the stranger. With the Montfermeil interlude, we have now been introduced to him just as Cosette was. This temporary anonymity further underlines Valjean’s multiple identities, even while drawing a thread through the various parts of his past.