Sunday Fun Facts: Fathers
In honor of Father’s Day, we’ve dug a little deeper into the family histories of our beloved characters to recognize and honor their fathers.
Jean Valjean lost his parents at a young age. His mother died of milk fever, but his father died in a work-related accident. Jean Valjean, Sr. (also called Vlajean) was a landscaper, pruning trees like his son would later do after his father’s passing. Vlajean was crushed by a falling tree, leaving Jean Valjean with his widowed sister. Her husband had died and left behind seven children, the eldest of which was eight years old and the youngest, one. Upon turning twenty-five, Valjean followed in his father’s footsteps and took over the fathering role for his sister’s children. Later, of course, he adopts Cosette and provides her with all the wonderful things he could not give his nieces and nephews when they were poor.
Javert’s father was actually a server in a prison gallery who wed a gypsy woman. His dishonorable parentage is what drives him to become an officer of the law. “He would have arrested his own father if he escaped from prison and turned in his own mother for breaking parole. And he would have done it with that sort of interior satisfaction that springs from virtue,” writes Hugo.
Marius, who lives with his wealthy grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand, believed his father abandoned him in his youth. However, upon Marius’s eighteenth birthday, he goes to visit his ill but living father, Georges; though he dies before Marius arrives, his son finds a letter for him. In this letter is the story of Georges Pontmercy’s time in the battle of Waterloo and a request: to help Thénardier (yes, that one) in any way he can because he “saved” Pontmercy’s life. The church warden also tells Marius that Georges Pontmercy was a grand veteran under Napoleon, who appointed him a colonel and a baron. These were not recognized under the current regime in France and Gillenormand forced Georges away to protect Marius’s reputation. Marius, idolizing his father’s bravery, moves out and refuses the money his aunt sends him.
Not much is said about Cosette’s father in the musical, though we are painted a pretty clear picture that he abandoned Fantine and his own child. Félix Tholomyès was a wealthy student (sort of like Marius) and Fantine’s lover when she was a girl in Paris. Félix, the eldest of the group of four students, took a liking to Fantine, the youngest in another group of four girls. Each of the men took one of the women as a lover: Listolier took Dahlia, Fameuil took Zéphine, and Blachevelle took Favourite. Fantine was doted on and eventually became pregnant; as a joke, Félix and his friends all abandoned their mistresses. Félix treated their relationship as a game, a trifle for his amusement, while Fantine fell deeply in love with him, making him one of the most despicable men in the novel.*
Éponine (and Gavroche, in the novel) have quite possibly the worst father in Thénardier. He uses his children to swindle customers and rob people on the street, constantly putting their safety in danger without a second thought. It’s likely he doesn’t know his eldest daughter died at the barricade; it’s even more likely that he wouldn’t care either way.
Though many of these may not be the best or the most traditional fathers, we can appreciate the efforts of Jean Valjean to save not only his sister’s children, but a stranger’s, as well as Georges Pontmercy, who continuously tried to visit his son but stayed away to protect him.
*Possibly just as distressing is a single sentence Hugo wrote describing Courfeyrac: “We might almost, so far as Courfeyrac is concerned, stop here, and confine ourselves to saying with regard to what remains: ‘For Courfeyrac, see Tholomyes.'”