Summary and Analysis
Part 4: St. Denis: Books IV-V
During the period when both he and Cosette are unhappy, Valjean makes his historic visit to the Thénardiers. When he comes back the next day with an ugly wound on his arm that keeps him in bed with a fever for a month, Cosette cares for him with angelic devotion. Their renewed intimacy fills Jean Valjean with delight, and Cosette, for her part, finds a distraction in her new responsibilities and satisfaction in her father's improvement. Then April comes, and spring is an infallible balm for a young and delicate soul.
One evening, Gavroche, tired of a two-day fast, decides to go on a food-hunting expedition. In investigating an apple bin in a garden, he overhears a conversation between M. Mabeuf and his old servant, Mother Plutarch. She is reminding him there is no food in the larder, and no one will give them credit because they owe money everywhere.
This doleful exchange compels Gavroche to abandon his designs on the apple bin and to think about this poverty even greater than his own. He is distracted from his meditations by a puzzling and alarming sight. An old gentleman is strolling toward him, unaware that he is being followed by Montparnasse, Gavroche's underworld friend. Before the urchin has a chance to intervene, the thief pounces on his intended victim, but he has underestimated his opponent. To his immense humiliation, he is beaten to the ground and held as if by a vise. Without letting go, the passerby gives him a sobering lecture, a preview of his potential fate as a convict in a living hell. Then he hands Montparnasse his purse and quietly resumes his walk. Montparnasse is stunned — a fatal paralysis. Gavroche sneaks up on him like a cat, steals his purse, and drops it in Mabeuf's garden. Mabeuf cannot believe his eyes as the purse falls from the sky before him.
Cosette continues to recover from her heartbreak. She seems to have forgotten Marius and begins to take an interest in a handsome young officer who struts daily in front of her garden, and who is really Théodule, a grandnephew of M. Gillenormand. Cosette has more resiliency than Marius, who seems to be trapped in his dream of love.
One evening during one of Valjean's periodic absences, Cosette has a disquieting experience. She hears what sounds like a man's footsteps in the garden. The next evening, she hears the same footsteps and then sees a shadow, a terrifying shadow topped by a man's hat. By the time she turns around, the shadow has disappeared. When Valjean comes back, she tells him of her alarms. He, deeply preoccupied, spends the next three nights in the garden. The third night he calls her down to show her the explanation of the mystery: the shadow of a nearby chimney that might easily be mistaken for that of a man.
A few days later, however, a new incident occurs. Cosette is sitting, in the melancholy of nightfall, on a bench near the garden gate. Slowly she gets up, strolls through the garden, and returns to her seat. On the spot she just vacated on the bench there now lies a stone. This time she is genuinely frightened, all the more so since her father has gone on one of his nocturnal walks. Feverishly she runs inside, barricades the house, and spends a restless night.
In the morning, the sun dissipates her apprehension and she dismisses the incident as a nightmare, but when she returns to the garden she finds that the stone is real. Fright gives way to curiosity and she examines the stone more closely. Under it she discovers a notebook containing a kind of prose poem celebrating the splendors of love. Cosette intuitively recognizes the author of the letter and simultaneously the truth about her own emotions. Her love for Marius had become an ember but never died. Now it blazes up again to a bright new flame. At that moment, the handsome lieutenant passes by and Cosette finds him supremely unpleasing.
During her evening stroll in the garden, she has the sudden feeling of a presence behind her. She turns her head and sees Marius, gaunt and spectral. She is overwhelmed by his humble, poignant declaration of love and reciprocates with her own. They kiss and are transported out of this world. After a long moment of silent ecstasy, they proceed to mutual confessions of their deepest feelings. Two souls melt into one. Only after their reunion is complete do they ask each other their names.
In character portrayal, Hugo prefers to reveal personality through simple feeling and direct action, and seldom indulges in the lengthy and complex psychological analysis of such later nineteenth-century writers as Marcel Proust. Jean Valjean's lecture to Montparnasse on laziness is one of his rare excursions into abstract psychology, and it is a remarkable one. Hugo, like the medieval church, recognizes that sloth, as opposed to occasional holiday idleness, is a mortal sin. Man's only lasting happiness lies in work, and the refusal to work leads to the total destruction of the personality. The passage is interesting, too, because it is one of the rare occasions on which Hugo gives us an insight into Jean Valjean's thinking. Indeed, Valjean cannot properly be said to think; rather, he turns things over and over in his mind until a conclusion evolves, and the conclusion is usually remarkably wise.
The reunion of Marius and Cosette is unquestionably one of the most touching scenes in literature despite, or perhaps because of, the touch of humor with which Hugo introduces it. While Marius is dying for love, Cosette has almost forgotten him — but not for long. With superb suspense, Hugo brings him closer and closer to her, as a sound of footsteps, a shadow, a letter, and finally Marius himself. Nor does Hugo spare any of the resources of his art to enhance the drama of their meeting and mutual avowals. The essence of his poetry has gone into Marius' love letter; the garden in springtime offers the perfect setting for first love; and Cosette's poignant cry, "O ma mère!" seems to set the seal of heaven itself on their union.