Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Cosette: Book II
Valjean does not enjoy his freedom long. Several days after his prison break, he is recaptured and sent to the galleys in Toulon. However, just a few days following Valjean's escape, an incident takes place around Montfermeil that is not unrelated to our story. Every day an old roadworker, Boulatruelle, quits his job early and wanders in the most remote spots of the forest as if he were looking for something. To superstitious old women, he is looking for the devil's treasure, for according to a legend, Satan has chosen the forest to hide his gold. A few skeptics, however, such as Thénardier — who is now innkeeper at Montfermeil — suspect that he is attracted by something more substantial than Satan's gold. Thénardier had the schoolmaster ply Boulatruelle with wine and extract a bit of intriguing information.
One morning as he was going to work, Boulatruelle had stumbled upon a hidden spade and pickaxe. Later, he had encountered a man whom he recognized as a fellow convict from years past, carrying a little chest. Interesting coincidence: the police had speculated that after his escape, Jean Valjean had been in the vicinity of Montfermeil.
Toward the end of October of the same year, 1823, a ship docks at the Toulon shipyard for repairs. This routine operation is marred by a dramatic incident. A sailor working in the rigging high above the ship suddenly loses his footing and barely manages to avoid a fatal fall by grabbing a rope. But he remains in a perilous situation: incapable of climbing to the yard, he dangles like a stone at the end of a string. No one dares to help him, and he seems doomed to plunge to his death.
Suddenly a convict, assigned to the ship, dashes to the riggings and climbs them with the agility of a cat. In a flash he is on the yard. For just a second, he stops to gauge the distance to the end of the yard; then he runs to it, ties a rope around it, and lowers himself to the desperate man like a spider going after a fly. When he is within reach, he attaches a rope to the sailor's body and lifts him to safety.
But the rescuer himself is not so fortunate. On the way back to his work gang, he seems to lose his balance and drops into the sea. Four men immediately launch a boat to rescue him, but he has disappeared without leaving a trace. The next day the local papers announce Jean Valjean's death.
The incident of Jean Valjean's heroic rescue of the sailor is taken from a friend's eyewitness account of a similar rescue by a convict that actually took place at Toulon. Writers of the Realistic school frequently took material from contemporary events — Flaubert's Madame Bovary, for instance, is based on a newspaper account of the suicide of a country doctor's wife — and Hugo in this chapter uses fake newspaper reports to give "authenticity" to his account.
In fact, the use of newspaper reports, false or true, in a novel does not necessarily add conviction. No amount of "real life" stuffing will save a novel that is not artistically and psychologically sound. But where the novel is otherwise satisfying, such devices do add powerfully to the illusion of authenticity.
Criminals sent to the galleys, as every reader of historical fiction knows, were used as oarsmen on those wooden men-of-war, which, though they had sails, needed oar power to maneuver in a calm or in a crisis. The prisoners were exposed to every inclemency of weather and, chained to their benches, often went down with the ship. However, since such ships were outmoded early in the eighteenth century, it may surprise the reader to find Jean Valjean on one in 1823. In fact, the "galériens" no longer ply the oars, but work for the navy shifting stores and repairing vessels at navy yards in Marseilles, Toulon, Rochefort, and Brest; and they sleep at night in shore prisons.