Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, published in 1862, is without a doubt one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, indeed of all time, ranking in the first tier of eminence with the work of Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville and Dostoevsky. The book is a masterpiece of construction and moves the reader forward to a denouement that is both astonishing and morally satisfying. Like Moby Dick, with which it is often compared, Les Misérablés reads better in abridgment than in uncut form.
There have been several good translations of Les Misérables, but the one I quote from here is that of Charles E. Wilbour as edited by Frederick Mynon Cooper in 1862. It has, in my estimation, held up well and preserves a sense of the era in which the actions occur.
Those who know the story of Jean Valjean only from movies and musicals will have little grasp of the book’s characters, the intricacies of the plot, or the richness of Hugo’s language and imagery. The popular iterations of the novel on the stage and screen have distorted the story in a way that is not unlike that which minstrelsy had on Uncle Tom’s Cabin: a serious moral and religious parable deformed into a kind of Three Penny Opera. A close and unhurried reading, on the other hand—encompassing the story of Jean Valjean’s lifelong pilgrimage to redemption, the place of Bishop Muriel in effecting Valjean’s conversion, Valjean’s “daughter” Cosette’s development from abused child to noble lady and marriage to Baron Marius Pontmercy, the constant presence of the relentlessly self-righteous Inspector Javert, and the incarnation of human degradation in the person and family of Monsieur Thenardier—will render this tale of crime, punishment, evil, moral awakening, love and redemption an enduring delight.
The historical context of the book is the fifteen years between 1817 and 1832, a time when France struggled to find its identity after the upheavals of the Revolution and the rise and fall of the Napoleonic Empire. The reestablishment of the monarchy left much of the populace divided between those who recalled the glories of the Empire and monarchists who saw the Bourbons as national saviors. The radicals depicted here are those for whom both Napoleon and the monarchy are anathema and who want a return to the Revolutionary era of 1789-1795. They call themselves republicans.
The cultural and political context of Les Misérables presents the stark contrasts between three main social strata: the aristocracy, or those who identified with the monarchy, the bourgeoisie, which in the persona of Monsieur Gillenormand understood itself as heir of the secular enlightenment, and les damnés, the proletariat, the “miserable” for whom the book is named. Already in he 1830s there was present in Paris a class of Left-Bank, alienated intellectuals, who make their appearance in the book as a group of radicals who take to the barricades in a fruitless uprising. As with all such insurrectionists, these figures are at one level self-caricatures: they fight for the “poor” with whom they have little sympathy and who move unnoticed all around them. On the other hand, they are sympathetically drawn by Hugo and represent a certain elevation of sentiment. They are all killed off in one of the climactic scenes of the book, a scene in which Valjean, Marius and two other characters, Eponine and Gavroche, are all brought together in a tragic clash of innocence, illusion, sacrifice and heroism.
The emotional power of the novel derives from the juxtaposition of grinding poverty, social cruelty, and entitled wealth. Poverty is common and customary outside the precincts of privilege and aristocracy, whether of the titled or bourgeois variety. The Thenardier family represents the brutalization of domestic life under the heel of unending penury. Both husband and wife, once proprietors of a suburban inn, devolve into a partnership of crime and neglect, turning their three sons out of the house as children and involving their two daughters, Eponine and Azelma, in prostitution, petty theft and con-artistry. For the poor of early nineteenth-century France, everyday life is a Dickensian demimonde with a scramble for the merest survival, where the dark virtues of intrigue and blackmail are esteemed.
Social cruelty haunts this world at every level. France was a much poorer country than most people realize. Its cynosure was Paris, but everywhere else there was a wanton struggle with privation. From about 1800 onward for a century and a half, France was a declining civilization. At the time of the Revolution, it was the most populous country in Europe outside Russia. By 1860 it was fifth. We see some of this decline in the novel, with its landscape of abandoned or decrepit properties and its failing middle class. Morally and religiously, the country was on life support. All the characters of this book share in this decadence. A petit-bourgeois playboy seduces a young working-class woman, Fantine, leaving her pregnant with the child who will become Cosette. To take care of her daughter, Fantine must prostitute herself and even sell her perfect teeth.
Les Misérables takes place against this dark scrim of France’s debacle. Excessive punishment for minor crimes (misdemeanors, actually) stigmatizes Jean Valjean for as long as he lives. The law, rather than reforming or merely punishing, pushes the small-time criminal, even upon release, to desperation. Abandoned children by the hundreds, called gamins, live by their wits in the streets of Paris, stealing, begging or running errands for those who exploit them. The oldest Thenardier son, known only as Gavroche, takes his two younger brothers under his wing when they are turned out of their home. One wonders what became of them when Gavroche is shot while assisting radicals in the uprising of 1832.
Who was Victor Hugo? Strange as this question sounds to our ears, the answer is not clear-cut. Hugo was born in 1802 and early on demonstrated a prodigious talent for writing, poetry and public action. He moved about both intellectually and politically, at times writing odes to the monarchy and at other times self-exiling himself from Napoleon III’s empire. Hugo’s great novel is full of Christian symbolism, but he himself was a bit of a philanderer. His personal religion was a mixture of Christianity and mysticism with reincarnation thrown in for good measure. His hero and protagonist Jean Valjean seems a much better man that the author.
Hugo’s long life was coterminous with a period of French literary and musical efflorescence. His contemporaries were Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Balzac, Zola, Delacroix, Cezanne, Monet, Dumas, Maupassant, Rimbaud, Bizet, Baudelaire and many other French or Francophone luminaries. Hugo’s work spans from the 1820s to the 1870s. He might have produced more had not a stroke disabled him in 1878 (he died in 1885). His other best-known works include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ruy Blas, and Toilers of the Sea. His poetry, such as his Les Contemplations, is of such quality that it has been compared with Shelley and Goethe. Other novels published contemporaneously with Les Misérablés (1862) include Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans’) Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Hugo’s novel falls into the Romantic genre, but some of his later work paved the way for the Naturalistic Period.
What are we to make of Inspector Javert? We really do not know what gets this man out of bed in the morning, only that he is driven by a kind of merciless justice that finds its release in a lifelong pursuit of Jean Valjean. More a force of nature than a finely-honed character, Javert represents a world without grace, where duty and right win over mercy and common good. Javert is what happens when law and order are untempered by Christian charity or moral humility. “Nothing could be more poignant and terrible than this face,” writes Hugo, “which revealed what we may call all the evil of good.”
Javert pursues Jean Valjean, a petty thief, with all the fanatical conviction that he musters to pursue Thenardier and his gang, who together represent the most fearful felons in Paris. There seems to be no hierarchy of values in Javert whereby he might apportion his lust for justice at any cost. He is, as Chesterton said of certain individuals, “sharpened to one painful point.” When Valjean at the fatal barricade saves Javert’s life, it sets up a cognitive dissonance so deep that the inspector commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. His life could not accommodate the contradictions of love and mercy.
A final note: as the reader approaches the last section of the book where Valjean must make his way through the sewers of Paris, Hugo employs the term cloaca several times. This is a biological term. To understand its meaning in that context, I suggest the reader consult a dictionary.
Well, let us reconstruct this novel as briefly as possible. A work this complex does not readily comply with the modern desire for brevity. For that matter, as with any great book, the attempt to summarize will leave much aside that is essential to coherence, mood, and dramatic movement. Still, one must try. My readers should take a comfortable pose, pour a cup of tea, and settle in for a bit. I have spent many hours with this great book for your benefit. I ask only an hour of my reader’s time.
Les Misérables is structured in five parts. Each of the five parts is broken into several sections, numbering between eight and fifteen in abridged form. Each section is further subdivided into chapters, of which there are 365, many not much more than a page or two in length. It is possible to read this book by taking one chapter per day for a year, which is easily done. Nobody will do this, however, mainly because the book impels the reader along on a trajectory of suspense, surprise, incredible coincidence, and pathos.
The book begins with a country priest, Bishop Bienvenu Myriel, making the rounds of his parish. The bishop is a very godly man who has given away most of his possessions to the poor. One day a stranger comes through the bishop’s village seeking a place to spend the night. Turned away from the local inn because he carried a criminal ID card, a kind of Scarlet Letter, this muscular, gloomy man approaches the bishop’s residence and is taken in. This stranger is Jean Valjean, newly released from prison (the “galleys”) after 19 years. “In October 1815, he was set at large: he had entered in 1796 for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread… Jean Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering: he went out hardened; he entered in despair; he went out sullen.”
Bishop Myriel takes the sullen man in, gives him food, and provides him his own bed for the night. During the night, Valjean steals the silver plate ware from the house and runs away, only to be caught by the local police and returned to the bishop. Asked to press charges, the bishop instead tells Jean Valjean that he has forgotten to take the silver candlesticks along with the other items. He dismisses the gendarmes and then turns to Valjean. “Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.” Valjean is confused, so the old man continues. “Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I am withdrawing it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I am giving it to God.” Valjean leaves town quickly.
Outside of town a strange incident occurs. Valjean’s habits reassert themselves. He encounters a gypsy chimneysweep and steals a small coin from him. The boy, whose nickname is Petit Gervais, tries desperately to have Valjean release the coin, but all in vain. Valjean is in a kind of reverie and seems not to notice the pleadings of the boy, who then disappears. Some time later, Valjean comes to is senses and is conscience-stricken. He tries to find where the boy has gone to give him his coin back, but fails. “Then his heart swelled, and he burst into tears. It was the first time he had wept for nineteen years… he must renounce that hatred with which the acts of other men had for so many years filled his soul, and in which he found satisfaction… One thing was certain, nor did he himself doubt it, that he was no longer the same man.”
This crime will be reported to the authorities, who mount a fruitless search for the malefactor based on Petit Gervais’ description. This incident conjures Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness after his anointing by John the Baptist. But in this case, unlike his Savior, Valjean fails the test. This petty crime will haunt Valjean for the rest of his life.
The novel here jumps ahead two years, to 1817, and to a scene of seduction of a beautiful but poor young girl by a spendthrift playboy. The young man impregnates the girl, whose name is Fantine, and then disappears. Sometime later, perhaps three or four years, Fantine, having lost her income, is returning to her home town and passes through Montfermiel, an eastern suburb of Paris. Here she strikes a deal with a married couple who operate a tavern. She persuades the couple, who have two young daughters, to accept her daughter Cosette for a short time until she, the mother, can get a job and come back for her child. She gives them most of her money. These are the Thenardiers. They take the child, but will abuse her, and will constantly dun the mother for more money.
Relieved but brokenhearted at leaving Cosette behind, Fantine continues her journey to her place of birth, but finds the town much different from when she left it years earlier. It is now 1821 or 1822. The place has a vitality it never had; opportunity sits heavy in the air. How so? A man had some years prior come to the economically depressed town and set up a business that quickly made him rich and the community prosperous. This stranger had devised a way to improve the clasps that hold jewelry. “Under the inspiration of an ingenious idea, made fruitful by order and care, he had drawn a fortune for himself and a fortune for the whole region.” Through his humble service to the town, including funding a homeless shelter and a free pharmacy, this man was highly regarded throughout the region and was made mayor. His name was Monsieur Madeline.
Monsieur Madeline gives away much of his money to the poor and distressed, but it is known that he has a vast fortune deposited in a Paris bank. He is a reclusive and bookish figure but a wise counselor to those who have conflicts with others. “He settled differences, he prevented lawsuits, he reconciled enemies. Everybody, of his own will, chose him for judge. He seemed to have the book of the natural law by heart.” Madeline was a muscular man, and his first day in town had seen him save the lives of two people from a fire. Several years later, while mayor, he once again came to the rescue of an old man, Fauchelevent, who was trapped under his carriage due to an accident. Madeline admitted the old man to the infirmary associated with his factory, reimbursed him for the loss of his carriage and horse, and arranged for his employment at a convent in Paris.
In the same unnamed town, there is an Inspector Javert, descended from a criminal gypsy family, a history he strove to overcome by complete dedication to the law. Born of a fortune-teller mother and a jailed father, “he felt that he had an indescribable basis of rectitude, order and honesty associated with an irrepressible hatred for that gypsy race to which he belonged… His whole life was contained in these two words: waking and watching… He was implacable duty incarnate.” Prior to his coming to the town where Madeline was mayor, Javert had been stationed at “the galleys of the south.”
“Such was the condition of the region when Fantine returned. No one remembered her.” She quickly found employment at Madeline’s factory and was able to send the Thenardiers increasing amounts of money. They were inventing stories about her daughter’s needs but were instead spending the money on their own two children, Eponine and Azelma. Even worse, they were abusing Cosette, forcing her to do the menial tasks associated with their tavern business.
Fantine’s new relative prosperity lasted about a year when a priggish supervisor in Madeline’s factory took it upon herself to fire her. The supervisor had learned of Fantine’s child and concluded that Fantine was a prostitute. Fantine was devastated and took to sewing. Her income much reduced, and the Thenardiers’ demands ever more urgent, she first sold her hair, and then her front teeth (a common practice), to raise money. Her furniture was repossessed. Ultimately, she was driven to the very prostitution she had always avoided. “She felt herself hunted down, and something of the wild beast began to develop within her.” Even her health begins to abandon her at this time.
One night she was assaulted by a drunk predator and fought him off. In the process, she was arrested by Javert, who, acting as judge and jury, sentenced her to six months in jail. She became frantic and begged for mercy so she could care for her daughter. “Six months! Six months in prison! Six months to earn seven sous a day! But what will become of Cosette my daughter! My daughter! Why, I still owe more than a hundred francs to the Thenardiers, Monsieur Inspector, do you know that?” Javert is unmoved, and turns his back on her. Unseen, Madeline has come into the room during this fracas and now instructs Javert to turn Fantine free. Fantine, under the impression that it is Madeline who was behind her dismissal from the factory, spits in his face. He wipes his face and again orders the inspector to set Fantine free.
Madeline and Javert meet eye to eye; a battle of wills commences. Madeline has been to the tavern where the brawl took place and has learned that Javert has arrested the victim and set the guilty party free. Javert, hearing this, falls back to another argument: that the woman has just insulted the mayor and must be punished for this new crime. Madeline tells Javert that the insult is his business, not the law’s. “I beg Monsieur the Mayor’s pardon,” argues Javert. “The insult rests not with him; it rests with justice.” Madeline replies: “Inspector Javert, the highest justice is conscience. I have heard this woman. I know what I am doing.” Javert, thunderstruck, replies: “I do not know what I am seeing.” “Then content yourself with obeying,” comes back Madeline. Javert leaves. Fantine “had seen struggling before her very eyes two men who held in their hands her liberty, her life, her soul, her child, one of these men was drawing her to the side of darkness, the other was leading her towards the light… these two men had appeared to her like two giants; one spoke as her demon, the other as her good angel. The angel had vanquished the demon.”
Madeline tells the bewildered Fantine that he knew nothing of her firing and wishes she had come to him. He promises to pay her debts, retrieve her child, and support her. “You shall again become honest in again becoming happy. More than that, listen. I declare to you from this moment, if all is as you say, and I do not doubt it, that you have never ceased to be virtuous and holy before God. Oh, poor woman!” She falls before him, clasps his hand and kisses it. Then she faints.
We are one-sixth of the way through this novel. The first of five parts, titled “Fantine,” is concluded. The second of five parts begins: “Cosette.” We must move more quickly ahead where we will have recourse to the grammatical present tense in much that follows. We have met most of the main characters and determined the forces at play, so now we will examine the interactions of Monsieur Madeline—whom the reader has perhaps by now perceived to be Jean Valjean—and his antagonists Inspector Javert and the Thenardiers. Fantine dies shortly after the events recorded above, and Madeline is found out by Javert to be the person he suspected all along: Jean Valjean. Recall that Javert had worked in the prison system before coming to his present post; he had known Valjean. Valjean is sent back to prison but makes an escape by feigning drowning while saving another prisoner’s life. He is declared dead, though nobody can find his body. He journeys incognito back to Paris where he makes good on his promise to Fantine to redeem her child Cosette, who is languishing at the Thenardier establishment.
Here, we encounter a back story from the Napoleonic era concerning Monsieur Thenardier. After the Battle of Waterloo (1815), a French Colonel named Baron Pontmercy lies mortally stricken beneath a pile of rubble and human and animal corpses. A scavenger comes along stripping the dead of their valuables and happens upon Pontmercy. During the robber’s predations, the colonel revives and asks the man’s name to reward him, now that he has been pulled from the rubble and will be found in time to survive. He learns Thenardier’s name and gives his own name in return. Later in life the frail and dying Baron will tell his son Marius of this chance encounter and charge his son with finding Thenardier and rewarding him, believing the villain to be his savior.
We return to Valjean, who after his escape from prison makes his way to the Thenardier tavern and buys the child Cosette from the venal couple. He had previously gone to the Paris bank where his money was invested and withdrawn it, still using the name Madeline. Then he buried his treasure of seven hundred thousand francs in a woods outside Montfermiel. In the years to come Valjean will occasionally return to this spot to “withdraw” cash. His former business declines rapidly in his absence and the anonymous town reverts to poverty and strife.
Valjean’s efforts to rescue Cosette, who is eight, from the Thenardiers’ grasp do not proceed smoothly, as Thenardier tries to raise the price for the girl’s release. Thenardier, not knowing who Valjean is but determining that he is a man of means despite his humble appearance, will remember Valjean and will attempt to blackmail him in the years to come.
Valjean and Cosette make their way to Paris, where they rent an apartment in what is referred to as the Gorbeau tenement. Valjean changes the address of the decrepit hovel to confuse anybody who might inquire: Where are we? Jean Valjean begins an inner pilgrimage in the company of Cosette. “The bishop had caused the dawn of virtue on his horizon; Cosette evoked the dawn of love.” Valjean quickly establishes a reputation in this squalid neighborhood as the beggar who gives alms. After several months the fugitives must flee again. Valjean’s apparent wealth attracted attention and gossip, and on one occasion Valjean thought he recognized Javert, who has transferred to Paris, casing the house.
One night, Valjean and Cosette leave the Gorbeau house and set out to find a new place to live. They are followed by Javert, who is still not fully convinced of Valjean’s identity. Here begins a harrowing journey through the streets and alleyways of old Paris with Javert in pursuit of the man and girl. The two manage to escape by Valjean’s making a heroic ascent up a high stone wall, over which he and Cosette find themselves in a garden. Javert is heard outside, barking orders to the gendarmes. The two, climbing down the wall, for some mysterious reason fall on their knees. They are safe! But soon Cosette grows pallid and sleepy, and he must find shelter for her. Then…
There occurs one of several astonishing events of the novel. Hugo believed in visitations of Divine Providence. Aside from that belief, these events would otherwise appear to be implausible coincidences. Valjean hears someone else in the garden! He approaches the individual only to find that it is the old man Fauchelevent, whom Valjean had saved and restored some years earlier. The old man is the gardener, and this is the convent where Valjean had procured his employment! Mirabile dictu! The two are reunited in wonder and praise to God. “A wonderful joy had, as it were, transfigured the old gardener. A radiance seemed to shine forth from his face.” The gardener’s shack is hidden from view behind the convent, and Fauchelevent takes the two into his care.
Here begins a time of tranquility for Valjean and Cosette. The gardener claims them as relatives and Valjean, who will be known as Ultimus Fauchelevent, is hired on as assistant gardener and caretaker. In his pre-criminal life, Valjean was a pruner, so he and Fauchelevent gradually transform the wasted convent grounds into a miniature Eden. Cosette is taken in by the sisters as a student and receives her education. During this period, Valjean has a harrowing experience where he is nearly buried alive, an experience that turns his hair completely white. But aside from that, this period was one of happiness, joy and even mirth. Cosette’s countenance has changed as well. Her erstwhile gloominess begins to dissipate, and she begins the transformation from girl to young woman. Thus, ends the second part of the novel; the next stage of Jean Valjean’s life will consist of a challenge named “Marius.”
The 1830s have begun with our troupe of characters poised for new dramas. The Thenardiers have produced more children in addition to their two daughters Eponine and Azelma. These will all be boys, the eldest of which is known as Gavroche. A mere infant when Valjean rescued Cosette from her life of cruelty and neglect, Gavroche is now eleven or twelve. At some point the despicable couple have turned him out of their home to make his way in the streets of Paris. He is a survivor, having learned the ways of the gamin. “The pavement was not so hard to him as the heart of his mother.” As mentioned previously, thousands of such children scurried around the shadows of the city during the nineteenth century.
Hugo spends five chapters at the beginning of his third part describing the cruel “little gypsy land of children.” In this roguish world, “the gamin of Paris is Rabelais as a child.” Gavroche, moreover, stood high over even that multitude: “He had no shelter, no food, no fire, no love, but he was light-hearted because he was free.” On occasion he would go “home,” to the place where his parents, now displaced by bankruptcy from their tavern in Montfermiel, were currently renting. Its address? 50-52 La Salpêtrière, the very Gorbeau tenement where Valjean and Cosette once huddled. The Thenardiers now scheme behind the name Jondrette.
Next, Hugo introduces us to the young man Marius whose name we have already learned. Marius was the son of Colonel Pontmercy, the cavalry officer injured in the Battle of Waterloo and inadvertently rescued by Thenardier. The colonel had been married to a daughter of Monsieur Gillenormand, an opinionated and dictatorial bourgeois who had spurned Pontmercy after the latter’s wife died. Gillenormand had claimed the son of that union, Marius, as his own, informing the impoverished Pontmercy that it was either to be that way or the grandson was to be disowned. The colonel relented for the sake of the boy, and even though forbidden to have anything to do with Marius, he would make sure to see him at the cathedral.
One day Gillenormand informed Marius that the father was sick and was asking for the boy to visit. Young Marius, then eighteen and having imbibed his grandfather’s bitterness towards Pontmercy, was reluctant to make the trip to Vernon. Alas (or fortunately, he thought), he was too late; his father had died just hours before. Marius felt no grief, but was handed a note from his father telling him of his, Marius,’ right to the title of baron and charging the young man with finding and rewarding Thenardier, the putative deliverer.
Some days later, Marius, who is transiting his own dark night of the soul, goes to church, where he happens to fall into conversation with a Monsieur Mabeuf, one of the church wardens. The warden tells how a sad old man used to come to church every few weeks to view from afar his beloved son, whom he was forbidden to contact. As they talk, Marius realizes that the warden is describing his father. A complete change of heart comes over Marius, who from henceforth will be his father’s champion and Gillenormand’s enemy.
Recoiling from his grandfather’s doctrines, Marius falls in with a group of radicals. These individuals will form the ranks of those who will later rise against the Bourbon monarchy in the year 1832. Marius does not immediately nor completely identify with these sympathetically drawn figures, but they will play an important role in his affairs in the months and years to come. “Marius had fallen into a mental wasps’ nest. Still, although silent and serious, he was not the less winged, nor the less armed.”
Marius cuts himself off, socially and financially, from his grandfather’s care and takes up the life of a melancholic, penniless intellectual. Somehow these types always seem to survive and even prosper in revolutionary eras. Enflamed poverty: “Crucible into which destiny casts a man whenever she desires a scoundrel or a demi-god.” Marius becomes the heroic counterpart to Thenardier, whom he still seeks for his father’s honor.
Gillenormand, on the other hand, undergoes his own conversion of heart. After three years of alienation from his grandson he yearns for Marius’ return. Meanwhile, Marius begins to take long walks around Paris, most especially in the lovely Luxembourg Gardens. Like a young Werther full of the Weltschmertz of dreams without object, Marius waits only for destiny to come to him, which shortly it will.
It is at this precise moment, and at the precise middle of the novel, that Marius notices for the first time a couple seated on a bench and talking. The man seems perhaps sixty, with white hair, dressed well but demurely, while alongside him sits a pretty maiden, not quite an adult, no longer a child. Day after day he notices them, and then loses sight of them for some months. He thinks little of it, but then one day, as he passes that way again, he sees the couple once more. “In six months the little girl had become a young woman; that was all. Nothing is more frequent than this phenomenon. There is a moment when girls bloom out in a twinkling and become roses all at once. Yesterday we left them children, today we find them dangerous.” This is Cosette, now beautiful. She returns Marius’ glance. He is smitten.
One thing more. As Marius Pontmercy slips deeper into poverty, he must move several times, each being a less desirable abode. His current address is known to us: 50-52 La Salpêtrière, the grotto we know as Gorbeau. Yes! Marius lives in the room next to Thenardier, the man his father wishes him to honor. Marius is of course unaware of the miserable family’s identity.
Thenardier, who has already abandoned his oldest son, Gavroche, has farmed out the two others to a woman who has lost her own two sons to sickness. Later, even this woman will lose custody of the boys and they will be seen in a heartbreaking scene, wandering in Paris hand-in-hand, looking for a place to sleep. His two daughters, however, still live with him as well as the Thenardiess, as his wife is called. Clothed in rags, the two teenage girls assist their father in his scams and other crimes, including, it is suspected, prostitution. He often posts the girls to busy places or at parades where they can trace the unsuspecting to their homes, learn a bit about them, and—if it is thought profitable—dun them for money. Thenardier is a writer manquè, enabling him to craft letters of faux sophistication which the girls carry to these ‘marks’ for a handout. “Two miserable beings, who were neither children, nor girls, nor women, a species of impure yet innocent monsters produced by misery.”
One night, Marius is walking near the Gorbeau tenement when the two girls run past him and drop a bundle of papers. The gendarmes are pursuing them. He puts the papers in his pocket and resumes his way. Some time later the older, Eponine, comes to his room with a letter from her father, thanking Marius for paying his rent some months earlier, and soliciting his further charity. Marius had given his last few franks when he learned the family would be turned out and had then forgotten the incident. Yet here was this strange girl in his room, gaunt, filthy, clothed in thin rags, but marked with a tragic beauty. Marius gives her the packet of papers, and she is relieved; but she lingers. She fondles his clothes, shows him she can read and write, and shares with him how starvation is affecting her. She is falling in love with her handsome neighbor and will play a large role in his fortunes.
Eponine is perhaps the most pathetic figure in the novel and is drawn with a care and tenderness that not even Cosette can approach. Through Eponine, Marius glimpses true poverty for the first time. A kind of moral awakening takes hold of him. “This young girl was to Marius a sort of messenger from the night.” He becomes conscious of this unfortunate family, and notices for the first time that there is a break in the plaster between their two rooms that allows him to see how they live. The scene beyond the wall is like a vision of hell that contrasts with his own clean and orderly room. Within that squalor there was no industry. “It was that gloomy idleness which follows despair, and which precedes the death agony.”
As he was about to climb down from the table from which he viewed his neighbors, the door opened to that nether-world and Eponine entered all excited. Someone was coming, someone she had approached with one of the letters he father sent with her. Thenardier wanted specifics, but there was no time. In a moment “a man of mature age and a young girl appeared at the door of the garret.” Marius cannot believe his eyes: It is She, Cosette! Marius, half-drunk with wonder and surprise, nearly loses his balance. He manages to remain secret and watches what unfolds. Thenardier, a.k.a. Jondrette, lays out his sob story to Valjean, whom the villain is beginning to remember from eight years before. He must have sixty francs by 8 that evening, he tells Valjean. Valjean, not recognizing Thenardier, tells the shyster he will return at 6 with the money. He and Cosette depart.
Some time later Eponine again comes to Marius’ room. She wonders what is wrong with Monsieur Marius. He tells her that there is nothing, but that if she can find the address of the man and his daughter that he will give her, Eponine, “anything.” Eponine is sad, knowing that he is in love with the girl, but she promises that “You shall have the beautiful young lady’s address.”
Jondrette immediately sets to work on a scheme to blackmail Valjean. He discusses the extortion with his wife, all which Marius overhears, and then goes out to prepare the trap for Valjean. There is a criminal gang in the neighborhood; he goes out to gather them together for his plot. The plan is to capture and torture Valjean so that he will summon Cosette. She will then be held until Valjean goes to retrieve his fortune. There is much to be done by 6 o’clock.
Marius, still unaware of Jondrette’s real identity, decides that he must go into town and summon the police and put them on the case. Once there, Marius encounters Inspector Javert and tells him what he knows. The inspector gives Marius two pistols and tells him to go back and observe events. He, Javert, will be outside with backup. Marius is to fire one of the pistols just as things reach a critical point, presumably the use of torture. Marius goes home and resumes his lookout post. At 6 o’clock, Valjean shows up and takes a seat in the Jondrette room, Jondrette grovels, but soon other, muscular men come into the room and surround Valjean. Jondrette, suddenly animated, discloses his real identity to Valjean (also to Marius, who is watching) and begins a monologue that spans perhaps half an hour. During this hate-filled diatribe, Thenardier insults Colonel Pontmercy while telling a fabricated tale of heroism at Waterloo. He brags to Valjean, whom he now considers his inferior, laying out the various impersonations he has used to defraud people. “There was in all these words of Thenardier, in his tone, in his gestures, in his look which flashed out flames at every word, there was in this explosion of an evil nature exposing its entire self, in this mixture of braggadocio and abjectness, of pride and pettiness, of rage and folly in this chaos of real grievances and false sentiments, in this shamelessness of a wicked man tasting the sweetness of violence, in this brazen nakedness of a deformed soul, in this conflagration of every suffering combined with every hatred, something which was as hideous as evil and as sharp and bitter as the truth.”
Valjean sits silent and unafraid during this spectacle. He is instructed to write a note to Cosette to come to him but gives a false address. The Thenardiess takes the note to the address and returns emptyhanded. Valjean has gained some time and has slipped out of his ropes. Meanwhile, Marius is confused, not knowing what to do. Tired of the game, Thenardier decides to kill Valjean when Marius sees the paper on which Eponine has scribbled her writing. And what had she written? “The cops are here.” The young man grabs the piece of paper and wraps a shard of broken plaster in it. This he throws through his spyhole so that it lands on the floor before the malefactors, who think Eponine—posted as sentry—has thrown it through a broken window. In the panic and bedlam that follows, Valjean escapes through the window and Javert makes his arrival at the door of the room. He and his gendarmes round up the gang, including the Thenardiess and two girls, and transport them to prison. The girls are soon released, and now they too are on their own.
Here begins the fourth part of the book, titled “The Epic on the Rue Saint-Denis and the Idyll of the Rue Plumet.” The epic refers to the attempted revolution still to come. The idyll refers to the address of the house to which Valjean and Cosette have moved following their departure from the convent. It is yet another of those gothic ruins, dating from the preceding century, that stood like a ruined Greek structure before the uncomprehending Myceneans. Marius now moves as well, and is cut off from everything: his grandfather, the Thenardiers and their criminal mayhem, and Cosette. He is sitting one day some weeks later in a park when he is approached by Eponine, who had been looking for him. “Eponine; he now knew her name. Singular fact, she had become more wretched and more beautiful, two steps which seemed impossible…. She had spears of straw and grass in her hair, not like Ophelia from having gone mad through the contagion of Hamlet’s madness, but because she had slept in some stable loft. And with all this, she was beautiful.”
Eponine is treated coldly by Marius but tells him she has the address he had asked for. His own misery immediately lifts, which she sees. She is sad and agrees to take him to Cosette’s house. He offers to pay her, but she refuses: “I don’t want your money.”
Hugo provides the backstory of how Valjean and Cosette left the convent and now live on the Rue Plumet. Valjean did not wish to condemn Cosette to the life of a nun, even though he had come to suspect that a young stranger had taken an interest in her. Added to this decision was that old Fauchelevent had died. The move distressed Valjean, who knew that the beautiful Cosette would soon find a suitor. He resolved to stave off that eventuality as long as possible; he assumed a protective posture that would frighten the young Marius. But he knew his protection of Cosette was futile. “This man who had passed through every distress, who was still all bleeding from the lacerations of his destiny, who had been almost evil, and who had become almost holy, who, after having dragged the chain of the galleys, now dragged the invisible but heavy chain of indefinite infamy, this man whom the law had not released and who might be at any instant retaken, and led back from the darkness of his virtue to the broad light of public shame, this man accepted all, excused all, pardoned all, blessed all, wished well to all, and only asked of Providence, of men, of the laws, of society, of nature, of the world, this one thing, that Cosette should love him!”
It so happened, again according to the working of this same Providence, that Thenardier and his gang would escape from prison and would be looking for homes to plunder. The home on the Rue Plumet came into their sights. But it also came into the sight of Marius Pontmercy, who began to pay the home and its back garden nocturnal visits. One night, he left a packet of his pensées on a bench, which Cosette discovered the next morning. She entered a time of reverie, thinking only of him, just as he was thinking only of her. The next night, she was in the garden alone; when she turned, He was there! Awkward at first, Marius professed his love for her. The two embraced, and then kissed. They sat down and talked into the early hours of the morning. Finally, almost as an afterthought, they shared their names. They will see each other every night. “Jean Valjean suspected nothing.”
Their love is of the purest form, untainted by more modern notions of sexual gratification. “It seemed to Cosette that Marius had a crown, and to Marius that Cosette had a halo. They touched each other, they beheld each other, they clasped each other’s hands, they pressed closely to each other; but there was a distance which they did not pass. Not that they respected it; they were ignorant of it. Marius felt a barrier, the purity of Cosette, and Cosette felt a support, the loyalty of Marius.”
There was another who loved Marius. Eponine, who had led Marius to the house days prior, sometimes followed Marius to the Rue Plumet house and remained outside while Marius and Cosette embraced in the garden. One night she had taken this lonely vigil, sitting on a hidden bench. A group of men approached stealthily. She recognized them at once; one was her father, and the other five were members of a greatly-feared criminal gang. A remarkable scene ensues. She surprises them by asking what they are doing. They tell her they have work to do and that she should run along. She refuses. They will not be up to any of their dark deeds at this house, she warns them. Her own father threatens to kill her if she does not get out of the way. Still, she refuses. “The devil! I am not afraid. This summer, I shall be hungry; this winter, I shall be cold. Are they fools, these geese of men, to think that they can make a girl afraid? Because you have hussies of mistresses who hide under the bed when you raise your voice, it won’t do here! I, I am not afraid of anything…Not even you, father.” Fearless in spirit, contemptuous of her own life, she prevails, and the bandits retreat to their private lairs. One of them asks another if he still has a key, most likely to an illicit asylum somewhere.
A day or so later, Valjean informs Cosette that they may have to move to England. More to remove Cosette from Marius than any other consideration, Valjean’s jealousy is rising. But there are also intimations of danger, as when Valjean sees Thenardier prowling around the neighborhood. One day, sitting in a secluded area of a park, a piece of paper is dropped next to Valjean by a slight androgynous figure running away. The note is only two words: MOVE OUT. This can only have come from Eponine, worried that her father and his gang will return to the Rue Plumet.
Meanwhile, Marius goes to his grandfather to ask permission to marry Cosette. The old man in his nineties, secretly thrilled to see Marius again, parries lightheartedly with him, which Marius interprets as disrespect towards Cosette. The bourgeois libertinism of the patriarch clashes with the romantic puritanism of the young man, and Marius walks out, leaving his grandfather thunderstruck and gasping for help.
Marius, now full of an “immense despair,” returned again to his revolutionary friends, who were his only link with humanity beyond Cosette. He still had Javert’s two pistols, which he put in his pockets. “It would be difficult to say what dark thoughts he had in his mind in taking them with him.” He walks the streets, deep in troubled thoughts, and when it turns dark, he heads for Rue Plumet. It had been two days, and now he finds the house deserted and no Cosette in the garden. Overwhelmed by gloom, he stands, unsure of his next act. At that moment, a voice comes through the shrubs from outside the fence: “Monsieur Marius, your friends are expecting you at the barricade, in the Rue de la Chanverie.” He recognizes the voice, but the speaker has departed. Marius sets out to join his friends the revolutionaries, and thus begins the epic events that are known as the uprising of 1832.
Marius joins his comrades at their favorite coffee-house, before which the barricade is already taking shape. Little Gavroche is everywhere, like a fly to a horse. “He was a kind of stimulating ubiquity; no stop possible with him. The enormous barricade felt him on its back. He vexed the loungers, he urged on the idle, he reanimated the weary, he provoked the thoughtful, kept some in cheerfulness, others in breath, others in anger, all in motion.” His younger brothers are not with him. Most likely he will not allow them to be put in more danger than necessary. A tall stranger appears among the radicals. Gavroche recognizes him as Javert and informs his comrades. They seize Javert and tie him up, determining to execute him when the time is propitious. “The mouse has caught the cat,” Gavroche taunts. The boy, rapidly becoming a man, demands, and receives, Javert’s musket.
Marius passes through a time of doubt, but at last decides to throw in his lot with the insurrectionists. Before he can move, however, a burst of grapeshot from government troops announces that the battle will soon be joined. Soon, a squad of infantrymen approach the barricade. Gavroche alerts his comrades of their coming and teases the troops as they approach. The insurrectionists counterattack, halting the attack. One of the troops, however, has taken aim at Gavroche, but before he can consummate his act is dropped by a shot from behind the barricade. It is Marius, who has joined his friends, knowing their cause is doomed, but determined to let his end come in a blaze of glory.
As the battle rages back and forth, a sharpshooter takes aim at Marius. Before he can get off his shot, however, a hand is raised from the smoke and blunts the shot. Marius, spared by this accident of turmoil, is made the chief of the insurgents. The government forces, having taken more casualties than expected, drop back to await the next morning. Marius moves from behind the barricade to survey the field of battle. As he is finishing up his reconnaissance, he hears a small voice calling his name. He turns, and sees Eponine, mortally wounded. She it was who blunted the shot intended for him. Yes, the shot exited her hand, but had struck her through the chest. She is dying and asks Marius to sit near her. He does so, and she lays her head on his lap. Here ensues the moment of sublimest pathétique contained in this great novel.
“’Nobody will get out of this barricade, now,’” she tells him. “’It was I who led you into this, it was! You are going to die, I am sure. And still when I saw him aiming at you, I put up my hand upon the muzzle of the musket. How droll it is! But it was because I wanted to die before you…. Now I am well…’ She had a wandering, grave, and touching air. Marius gazed upon this unfortunate creature with profound compassion.” She tells Marius she has a letter in her smock. It was given her yesterday while she was disguised as a boy and she withheld it from the young lover. It is from Cosette. “’Take it,’” she tells him. He does so. “’Now, for my pains, promise me…” “What?’” asks Marius. “’Promise me! Promise to kiss me on the forehead when I am dead. I shall feel it… And then, do you know, Monsieur Marius, I believe I was a little in love with you.’” She smiles, and then dies. Marius keeps his promise.
He reads the letter. Cosette is still in Paris! Valjean could not manage passports so quickly. Marius writes a note to Cosette at the new address given in her letter to him. He tells her that due to his grandfather’s intransigence their marriage was impossible, and that he is now at the Barricade and will die. He promises to be near her even after death. He gives the note to Gavroche with instructions to leave the barricade but to wait until morning to deliver it. He then writes on a second note his name and the address of his grandfather. “My name is Marius Pontmercy. Carry my corpse to my grandfather’s, M. Gillenormand, Rue des Filles du Calvaire, No. 6, in the Marais.” This he keeps in his pocket. Little Gavroche, however, has his own plans. Since it is only midnight, he will take the letter immediately and be back in time for the main attack in the morning. He too wishes to die.
Valjean, who had secretly maintained this second residence in the event of an emergency, brought his relationship with Cosette to a crisis by uprooting her so suddenly. His new sense of security, on the other hand, gives him great ease of mind—until he discovers imprinted on Cosette’s blotter the very note she had earlier sent Marius via Eponine. A shudder of revulsion comes over him; he immediately knows who the man is. “He looked within himself, and there he saw a spectre, Hatred.” Valjean, in a daze of confusion and revulsion, wanders out of the house into the street.
At that very moment, Gavroche appears in front of The Rue de l’Homme Arme, Cosette’s new address. Gavroche treats Valjean with ironic contempt, saluting him using the greatest swear-word in the French language, “Bourgeois!” Valjean engages him in repartee, telling him that he is there to receive the letter and that he will take it to Mademoiselle Cosette. He gives the scamp five francs and goes into the house to read what the letter says. There, he reads of Marius’ determination to die. Valjean is relieved; the problem will resolve itself. But this sits heavy on his conscience, so a bit later he puts on his National Guard uniform and heads downtown to the barricade. Cosette has heard nothing, for she is asleep.
Here the fifth part of the book, “Jean Valjean,” commences. It is two o’clock in the morning when Valjean reaches the barricade. He has passed the sentries because of his uniform. Behind the barricade a drama has been in play: five members of the remaining thirty-seven had been selected to depart in order to be spared for their families’ sake. But there were only four uniforms from National Guards who had been killed. Valjean approaches and adds his uniform to the other four, sealing his own fate. Now all five can be saved. There is rejoicing. “Who is this man?” asks one of the radicals. “He is a man who saves others,” replies another, echoing the words of scripture about Jesus spoken at the High Priest Caiaphas: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people that the whole nations should not perish” (John 11:50). The insurrectionists, haggard and hungry, prepare for the end. Paris, it is perceived, is not rising with them. Their revolution is doomed. They resolve to die.
During a lull in the firing, Jean Valjean and Javert meet eye to eye. Javert is still in ropes; it has been decided that he will be killed ten minutes before the barricade is breached. On seeing Jean Valjean before him, he says only: “It is very natural.” Gavroche, taking a basket, runs out into the field of fire and begins to collect guns and cartridges from the fallen soldiers. “It was not a child; it was not a man; it was a strange fairy gamin. One would have said the invulnerable dwarf of the mêlée.” Bullets from the royalist guns whistle about him; he ignores them. Finally, a marksman hits him; but he rises, faces the man who shot him, and, though bloodied, begins to sing a revolutionary song. Then he is cut down. “That great little soul had taken flight.”
The time is now shortly before dawn. The barricade begins to crumble under an assault of cannon fire. Two of Thenardier’s children are dead. Marius, exhausted, is beginning to flag. The defenses are falling, and it is decided that Javert must be shot. Valjean, who has exhibited great heroism all during his time with the insurgents, asks that he might have that privilege. Declaring that Javert’s body is not to fall among the faithful, Valjean takes him around a corner to finish him. When alone, Valjean fires his gun into the air, cuts Javert free and tells him his address. He will surrender to him after this is all over. Javert flees and returns to his superiors.
Ten times the barricade is besieged, ten times defended. Yet at last the besieged are decimated, and troops drive them back into the tavern, where they will make their last stand. Hugo’s description of this assault, the defense of the republican radicals, and the carnage of nineteenth-century warfare, is true to the depths of gory verismo. The end of the insurrection rapidly approaches.
Marius falls, struck in the head by a ball. Valjean, who has been tending the wounded, grabs his body and takes shelter in a crevice of the shattered building. He wonders what he is to do. The troops will soon find him. He sees a sewer grate, pulls it aside, takes the body of Marius, and descends into the sewers of Paris, closing the grate behind him. It will be recalled that Valjean is a large man, and though nearing sixty, is muscular and lithe. “The impression which he had formerly felt in falling from the street into the convent came back to him. Only, what he was now carrying away was not Cosette; it was Marius.”
“Jean Valjean has fallen from one circle of Hell to another,” write Hugo. He reckons his location and his route to freedom, and is unsure. The cloaca is dark, cold and fetid. Here begins a journey of some four miles through mire, sewage and blind uncertainty. Valjean enters his descent into the underworld to join the company of those who—like Christ Himself, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Orpheus, Jonah, the Fellowship of the Ring—are partakers of a spiritual journey through death to life. “He went forward, anxious but calm, seeing nothing, knowing nothing, plunged into chance, that is to say, swallowed up in Providence.” Fear and gloom come soon enough. Marius grows heavy on the strong man’s back, and the police are beginning to search the sewer. “Lack of sleep, want of food, emotions, had thrown him also into the visionary state.” He begins to hallucinate.
At this point we come back to Javert, who after his deliverance at the barricade has gone to headquarters and then returns to his patrol. An implacable sense of duty drives this sleepless man. At this moment, he has a suspicious figure in his sights along the bank of the Seine. The suspect is moving in a direction without an outlet, so Javert moves carefully but with assurance that he will have his man. Coming around a corner, however, the fugitive has disappeared, literally vanished. Carefully searching the area, Javert notes that the only escape possible is through a grated sewer terminal. Paris’ effluence flows through it into the river. But the grate is locked, the heavy padlock in plain sight. Whoever this was must have a key and is safely out of reach. Javert will serve as sentry here for the next several hours. Nobody could long survive that black ooze.
Meanwhile, Valjean follows the descending corridors of the cloaca. Groping blindly along wet, slimy walls, Valjean wades through the “hideous muck of the city” in search of salvation. It is now four o’clock in the afternoon of June 6; to emerge into the streets above is certain capture by the authorities, who have the city on lockdown. Marius is perhaps dead; Jean Valjean does not know. His journey is far from over. He is exhausted and harassed by biting rats, but he finds a place to rest and stanch the bleeding of Marius. He determines that his onus is still alive. He finds a bit of bread in one of Marius’ pockets along with the note the young man had written identifying himself. Valjean eats the bread, revives and continues his journey toward the Seine; the day wears on into evening. “The darkness suddenly became terrible… He felt that he was entering the water, and that he had under his feet, pavement no longer, but mud.”
Ahead, the darkness is stygian, the sewer “a mudhole in the cavern of night.” Higher and higher comes the water, while the pilgrim plunges on with his heavy burden. Will this be the end? Is he to drown in the cloaca? On he goes, desperation rising in his mind. The water is up to his neck, and he can only with difficulty keep Marius’ face in the little air left. Suddenly, his foot strikes something solid. It is a step, a platform of some kind. “It was time,” writes our author. “He rose and writhed and rooted himself upon this support with a sort of fury. It produced the effect upon him of the first step of a staircase reascending towards life.”
Valjean now stands on a walkway. It is still pitch-black, but he has come through the waters of death. He nearly collapses, so he rests and repositions Marius. Soon, he continues his way when to his joy he finally sees the light of the outlet far ahead. Invigorated by this, our hero hurries ahead to make his way back into the world of men. Approaching the outlet, he—alas!—discovers that it will not let him escape. There is a grate, and on the grate a giant double lock. “It was over. All that Jean Valjean had done was useless. God was denying him.” “Of whom did he think in this overwhelming dejection? Neither of himself nor of Marius. He thought of Cosette.” His Bernice, his Laura, his Dulcinea, his Mary!
In this delirium of grief, Jean Valjean thinks he hears a voice whispering: “Go halves.” Looking up, he sees a man standing before him. It is Thenardier. Valjean cannot be more astonished than is the reader by this prodigy. “A certain degree of distress is no longer capable of crescendo,” writes Hugo. The man does not recognize Valjean, who, to be sure, was physically altered by his harrowing, black journey. Thenardier says he would like to help this stranger, whom he takes to be a fellow criminal, probably an assassin who has come through the cloaca to dispose of the body. “Listen, comrade, you haven’t killed that man without looking to what he had in his pockets. Give me my half. I will open the door for you.”
Valjean is struck dumb by this turn of affairs. “It was Providence appearing in the guise of horror, and the good angel springing out of the ground under the form of Thenardier.” Valjean has only about 30 francs, so the criminal takes it all, muttering that Valjean has killed the man too cheaply. Nevertheless, the old criminal opens the door for Valjean, ushers him outside, and quickly locks himself back in.
After a few moments in the welcome air and light of the early evening, Valjean is aware of another presence behind him. He turns to face Javert. In a moment the police officer recognizes Valjean, who, it will be remembered, had set him free not many hours earlier. The two share a common bewilderment. Valjean asks Javert for one favor before he promises to surrender: That he be allowed to take Marius to his grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand. Javert thinks a moment, then calls for a fiacre that he has standing by and takes the young man to his relative. The ride is spent in a cold silence. Javert is convinced that the young man, whom he knows to be an insurrectionist, is dead. They deliver him to the porter at Gillenormand’s, but do not waken the old man. Valjean and Javert depart.
Valjean asks one more favor, that he be allowed to go to his home for a brief stop. Javert assents and waits outside for him. When Valjean reaches the balcony, he looks out; the inspector had disappeared.
Marius is taken into the Gillenormand home and laid out on a table. A doctor is called. Monsieur Gillenormand wakes up and intrudes upon the scene playing out around the young man. He keens a lament, blaming himself for the fate of his grandson. While this swoon of anger and grief exhausts itself in the parlor, and while Gillenormand tells the doctor to go because the young man is dead, Marius opens his eyes and gazes uncomprehendingly on his grandfather. Giving thanks, the old man drops unconscious.
Javert, meanwhile, is on another trajectory. After leaving Valjean’s place he walks to the Seine, where he rests his arms on a parapet and falls into deep thought. “There had been a new thing, a revolution, a catastrophe in the depths of his being: and there was matter for self-examination… A beneficent malefactor, a compassionate convict, kind, helpful, clement, returning good for evil, returning pardon for hatred, loving pity rather than vengeance, preferring to destroy himself rather than to destroy his enemy, saving him who had stricken him, kneeling upon the height of virtue, nearer the angels than men. Javert was compelled to acknowledge that this monster existed. This could not last.”
Beneath this place of sudden and tortured self-awareness, there is a rapids that is especially treacherous, which can defeat any swimmer. Javert stands for some minutes, then mounts the parapet and jumps. He perishes under the waters.
The novel quickly moves ahead. Marius is four months in recovery before the doctor declares him out of danger. He has head wounds caused more by concussion than from projectiles as well as a broken shoulder blade. Every day a man with white hair visits, bringing bandages. Nothing is known of this man except that it was he who brought the young man home that terrible night. They refer to him as M. Fouchelevent. M. Gillenormand, formerly profane, has become religious and is sometimes seen kneeling in prayer for the grandson. Marius remains silent concerning Cosette but thinks of her constantly. He is cold to his grandfather, understanding little that is happening to him, ignorant of how he got where he is, sure only that he must have Cosette, or die.
Let us break off here. We have long passed ten thousand words. The reader will have plenty of surprises still to come. One of these surprises serves the purposes of the divine Providence that has led our protagonists and antagonists thus far. It remains only to tell that Marius is reconciled to his grandfather, that he and Cosette are at last married, and that Jean Valjean, known to them only as Monsieur Fauchelevent, endows them with a great deal of money. That is not the end of the story, however. We must still account for Valjean’s true identity, how it was that Marius was rescued, what has become of Thenardier, and Valjean’s spiritual apotheosis. Our author, Hugo, wastes nothing. No detail from the past is left thrown aside without being picked up and used again, no mystery left unexplained other than the fate of the two remaining Thenardier boys (Madame Thenardier had died in prison some time earlier). All our dear characters are together, and except for Marius, who remains only temporarily miserable, a time of happiness and contentment descends upon the scene at Gillenormand’s home.
Let us hear the author’s words concerning his purpose in writing this magnificent book. “The book which the reader has now before his eyes is, from one end to the other, in its whole and in its details, whatever may be the intermissions, the exceptions, or the defaults, the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point; matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end.”
If my patient reader has come this far, I confide in conclusion that this book has affected me as few books ever have. Though Victor Hugo was in many ways a man of mystical fantasies and imperfect morals, he has created in Valjean a hero worthy of veneration. I can only say that I wish I could write like Hugo, but know that to be impossible; but to be like Valjean a man in Christ, so long as there is breath left, and time, all things are possible.