Les Miserables: Novel Summary: Section 2 - Book Three

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Section 2 - Cosette
Book Three - Fulfillment of the Promise Made to the Departed
Cosette was eight years old in 1823 and had become the abused servant of the Thenardiers. Monsieur Thenardier was crafty, cheap, heavily in debt and affected an air of learning. His wife was large, ugly and cared only for her two daughters. She obeyed her husband in everything and neglected her infant son. Near Christmas of 1823 the little town was unusually festive owing to the presence of some seasonal performers from Paris and their attendant peddlers of dolls and festive wares. The evening of Christmas day, Cosette, miserable, thin and ill clothed, was called to bring water for a peddler's horse from the spring which lay fifteen minute's walk down a dark road. Cosette shook with fear at the thought of walking that path alone. Nevertheless, the cold hearted Thenardiess ordered her to take a bucket, almost as big as Cosette, and go to the spring and then, giving her a fifteen-sous piece, ordered her to buy a loaf of bread on the way home. Outside the tavern Cosette was momentarily enraptured by the sight of a beautiful doll in a traveling merchant's stall but she soon fled at the sound of the Thenardiess. She ran through the dreaded dark woods and eventually reached the spring. While she filled her bucket she did not notice that the fifteen-sous piece fell into the water. She struggled to lift the bucket and began to walk back to the village. The weight of the water combined with the cold and her malnutrition caused to falter and she leaned against a tree in despair. A man approached unseen and lifted the weight of the bucket and carried it for her. Cosette was not afraid.
On the walk back to the tavern the man questions the little girl and learns all the sad details of her life. He seems shocked when he learns that her name is Cosette. Upon arriving at the tavern Cosette asks for the bucket so she will not be beaten. The man asks for a room and the Thenardiess, seeing his bedraggled clothing, at first refuses and then asks for twice the normal amount. The man pays in advance. While he waits for dinner he watches Cosette with rapt attention. When the Thenardiess demands the bread, Cosette lies and says that the baker was closed. When the Thenardiess demands the fifteen-sous piece Cosette turns white with fear when she realizes that it is gone. Before the woman can beat the child, however, the stranger pretends to pick up a silver piece from the floor and, though it is more than the lost coin, offers it as the missing piece. The two well-kept daughters, Eponine and Azelma enter and begin playing with a doll. Cosette wistfully watches them but resumes work upon some stockings for the girls when the Thenardiess threatens to beat her. The stranger buys the stockings and then commands Cosette to play since her work now belongs to him. The daughters catch Cosette playing with their doll and their mother threatens to beat her but the stranger leaves and then returns holding the magnificent doll from the stall across the street. To the shock of all present he gives the doll to Cosette who, partly in awe and partly in ecstasy, accepts the gift and announces that she will call the doll Catherine. The Thenardiess has formed an intense hatred for the stranger and soon afterward sends all the children to bed. Thenardier, who has formed the opinion that the stranger might be an eccentric rich man, stays awake until three in the morning watching him and then, instead of the promised stall, conducts him to the finest room in the house. Later in the night the stranger creeps down to the room where Cosette sleeps and observes her clutching the doll on her worn mattress. He also sees that the children have placed their shoes on the fireplace for Father Christmas to leave coins and that both Eponine and Azelma's shoes contain a ten-sous piece. Cosette's wooden clog is empty and in it the stranger places a gold Louis coin.
In the morning Thenardier draws up a ridiculously large bill for the stranger and instructs his wife to present it to him. The stranger takes the bill but hardly notices it. He requests permission to take Cosette with him and the Thenardiess, who is ready to get rid of the girl, accepts his offer with enthusiasm. He then notices the large bill but places the money on the table and instructs the woman to call for the girl. Thenardier, who has heard the exchange and gleaned an opportunity, enters, returns the stranger's money and takes him aside. Thenardier claims to have great affection for Cosette, whom he calls the Lark, and is unwilling to part with her. The stranger insists on taking her but Thenardier responds that he must have fifteen hundred francs. The stranger immediately places the money on the table and again commands that Cosette be brought to him. The Thenardiess brings her and the stranger unties a package that contains the complete morning dress and undergarments for a girl of seven years age.
Later, after the stranger and Cosette have departed, Thenardier shows his wife the fifteen hundred francs and she scoffs at the amount. He readily agrees that he should have gotten more and pursues them. Some distance from the town he catches up and tries to return the money and reacquire Cosette under the pretense that he needs a signed order from the mother to release her. The stranger, who is of course Jean Valjean, produces the note he obtained from Fantine. Thenardier is taken aback but insists that because the note promises that the bearer will settle all small debts he is due more money. Jean Valjean sternly details to Thenardier all the money he has received and points out that he was only owed thirty-five francs but has received fifteen hundred. Thenardier demands a thousand crowns and Jean Valjean simply takes Cosette's hand and leaves the weaker man behind. He and Cosette arrive in Paris that night.
Analysis
This chapter reintroduces Cosette and reemphasizes her miserable living conditions. It is very interesting to note the difference in personality between Valjean who is a kind and caring individual and feels empathy for Cosette even before he knows who she really is and the Thenardiers who are greedy and will go to any length to obtain money, even to the point of selling a child.

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