As readers of the blog may already know, I’ve had a love affair with the musical Les Misérables since I first saw it when I was in the first grade. After seeing the 2012 movie, I wrote about the Jansenism of Javert and the curious connection between Victor Hugo and Jansenism. Recently, I watched the Les Misérables: The Dream Cast 10th Anniversary Concert–which, by the way, is vastly superior to the 25th Anniversary Concert–and was inspired by the Thénardiers to make another post about the theology of the musical. At the end of the musical, in “Beggars at the Feast,” the Thénardiers sing, “Jesus!–won’t we see you all in hell!” That made me wonder: What do the Thénardiers believe about salvation? Do they even believe in God? What is their worldview like?
Most will primarily remember the Thénardiers from the song “Master of the House.” M. and Mme Thénardier are the “innkeeper man and his wife” that Fantine has left Cosette with. They are also the parents of Éponine and Gavroche (though their role as Gavroche’s parents is not clear in the musical). In the 2012 movie, they were portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (if you need a reminder, see here).
To examine the theology of the Thénardiers, I’m going to analyze the songs in which they express their beliefs about religion, ignoring, however, “One Day More,” because in that song everyone sings, “Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in heaven has in store,” implying a belief in God’s providential care over the outcome of their lives. A belief in God’s providence, however, clearly contradicts what the Thénardiers say on other occasions.
Thénardier specifically references that God does not interfere in the lives of humans in “Dog Eats Dog” (see a video, here). While picking items of value off the slain students, he explains that “God in his heaven, he don’t interfere ’cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet.” So not only does God not interfere in the lives of humans, according to M. Thénardier, but he’s “dead.” This song also indicates that M. Thénardier has lost his faith in God because of the difficult life that he’s lived. He continues to say that “I raise my eyes to see the heavens, and only the moon looks down! The harvest moon shines down!” This implies a looking to God (at least at some point in his life) and finding nothing.
Thénardier sees the world as “a world where the dog eats the dog, where they kill for the bones in the street.” He thus understands the world as a constant battle, a constant struggle, where each individual has to fight for a limited amount of resources. There is no sense of cooperation or community in his worldview, he cares about getting what he needs and does not worry about anyone else.1
Mme Thénardier does not discuss her belief in God in the musical, but based on other things she sings with her husband, we can safely assume that she shares his beliefs.2 Money is God to the Thénardiers. As M. Thénardier sings in “Master of the House,” “Nothing gets you nothing. Everything has got a little price.” Their worldview centers on money, trying to do whatever they can–even stealing, as he tries to do at Jean Valjean’s house–to get money. Although Mme Thénardier self-identifies as “Christian” in “The Thénardier Waltz of Treachery,” her purpose in so doing is to get more money out of Valjean for giving up Cosette (“Medicines are expensive, M’sieur. Not that we begrudged a sou. It’s no more than we Christians must do!”) and Valjean clearly does not believe her (“No more words, here’s your price: fifteen hundred for your ‘sacrifice.'”). Thus, even where Mme Thénardier identifies them as Christians, she does so because money is her ultimate aim.
The centrality of money to Thénardier worldview and their overall view that morality does not matter are expressed very clearly in “Beggars at the Feast.”
For them, the ends justify the means, which can be seen also in their actions, and the end is always getting more money for themselves. I want to go through this song in detail because it is so telling about their worldview. First of all, the idea that the ends justify the means is expressed repeatedly: “Life is easy pickings if you grab your chance,” the disdain for “law-abiding folk doing what is decent but they’re mostly broke,” and that it is necessary to “keep your wits about you and you stand on top!” The idea is that they should just take whatever opportunities come around in order to “get our share.” Honest work is anathema in this worldview. They take advantage of the student uprising in order to steal enough money to raise their status and “we’re the ones who take it, we’re the ones who make it in the end.”
Their disdain for “law-abiding folk” extends not only to their “doing what is decent,” but also to their practice of religion. According to the Thénardiers, these people are “singing to the Lord on Sundays, praying for the gifts He’ll send.” But, as expressed in “Dog Eats Dog,” the Thénardiers don’t think that you can ask God for anything because he’s “dead.”
If there is any remnant of belief in God in the Thénardiers–and in the possibility of God’s punishment for the way that they are acting–the Thénardiers do not care. They explain finally, “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!”
The Thénardiers are not Christian. They do not believe in God and do not see any importance in acting morally. This is interesting in comparison to the other characters in the musical, most of who explicitly express their belief in God (like Javert, Valjean, Éponine, etc.). The Thénardiers see the world as a place where they must do whatever they can to get their “share,” regardless of in what ways they end up hurting others (like that Fantine has to finally turn to prostitution to earn the money she needs to pay them to care for Cosette or that they try to steal from Valjean). For the Thénardiers, money is God and therefore they need to do whatever they can in order to get more of it. I suspect that many fans like the Thénardiers in the musical, since they provide comedic relief to what is an otherwise pretty serious story. But, we would do good to remember that the Thénardiers are villains in Les Misérables and, as villains, perfect examples of what happens when you treat money as your God.
- A good example of this lack of care for anyone else is the Thénardiers’ indifference at the death of their daughter, Éponine. Her views of God and salvation, as expressed especially in “A Little Fall of Rain,” are drastically different from those of her parents and will probably be the topic of a future post. ↩
- The only times that Mme Thénardier mentions God explicitly are as expletives in “Master of the House”: “I used to dream that I would meet a prince, but God Almighty, have you seen what’s happened since?” and “God knows how I’ve lasted, living with this bastard in the house!” ↩