Diagnosis for Democracy
Insights into the State of Our Union
A Blog by Rob Tenery, MD


May 12, 2015: Do They Remind Us of the Thénardiers?

By Rob Tenery, MD on May 12, 2015

The musical adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, is set in early 19th century France. It is the story of Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. Searching for redemption, Valjean breaks parole and starts a new life. Several years later, he assumes a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and mayor of the small, French town of Montreuil-sur-Mer.

Fantine, a single mother working in Valjean’s factory, is trying to support her daughter, Cosette, who is being raised by the innkeepers, Monsieur and Madame Thénardier. This deceitful couple uses Cosette as a housemaid, while extorting more money out of Fantine by claiming Cosette is seriously ill, only to indulge their own daughter, Eponine. The morally corrupt Thénardiers also cheated the customers at their inn and lived a life based on personal greed and deception.  Becoming aware of Cosette’s miserable situation, Valjean pays off the Thénardiers, who feign concern for Cosette, and takes her with him to Paris.

The Thénardiers are opportunists--- persons who exploit circumstances in order to gain advantages, rather than being guided by consistent principles. Taking Cosette under their wing appeared to be an act of beneficence, so that her mother could work. Instead, the Thénardiers lied about Cosette’s medical condition, exploiting the vulnerable Fantine to get even more money. To make matters worse, they used the child as a servant, rather than treating her as a guest at their inn.

The lying about Cosette’s health takes the Thénadier’s situation, along with the extorsion, to a level of criminality. They also cross the line by forcing her into a role of a servitude, which would probably violate child work laws today. Simply put, not only are the Thénardiers greedy and insensitive, they are criminals--- using their economic situation to take advantage of others who were not as fortunate.

The errant ways of the Thénardiers finally caught up with them when they lost their inn, and were forced to become con artists in a street gang. Apparently undeterred and believing that their fortunes someday would turn around, Monsieur Thénardier is last seen roaming the Paris sewers as he loots fallen bodies from the most recent upheaval over the impending death of General Lamarque, a defender of the poor. An excerpt from the song, Beggars at the Feast, epitomizes their almost blind optimism:

           ‘…But we’re the ones who take it. We’re the ones who make it in the end! Watch the buggars dance. Watch ‘em till they drop. Keep your wits          about you and you stand on top! Masters of the land, always get our share. Clear away the barricades and we’re still there! We know where the wind is blowing. Money is the stuff we smell and when we’re rich as Croesus Jesus, won’t we see you all in hell!’

Hugo doesn’t give us any closer look as to what motivated the Thénardiers. They weren’t hardened criminals, more petty crooks, who skirted with the law--- mere shysters, who capitalized on others for their own personal benefit. Just as when they forced Valjean to pay them 1,500 francs to take Cosette from them. The Thénardiers never missed the chance to ‘make a buck’. When an opportunity arose, they took it. It would appear that the reason they preyed on Fantine and the guests at their inn was because they could.

Monsieur Thénardier best describes his attitude in the song, Keeper of the House:

 ‘Welcome, M’sieur. Sit yourself down, and meet the best innkeeper in town. As for the rest, all of ‘em crooks, rooking their guests and cooking the books. Seldom do you see honest men like me. A gent of good intent, who’s content to be master of the house, doling out the charm. Ready with a handshake and an open palm. Tells a saucy tale, makes a little stir, customers appreciate a bon-viveur. Glad to do a friend a favor. Doesn’t cost me to be nice, but nothing gets you nothing! Everything has got a little price!’

Does any of this sound strangely familiar?





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