A city has in its sewers a valuable resource, says Hugo, for it has been proved that human excrement is the richest fertilizer. Man's waste of this resource is a mad prodigality. Paris, for instance, literally throws away 25 million francs a year. Not only does it neglect a precious asset, but it contributes to its unsanitary condition by poisoning the water. To perpetuate this waste, Paris has erected a spectacular structure, the sewers, a gigantic sponge, an underground city with its squares, streets, and crossroads.
Besides their physical interest, the sewers are also psychologically fascinating. Throughout history they have been the scene of many dramas; countless pursuits have taken place in them. The sewers are a mirror of human vices. The garbage they harvest bears witness to man's fallibility and speaks out against his pretensions. Broken bottles speak of drunkenness; clothes that have been worn at the opera are rotting in the mud.
Except for a dim light filtering through openings in the sewer vault, Valjean is surrounded by blackness. Nevertheless, he must plunge into this vacuum, for Marius' condition is alarming. Valjean must trust almost entirely to chance, for he has no landmark. The only clue in the sewers' layout is their slope. He knows that the sewers descend toward the Seine. He therefore chooses to proceed uphill, for he does not want to emerge near the river among the crowd.
Valjean advances like a blind man, feeling the wall with one hand and holding Marius on his back with the other. After a little while, thanks to the parsimonious light glimmering through a distant manhole, he gets a vague impression of his surroundings. While the light provides some mental comfort, it is of no practical help whatsoever. Even with the best visibility, no one can find his way in this vast labyrinth, this unexplored territory. Valjean, in spite of his fortitude, cannot help contemplating with horror the perils of his situation. Will he find an exit? Will he find it in time? Will he stumble on some insurmountable obstacle? Will he die of starvation, and Marius of loss of blood?
Then he makes a disturbing observation. Instead of climbing, he is now going downhill. He wonders apprehensively whether his calculations were wrong and he is going in the direction of the Seine after all. It is too late to retrace his steps and Valjean continues to advance. Without knowing it, he has made the right decision. The sewers empty not only in the Seine but also in the outer sewer. For a half hour Valjean continues to walk without resting, trusting almost entirely to chance. The only rational decision he can make is to choose the larger corridors on the assumption that the smaller ones will lead to a dead end.
Suddenly Valjean notices his shadow in front of him, profiled against a reddish background. Dumbfounded, he turns around and sees a ball of fire in the distance. It is the lantern of a police patrol, for the authorities have readily surmised that some of the insurgents might try to escape through the sewers. Valjean, too exhausted to understand the full gravity of the situation, nevertheless flattens himself against the wall and remains motionless. The police conclude that they have heard an imaginary noise and proceed to the neighborhood of the insurrection. Just in case, they fire a parting shot, but it hits the vault above Valjean's head. Slowly darkness and silence recapture the sewers. When the patrol is safely gone, Valjean resumes his march.
It must be said to the credit of the police that not even extraordinary events like an insurrection distract them from their customary enforcement of the law. Thus during June 6 in the afternoon on the right bank of the Seine near the Invalides Bridge, a policeman is shadowing a thief. They are proceeding without haste, keeping an equal distance between them. But the fugitive, beneath his calm, feels the hostility and fear of a tracked animal. The policeman hails a passing cab and orders it to follow.
The chase takes the two adversaries to a ramp leading to the Champs Elysees. It seems likely that the thief is going to take the ramp, for the Champs Elysees is a wooded area tempting to a fugitive. To the surprise of the policeman, he avoids the exit and continues straight ahead. His decision is inexplicable since the bank terminates in a dead end when the river makes a bend. When he comes to the end of the road, the thief ducks behind a pile of debris. The policeman quickens his step, expecting to trap his quarry. When he too rounds the debris, he discovers to his surprise that his prey has vanished. The thief has disappeared into the opening of a sewer. But this disappearance is not without an element of mystery, for to open the grating the outlaw needed a key that could only be obtained from the authorities. Though he has been outwitted, the policeman with the blind persistence of a hunting dog takes up a meaningless vigil.
In the sewer, Valjean refuses to rest, but he is encountering increasing difficulties. The ground is slippery. The low vault forces him to march bending over. Hunger and, above all, thirst torment him. In spite of his strength, the inevitable exhaustion begins to take its toll. At three o'clock, Valjean arrives at the outer sewer. There he is confronted by vital decisions. He has to choose among the several corridors that join at this point, and he picks the wider one. Then he must decide whether to go downhill or uphill. He prefers to descend, on the assumption that the downward march will lead him to the Seine. His luck serves him well and saves his life. The other direction would have taken him to a dead end or an inextricable jungle.
Shortly after, Valjean is forced to make a halt. He deposits Marius tenderly on a bank, feels his heart beating, and bandages his wounds as best he can. Then he contemplates Marius with inexpressible hatred. After reading the note in Marius' pocket giving instructions to deliver his body to his grandfather's, and eating a piece of bread he also finds there, Valjean resumes his march with Marius on his back. Night is falling and the openings are getting rarer. The obscurity proves to be a near disaster, for it camouflages dreadful traps known as "fontis," mud-holes in the ground of the corridors with all the dangers of quicksand. They hold for their victims a similar death, unexpected, lonely, inexorably slow. In addition, they have their own refinements: darkness, filth, fetidness. Sewers add degradation to the final agony.
Jean Valjean feels the pavement disappearing under his feet, plunging in a pool of water and a bed of mud. Of necessity, he goes forward and sinks with every step. Soon he is forced to throw his head back and hold up Marius at arm's length. At last, on the verge of death, he touches solid ground and climbs out of the mire. He stumbles on a stone and falls to his knees. This position of prayer turns his thoughts toward God. In a fervent dialog he purges his heart of hate. The journey now becomes torture, for Valjean's strength has completely abandoned him. At every few steps he has to pause to catch his breath. Once, he is forced to sit down, and he is almost unable to get up.
Suddenly he feels a surge of energy, for in front of him he spots the beckoning light of an exit He rushes toward it like a soul fleeing from hell. When he reaches it, he has, alas, a shattering disappointment. The grating is locked. Maddened by a tantalizing glimpse of Paris and freedom, Valjean shakes the bars frantically, but it is futile. He collapses to the ground, drained of hope. Valjean feels himself caught in death's web.
As darkness invades his soul, Valjean feels a hand on his shoulder and hears a whisper, "Share and share alike." He is dumbfounded to find a man in this forgotten place, even more startled to recognize Thénardier. However, he immediately regains his presence of mind and notes that Thénardier does not recognize Valjean through the mask of blood and mud. Thénardier, taking him for a murderer with his victim, proposes a characteristic deal. For half of the profit he'll open the grating. He starts a conversation by way of getting Valjean to betray himself, but Valjean maintains a stubborn silence. At last, Thénardier returns to the original subject, in terms that allow no evasion: "How much did the guy leave in his pockets?"
Valjean for once is without funds, and he can offer only 30 francs. Dissatisfied, Thénardier searches him and in passing manages to tear off a piece of Marius' jacket for later identification. He takes the 30 francs, completely forgetting the terms of the deal. He inspects the outside and silently opens the door, letting Valjean out. For a moment, Valjean is overwhelmed by the majestic serenity that greets him, the reassurance of twilight, the immensity of the starry sky, the murmur of the river. Then he senses a presence behind him and recognizes Javert's ubiquitous figure.
Javert, however, is not a superman. He has been looking for Thénardier, not Valjean; at first, in fact, he does not recognize his perennial quarry. It is Valjean who identifies himself and offers no resistance to Javert's iron grip. He asks just one favor, to be allowed to take Marius home. Contrary to his behavior at M.-sur-M., Javert consents and calls his waiting cab. The trip is like the funeral procession of three cadavers.
A book could be written about the fascination Paris sewers hold, not only for twentieth-century tourists but for much nineteenth-century literature. Hugo, however, sums up neatly their persistent attraction for the inquiring mind: their technical ingenuity, their participation in the romance of "secret passageway," their grim summation of human existence.
Hugo skillfully weaves them into the epic pattern of his novel. They not only serve as counterpart to the passage in which he describes the "underworld mine" of criminal Paris, but provide him with a structural, picturesque, and psychological climax to a long sequence of similar scenes. Jean Valjean had fled alone in fear, carrying the beloved burden Cosette; now he flees with Marius, carrying hatred and despair on his back. He has experienced many scenes of darkness: darkness lit by a crucifix in the bishop's chamber, darkness lit by the moon with Cosette at the well, darkness lit by a flaring torch at the barricades; but now the darkness is total and absolute.
And the darkness is within his soul as well. He has saved Marius, but this has not freed his spirit. He is still drowned in hatred, and there is not a glimmer of comfort or hope upon the black path before him. Like Aeneas, like Dante, Valjean has descended into hell, but it is only a last stage on his journey into light, and as he emerges from the sewers he emerges, through prayer, from his spiritual torment also.
The deeper significance of this emergence into the light of the friendly stars is underlined by the presence of Thénardier and Javert, standing like Charon and St. Michael upon the threshold of a better life. Thénardier has always been Valjean's criminal alter ego, and even now for a moment Thénardier's evil magic seems to work again, making us wonder whether Valjean has not after all really killed Marius. But in the face of this new Valjean, Thénardier's influence ebbs, and he meekly opens the door to freedom. Javert, the avenging angel, is a more implacable doorkeeper, but judgment must always precede paradise on Resurrection Day.