Les Misérables: the Thénardiers

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!

Master of the house, keeper of the zoo
Ready to relieve ’em of a sou or two
Watering the wine, making up the weight
Pickin’ up their knick-knacks when they can’t see straight
Everybody loves a landlord
Everybody’s bosom friend
I do whatever pleases
Jesus! Won’t I bleed ’em in the end

The Thénardiers (husband and wife) are characters with a timeless quality. They’re in every age and culture: survivors who can maximize their opportunities no matter bad how things are. They’re not greatly evil people even though they’re a bit vile; they have a charm in spite of their petty selfishness. M. Thénardier won’t skin you to the bone, just play you for everything he can get. He’ll be on your side as long as you’re winning, but he won’t make a stand on the barricade with you, although I’m sure he’d be willing to sell you anything you need to be there. He’s not into huge crime, just petty larceny, and he’ll even crawl through the sewers to take the valuables from corpses, because they don’t need rings and gold fillings any long. He’ll even call on higher authority and/or the police if it serves his purposes, but won’t risk any confrontation he can’t control. His price list is creative, pushing the boundary:

Charge ’em for the lice,
extra for the mice
Two percent for looking in the mirror twice
Here a little slice, there a little cut
Three percent for sleeping with the window shut
When it comes to fixing prices
There are a lot of tricks he knows
How it all increases, all them bits and pieces
Jesus! It’s amazing how it grows!

The Thénardiers would absolutely say Greed is Good. They would call it their religion and their purpose in life, at least that’s what they way they live their lives. They would insist on their right to profit in any circumstances, and will raise their prices whenever they can think of an excuse, regardless if their customer is rich or poor.

When we think of greed run rampant, it’s easy to think of the great offenders: those who defraud thousands and millions to live a life of luxury. The Thénardiers could be Ferengi from Star Trek:TNG, lost in petty avarice.  Of course they have no virtue, take no stand on principle, have no deep loyalty, even to each other. She would leave him in a heartbeat if she had a better offer, although who’d give her one is tough to imagine.

What strikes me about the Thénardiers is they exhibit a level of sin we’re more likely to indulge in. I wouldn’t rob a bank or kill anyone, but bending the rules to the breaking point is something almost all of us have done if it suits our purpose and we think we can get away with it. We’re all tempted to look out after Number One, even if it isn’t our professed part of our professed faith, and looking out after Number One is completely reasonable.

The Thénardiers are cute because they aren’t that successful and easy to look down on. The Bundys of Married with Children are saints compared to them. There are stories where people have risen from the level of this couple and become rich and famous, although one suspects the Thénardiers aren’t terribly good at their money management: by Act II they’ve lost the inn they used to run and have taken up outright fraud, extortion and robbery. In the end, they are pathetic because they really stand for nothing, have no vision beyond their immediate needs, trust no one, respect no one, are never satisfied, contribute to no one’s well being (including their own) and are never genuinely welcomed by anyone less than a saint.  I suspect if the world of Atlas Shrugged ever came to pass, its would be primarily populated by Thénardiers.

They are products of their time and environment. Next week we’ll look at the bigger picture on real poverty.

“What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? ” (Mark 8:36 RNAB) The Thénardiers have no life, no family, no community, no love beyond their greed. True happiness should involve more than this. There’s many ways we need to take care of ourselves, but getting lost in acquisition has a huge price, the price of this level of Greed is one we should never be willing to pay.

One comment

  1. Nick Schafer (Silver 1) · · Reply

    Loved this post. Thanks for sharing.

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