Les Miserables By Victor Hugo Summary and Analysis Part 2: Cosette: Book IV-Book V, Chapters 1-5

Summary

In Paris, Valjean takes refuge in a dilapidated house in an outlying district. The only other tenant is an old woman who also performs the functions of caretaker. Passing off Cosette as his granddaughter and himself as a bourgeois ruined by unlucky investments, he lives quietly and at last happily. He lavishes on the little girl his immense reservoir of long-suppressed affection and she responds with equal love. He teaches her to read or simply watches her undress her doll. Cosette plays, chatters, and sings.

The world seems to have forgotten Jean Valjean, but he continues to take infinite precautions. He only goes out at night, sometimes with Cosette, sometimes alone, always choosing back alleys and deserted neighborhoods. His only contact with society is a visit to church or giving charity to a beggar.

He does not, however, remain undisturbed long. The old caretaker, tirelessly inquisitive, watches his every move. One day, through a crack in the door, she catches him taking a 1,000-franc bill from the lining of his coat. A moment later he approaches her and asks her to go change it, saying it is a dividend he has just received. But as he only goes out at night after the post office is closed, his explanation is highly suspicious. A few days later, the room is momentarily deserted and the old woman creeps in to examine the intriguing coat. The lining is filled with paper — no doubt more bills — and the pockets with such incriminating objects as needles, scissors, and a collection of wigs.

On his nightly walks, Valjean has regularly been giving a few cents to an old beggar who sits at a nearby well. One evening as Valjean is ready to give his customary alms, the beggar raises his head and Valjean, petrified, seems to see the familiar face of Javert. The next night, he returns to confirm his suspicion, but it is the same harmless beggar he knows from before.

However, in the evening a few days later, Valjean hears the front door open and shut, and someone climbs the stairs to stand in front of his door. The next morning, he hears footsteps again and through the keyhole sees Javert's formidable silhouette. That evening he makes a roll of his ready cash and taking Cosette by the hand departs from the lodgings.

Analysis

A nineteenth-century novel is meant to be savored slowly, not rushed through to find out "what happens next" and Chapter 1 of Book IV is a good example of the pleasures it can offer a reader willing to linger. Not only does Hugo give us a fascinating historical portrait of a section of Paris in 1823 and again in the 1860s, and a perceptive and witty comment on the magical swiftness with which faster transportation changes the look and feel of our environment, but a poetic evocation of a particular type of city area — a "hell of monotony."

Hugo's city, however, is never truly urban, never the dense center of commercial and social relationships we find portrayed in Balzac or Zola. If Hugo's nature sometimes — as with Cosette at the spring — seems to take on the attributes of a person, his city equally often takes on the aspect of the countryside. When Jean Valjean needs a banker, he relies on a tree, but conversely, the maze of Paris streets is for him a jungle whose trees are lampposts and whose clearings are squares. There are times when Hugo sees Paris still with the eyes of the boy who grew up across from the Feuillantines Park in the middle of the city — as a wonderful place in which to play hide and seek.

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