Marius Pontmercy and Monsieur Thenardier
Two different characters. Two very different story lines. One book, Les Miserables. The characters of Les Miserables are arguably what make the book so classic. Despite the years that have passed since they were penned, each character is remembered by their timeless ability to be relatable and the lessons they have taught. Marius Pontmercy is often characterized by his hopeless romanticism and blind love.
Monsieur Thenardier is painted as the villain, cheating and lying his way through life. What do these two apparently opposite ends of the moral spectrum have in common? Both, one consciously, the other unwittingly, rend apart the lives of both loved ones and strangers, alike. In a story where lines are constantly blurred and the validity of life’s black and white areas is constantly called into question, Monsieur Thenardier is consistently regarded as the story’s true antagonist. To many he is evil personified. He starved and beat, even if not personally, Cosette, the child entrusted to his care, abandoned wholly three of his children, and lived a life of greedy ambition until the end. Thenardier, one of the few characters that live to the end of the novel, never reaches redemption, despite even having a chance handed to him by Marius.
Marius, under the false impression Thenardier saved his father’s life, pays him off and sets before him a perfect chance to escape his current life and begin again. Instead, Thenardier picks up his only child left with him and moves to America where he begins a prosperous life as a slave trader. Marius Pontmercy is a textbook romantic, blindly charging into anything and everything that holds promise of the new and exciting. Marius is naive, possibly the most out of the numerous characters in the novel. He is always portrayed as meek, kind, and quietly passionate, if slightly ignorant.
How could that possibly be harmful? And yet his passion and love for Cosette proves to be a hidden dagger, leaving him oblivious to the affections of his neighbor, Eponine, leading her to wish for the death of them both over enduring his continual rejection. Then once more, when Valjean shares his criminal past, Marius remains lost in his love for Cosette, rendering him either unwilling or unable to see the pain brought onto Valjean in forcing him to distance himself from Cosette. Why a character like Thenardier? Because there are people who live selfishly, serving only themselves, and they are easy to blame. It’s easy to see someone so self-serving and scorn them. They are so far removed from our comfort zone, so divorced from our reality, we can condemn them without batting an eye. It’s certainly simpler than seeking to find fault in ourselves.
Thenardier exists in the story to serve as a foil to the other, more prominent characters. His hate is juxtaposed against Valjean’s unceasing kindness, and his blatant antagonism is more subtlety revealing about the nature of another, Marius. This open hostility evident in Thenardier’s character, while still painfully apparent in society and people then and now, does not remain solitary in its affront, for there are many ways of inflicting pain, and not all are visible to the eye. Can carelessness truly be a danger? Can it still cause pain, still wrench apart lives and relationships? Marius, heroic, beloved Marius, certainly never intended to inflict the damage he did, but it still came to be. Despite our best interests, we can do the same.
A negligent attitude to the problems and sufferings of those who surround us just plants the seed of destruction. Despite the fact we will perhaps never experience that pain ourselves, it by no means gives us a right to disregard it completely. Carelessness to the world around us will never reap anything but the bitter harvest of afflictions and abandonment it has sowed. Humanity is inherently flawed. We are capable of causing pain to those we love most and those we could not care less about. If we were to ask ourselves if we did this knowingly, most would pride themselves in being able to say no.
And yet people still get hurt, hopes are still crushed, and tears still fall from the eyes of innocents. Why is this, if when we speak, we most certainly always intend to do so to edify our fellow men? Few open their mouths fully intending to bring harm to another, and when they do, society is always there ready to bring shame upon them, ready to disparage them for a sin of which they would never be guilty. Thenardier knew the pain he caused, and Marius never had any semblance of an idea of that pain. Everyday we continue to be guilty of pain of which we were previously unaware. The theme of pain is nearly omnipresent in Les Miserables.
Whether through death, loneliness, disease or starvation, it’s always present, lurking, ready to prey on prosperity and hope. Think back to every great story that has ever been told. What do the likes of Peter Pan and Batman have in common? A compelling villain. A villain so far removed from our daily lives, we revel in hating them. No one argues that Captain Hook was just misunderstood, or that the Joker simply craved approval and secretly sought redemption. In every great story, people rush to forgive the hero all his misdoings; they forget every misstep as soon as the need arises.
A hero can bring just as much harm as a villain, but if he’s fighting for the “right side” no one bothers to challenge him. Marius Pontmercy brought about, hardly indirectly, the deaths of two people who cared very much for either him or someone he loved. But no one calls him or his actions into question, because he is young, well intentioned, and so very much in love, undeterred by his sheer ignorance to nearly every situation. In other words, his character is far too close to home. Whereas M.
Thenardier is the villain who just wants to see the world burn, the villain who has no thought to any but himself and wrecks the hero’s life for enjoyment. Since today people will scarcely ever have experience with that type of hate, Thenardier is simply the natural choice. B