Summary and Analysis
Part 5: Jean Valjean: Books VII-IX
Late the next morning, Valjean returns to the Rue des Filles du Calvaire and asks for Marius. His somber and weary air makes a strange contrast with the festive appearance of the living room. Marius greets him with the greatest cordiality. He seems to insist on disregarding the strain that has existed between them and invites Valjean to make his home with him. Valjean interrupts by blurting out that he is an ex-convict. As corroboration, he shows him his perfectly sound hand and explains the subterfuge as a means of avoiding the signing of legal documents. Appalled, Marius urges him to continue, and Valjean complies by briefly stating his background, his meeting with Cosette, and his love for her — the depth of which he does not reveal, however. His confession ends with a reference to the 600,000 francs, which he explains as a trust.
Marius is puzzled by this unnecessary honesty. Valjean answers by explaining the tyranny of his confession, which demands nothing less than absolute truth, which rejects the most compelling excuse. He cannot bear to be befriended under false pretenses. Poignantly, he refers to the tragic destiny that requires him to be despised by others in order that he may respect himself. Marius is crushed by Valjean's revelations but is magnanimous enough to shake his hand.
The painful conversation is interrupted by Cosette's charming intrusion. She gossips, coaxes her father to smile, pleads for permission to remain. When Marius asks her to leave them in privacy, she goes, with playful reproaches and threats. Cosette's visit reminds Valjean of the emotional impact his confession will have on her, and, his face bathed in tears, he longs for death. Marius instantly promises to keep it a secret from her and offers him a reward for managing Cosette's money so scrupulously. His magnanimity, however, is mixed with aversion, and he suggests that Valjean stop seeing Cosette. At first Valjean agrees, but then blanches at the magnitude of the sacrifice. He who in the past has asked nothing for himself now humbly pleads with Marius not to separate him permanently from her. He invokes his immense love, promises to come rarely and remain unobtrusive. Marius understands this pathetic plea and reluctantly allows Valjean a nightly visit.
When Valjean goes, Marius is the prey of mixed emotions, but dismay is dominant. He wonders whether he has been too lenient with Valjean, whether he should have investigated the old man more carefully. Apprehensively, he wonders if he has not paid too dearly for his happiness, if his whole life is to be tarnished by this infernal shadow. He has, certainly, a measure of esteem for his father-in-law. His scrupulous administration of Cosette's fortune has been admirable. His confession, so painful and so dangerous for himself, indicates a certain nobility of spirit. But Marius cannot forget the Thénardier incident nor Valjean's revenge on Javert at the barricades.
Beyond the practical considerations, Valjean poses a metaphysical problem for Marius. How can Cosette have achieved such innocence in daily contact with such evil; how could such an impure tool have created a work of such purity? God's methods are unfathomable. Ultimately, Marius' lasting impression is one of revulsion, and relief that Valjean is willing to retire into the background. In spite of his enlightenment, Marius still retains the prejudices of his time in regard to criminal matters. He does not yet understand the cruelty, even the immorality, of the French penal system, which for a single crime brands a man for life.
The next evening at dusk, Valjean is respectfully greeted by a servant and introduced into a neglected, dank room on the ground floor. Two armchairs have been installed with a worn bedside rug by way of carpet. Cosette enters and greets him with the most tender affection, but Valjean remains stubbornly reserved. He refuses to kiss her, refuses her invitation to dinner, even addresses her formally as "Madame." Cosette is puzzled and disturbed by Valjean's eccentricity, especially his insistence that he be called Monsieur Jean. She pleads with him to return to their former intimacy and scolds him affectionately. Briefly Valjean yields to the poignant temptation to call Cosette "tu" ("thou," the familiar form of address), but he regains his self-control and departs with a respectful "Madame."
Cosette resigns herself to Valjean's bizarre ways. She has the room cleaned up but otherwise accepts their painful estrangement. The rest of the household simply dismisses Valjean as an eccentric. No one suspects the agony he is suffering.
In the next few weeks, Cosette's new life, new social engagements, her absorption with Marius, make the loosening of old ties easier for her. For Valjean, however, love will not die. He cannot resist the temptation to lengthen his visits. Cosette's accidental return to the word "father" brings him to the brink of tears, but the gulf between them continues to widen. Every gesture of familiarity is gradually dropped. Valjean's happiness is reduced to an hour a day of contemplation or reminiscence.
One day in April, moved by the rebirth of nature, Marius and Cosette go back on a little pilgrimage to the garden of the Rue Plumet and forget all about Valjean. Valjean is not discouraged by this involuntary snub. To prolong his visit, he even resorts to the stratagem of praising Marius. Cosette, delighted to talk about her husband, does not notice the passage of time, but Marius subtly manages to shunt Valjean aside. When the old man's visits last too long, a servant is sent to remind Cosette that it is time for dinner. At the end of April, the fire is not lit in the fireplace. When Cosette orders the fire re-lit, the chairs are moved to a far corner.
One evening Cosette reports that Marius has asked her whether she could live on his income alone. Valjean concludes, to his great distress, that Marius suspects Cosette's money really comes from him and that it is tainted. At last Marius makes his hostility brutally clear. He has the chairs taken away, and Valjean, unable to delude himself any longer, stops coming. Cosette in her new marital happiness scarcely notices his absence. However, she does send her maid to inquire, and Valjean generously pretends that he has been busy and is about to take a trip.
During the last months of spring and the first months of summer, 1833, Valjean takes a daily walk in the direction of the Rue des Filles du Calvaire. He is in a complete trance. When he approaches his destination he slows down, and when he reaches the street he stops. He stares ahead yearningly at his forbidden paradise and a tear slips down his cheek. Gradually, like a pendulum whose oscillations grow shorter, he abbreviates his walks.
Hugo points out that Marius feels it a matter of husbandly duty to separate Valjean from Cosette; new and mysterious information has confirmed his darkest suspicions of the old man. Cosette is almost equally blameless. Marius exerts a magnetic influence on her and almost involuntarily she yields to his wishes. In any case, her neglect of her father is only superficial; under the surface, her love is as deep as ever. She does occasionally inquire about Valjean, but he encourages the estrangement by pretending to be out of town. Besides, what is known as the ingratitude of children is merely the fulfillment of the scheme of nature. It forces the young to look to life and to neglect the generation that represents the past and is journeying toward the grave.
The pendulum finally comes to a halt. One day, Jean Valjean merely takes a few steps, sits down on a milestone, and returns home. The next day, he does not leave his room. The following day, he does not get out of bed. His janitress, who prepares his meager meal, finds the dish untouched. A week elapses and Valjean does not leave his bed. The janitress' husband, when he hears the news, pronounces the case hopeless, and the doctor, after his visit, conforms his diagnosis. He announces that Valjean is suffering from the loss of a loved one.
One evening, Valjean has trouble finding his pulse. Driven by a supreme compulsion, he puts on his clothes with extreme difficulty, takes out his valise, and spreads Cosette's clothes on the bed. Then he lights the bishop's candlesticks. The effect is disturbingly funereal. Every movement drains his strength. He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and finds he has aged thirty years. At last, after a tremendous effort, he manages to sit down and in a trembling hand writes Cosette a last letter. It contains a reassuring explanation of the source of his fortune. Suddenly he is overcome by an immense despair, by an overwhelming yearning to die in Cosette's presence. At that moment, he hears a knock on the door.
One evening, as Marius has been working in his study, he has received a letter that promises important revelations about an individual living with Marius; the tobacco odor and handwriting immediately remind him of Thénardier. Happy to be able to settle his debt at last, Marius orders Thénardier sent in, but he can scarcely recognize him, for Thénardier is thoroughly disguised. Upon Marius' curt invitation to speak, Thénardier explains he wants to retire to an isolated village in Panama, but he needs money. If Marius will provide it, he will provide Marius with a secret. He tells Marius, to whet his appetite, that his father-in-law is a thief, a murderer, and an ex-convict named Jean Valjean.
Contemptuously, Marius tells him he knows that already and further demoralizes Thénardier by revealing all he knows about the former innkeeper's own background. Giving Thénardier a 500-franc bill to settle his debt of gratitude, he goes on to say that he believes Valjean had M. Madeleine arrested, stole his money, and killed Javert. Thénardier, better informed on this point than Marius, regains lost ground by triumphantly announcing that Valjean and Madeleine are the same person. With a flourish he pulls out two newspapers that confirm his allegations.
Belatedly, it begins to dawn on Marius that he has misjudged Valjean, but Thénardier insists he is, nevertheless, a thief and a murderer. To prove it, he recounts his own version of the adventure in the sewer. According to him, Valjean was there to dispose of the body of a young man whom he had murdered for his money. There he met a fugitive who provided him with a key to get out, but not before the fugitive had torn off a piece of clothing from the murdered man; and Thénardier, to clinch his case, produces a piece of black rag. Marius, dazzled by the revelation of the magnificent truth, reaches blindly into the closet and throws a black suit at Thénardier's feet. Proclaiming that he is the supposed victim, he fits the torn piece of cloth neatly into the rent in his suit. Accusingly, he turns on Thénardier and catalogs all the sins of his past life, but offers him 4,500 francs now and 20,000 the next day if he will leave and never return. Thénardier accepts and departs — to become a slave trader in America, Hugo tells us.
In feverish haste, Marius takes Cosette and speeds with her in a cab to Valjean's home. On the way, he reveals the whole story of her father's life to Cosette and comments rapturously on its ineffable saintliness. The young couple arrive in time: Valjean still lives. Choked with emotion, Cosette rushes toward him and embraces him; Marius calls him "father." Valjean is incoherent with joy. To Cosette, tenderly nestled on his lap, he pours out his immense love and poignant longing. Cosette responds with affectionate reproaches and Marius with profound gratitude and admiration. Firmly but respectfully, he declares they have come to take Valjean home with them, and Cosette paints a radiant picture of their future life together.
Valjean listens as if to a magnificent symphony, and a tear comes to his eyes. Then, sorrowfully, he announces he is dying. Cosette and Marius, heartbroken, refuse to accept the truth. Valjean, however, in the spirit of abnegation that has characterized his whole life, exhorts them to accept the wisdom of God's decision and urges them to look forward to their future happiness.
The doctor arrives and confirms the verdict. Valjean settles his earthly and spiritual affairs and, with an unexpected renewal of strength, walks to the wall, takes down the crucifix, and sits down again. He reassures Marius as to the legitimacy of his wealth and requests an anonymous tombstone; and his last moments are filled with happy memories. He evokes Cosette's childhood, their humble pleasures, their adventures. He tells Cosette about her mother and asks her to forgive the Thénardiers. In the presence of the two people he loves, he dies happy.
In the Père-Lachaise cemetery, there is a neglected and anonymous tombstone. Time, vegetation, and the elements are slowly destroying it. Only an unusual epitaph in pencil gives it a transitory distinction:
He sleeps. Although fate was very strange to him,
He lived. He died when he lost his angel;
It happened simply, as naturally as
The night falls when the day goes away.
Characteristically, Jean Valjean decides to speak the bitter truth about himself and conceal the sweet. Although he considers this being honest with Marius, it is not really honesty, but he has no choice. An ex-convict cannot say "I am a good man" and be believed; he has lost his credibility.
His confession clears the air temporarily, but it does not really solve anything. Some readers feel that the continuing struggle over Cosette is unworthy of Jean Valjean, that a proper hero ought simply to have gone away, but to think so is to misunderstand Jean Valjean and Hugo's vision of him. In the first place, as Hugo has been saying all along, to do right is never easy; and in the second place, when Valjean thinks of disappearing, it is not going away he has in mind; it is death. Cosette is the only thing he loves in this world, and if he gives her up, he will die. And Jean Valjean, as we have seen, has a very powerful instinct for survival. He remains to the last no incredible saint, but a thoroughly human figure.
His final renunciation is a defeat, but thanks to Thénardier, it is also a victory. Through the maze of lies this man has woven about himself and everyone who comes in contact with him, the truth accidentally emerges — as it always does if a lie goes on long enough. Thénardier, evil though he is, must eventually also contribute to the apotheosis of the good; this is the law of life as God has planned it.
And so Jean Valjean, having sacrificed his last happiness, has it returned to him a hundred-fold; the lonely man, the outcast, dies surrounded by the happiness he has created, and the solitary celibate has been the progenitor, through Marius and Cosette's children, of a fruitful and contented posterity. No man can ask for a happier ending.
One knot, however, Hugo has left without untangling: no one has adopted the two little lost boys Gavroche left unprotected. An oversight, perhaps; or perhaps it was intentional. Perhaps he wanted his readers to remember, every night as they tumbled into bed, that somewhere out in the cold and darkness there were still two little lost boys, and many more like them, hungry and unprotected. And that, his unspoken conclusion seems to say, is your business.