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BOOK EIGHTH: The Noxious Poor
Marius spends his days wandering the streets in hope of finding his lost love. One day he crosses paths with two young girls who are apparently running from the police. They drop a packet containing letters to four different people. The letters are written as if by different individuals, but were actually all written by the same person and are an attempt to extort money from various people in Paris. The next day, one of the Jondrette girls comes to his door with s similar letter for him, revealing that it is her father who is using his daughters to swindle money out of anyone he thinks might be willing to part with a few sous. Marius pities the girl and gives her 5 francs.
The incident awakens Marius to the fact that he has neighbors to whom he as been oblivious even though the wall that separates the apartments conceals nothing but their appearance. He begins to spy on them through a hole near the top of the wall where the plaster has fallen away. The Jondrettes live in utter poverty and filth with no evidence of any kind of work. The two daughters are thin and all are dressed in rags. While Marius watches, the oldest girl returns to announce that a last conquest has been successful and that a “philanthropist” of the church of St. Jacques has promised to come. Jondrette breaks the only spare chair, puts out the fire, tells his wife to get into the bed and makes the younger girl break a window pane to let in the cold. Of course, she cuts her hand as well, so he tears off a piece of his own ragged chemise to wrap her hand, making it look as though he cares dearly about her plight.
When the stranger arrives, Marius is amazed to see that it is Monsieur “Leblanc” accompanied by his daughter. Jondrette puts on a great act and Leblanc responds with a promise of more money to be brought that night. Marius is overcome with the “discovery” of his “Ursula,” but Jondrette has recognized Leblanc as Valjean and the girl as Cosette. Jondrette is actually Thenardier, which Marius does not realize, although he perceives upon seeing Jondrette with some of the Patron- Minette criminals that a crime is being planned against Leblanc. Determined to prevent a crime against the father of his beloved, Marius goes to the police where he tells his story to none other than Inspector Javert. Javert provides Marius with a pair of small pistols and tells him to fire a signal after the criminals are well into their planned robbery of Leblanc.
Jondrette returns without Cosette and is given a chair in the Jondrette apartment. Jondrette, ie Thenardier makes a show of trying to sell a piece of “art” which is actually just an old tavern sign. As Thenardier talks, 8 bandits enter the room one and two at a time. Suddenly Thenardier turns on Leblanc, ie Valjean, and announces his identity and accuses Leblanc of being the man who stayed at his inn 8 years previous and “stole” a child they had called “the lamb.” Valjean remains cool, never raising his voice or acknowledging his identity. Once when Thenardier turns his back, Valjean almost escapes out the window. He is then tied to the bed post.
Thenardier orders Valjean to write a letter which will be delivered to “the lark.” Thenardier wants 200,000 francs. The girl will be kidnaped, but released once Thenardier has the money. Valjean writes the letter as ordered but gives his name as Urbain Fabre, matching the letters on his handkerchief, and also provides a phony address.
The Thenardiess returns after going to the phony address and Valjean admits that he did it to buy time. Then, having cleverly freed himself of all of his bonds except the one holding his foot, he grabs a hot poker from the fire and burns his own arm as a demonstration that there is nothing they can do to him to get information that he doesn’t want to give. Thenardier pulls a knife with the intention of killing Valjean.
In the meantime, Marius has been paralyzed by the news that Jondrette is actually Thenardier. Even though he can see the man is the embodiment of evil, he still feels the debt of his father’s life. He never fires the intended gun, but at the last moment he sees the letter which had been left behind by the Jondrette girl. Marius wraps a bit of plaster in the paper and tosses it into the room through the hole.
Thenardier thinks the paper has come through the broken window and was tossed by Eponine who is on watch outside. The bandits are suddenly obsessed with trying to get out though the window when Inspector Javert enters. He rounds up the bandits, ducks a rock thrown by Thenardiess and handcuffs her. In the rush and confusion, Valjean escapes through the window.
At the end of the chapter Little Gavroche makes a brief appearance. The reception he gets from his family is such that the child decides he is better off on the street.
This chapter and similar chapters highlight the tragic plight of many of the Parisian children. In the poorest homes, the children in the house were little better off than those who took to the streets. Furthermore, the children are naive and innocent, blaming no one for their plight, perhaps because they have not had much exposure to good parents.
For Marius, there is a sudden awakening. He now knows the identity of the girl he is in love with as well as that of his neighbor. The escape of Valjean foreshadows a more disastrous clash in future chapters. Also, since Marius labors under a misguided sense of debt to Thenardier, we know that at some point he will do something to settle that debt.
Javert is further characterized as not only efficient, but also observant. Although it is futile to pursue the “victim” of the robbery at this point, he realizes that the man who was being robbed most likely would have been a more interesting prize than the bandits themselves. Javert does not know that “Leblanc” is actually Valjean. It is a curious point that Thenardier does not inform Javert at least as a possible means to vindicate himself.