RARA-AVIS: Proto-noir: The Th鮡rdiers

From: William Denton ( wtd@pobox.com)
Date: 16 Aug 2006

I read Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES and thought I'd mention the Th鮡rdiers. (That's an e with an acute accent--I hope it comes out OK in your screen. I'll just use a regular e now.)

The Thenardiers are introduced fairly early in the novel--though in a book with 1200 pages, early is relative. Fantine, a nice young woman who got herself pregnant, needs someone to look after her baby. She wrongly belives Madame Thenardier to be a nice woman and leaves Cosette with her. Over the next few years she's driven to prostitution and even sells her two front teeth to pay the Thenardiers to keep Cosette in what she thinks is a life of comfort. The Thenardiers use all the money themselves and use Cosette as a servant, treating her horribly. By the time she's rescured by Jean Valjean when she's eight, she's uneducated, undernourished, and dressed in rags.

The Thenardiers return years later in Paris. They've had a few sons, but got rid of them. Thenardier is part of the Paris underworld and working as a con man (writing the 1820s French equivalent of those e-mails you get from Nigerian widows who just need a bit of help getting their millions to safety). The two Thenardier daughters, who had been pampered while Cosette starved, are now so poor they don't have shoes. Thenardier pimps the older one. He runs into Jean Valjean, recognizes him, and with the help of some tough hoods tries to get money out of him, but Valjean's too tough and smart.

I mention them because they fit into that proto-noir category that we sometimes discuss. Hugo is a Romantic writer, which is sort of the opposite of noir, but the Thenardiers are nasty people, lowlifes, always short of money and doing whatever they can to get it. Other characters in the book get lofty speeches and grand sentiments, but the Thenardiers get fairly terse writing with lots of short conversation. If their story were told on its own, it'd be noir. Come to think of it, that could make a good novel, especially if updated and told in a modern way. "Fifty bucks. I was short fifty bucks and I'd be in court the next day if I didn't find it soon. Then I heard a woman outside talking to my wife, wondering if we could take care of her daughter while she worked. She had money--not enough so she didn't have to work, but enough to keep me from jail for now. And we could always use a servant, even a five-year-old."


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : www.miskatonic.org : www.frbr.org

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