Summary and Analysis
Part 5: Jean Valjean: Books V-VI
Marius' recovery is long and difficult. Suffering from a concussion, racked by delirium, covered with infected wounds, he remains at death's door for several weeks. As long as he is in danger, M. Gillenormand does not leave his bedside. Another man, a white-haired gentleman, also takes an interest in the convalescent. He comes daily to inquire about the state of his health.
It takes Marius six months to recover. The lapse of time has cooled all political passion, and Marius receives a de facto amnesty. His gradual recovery fills his grandfather with ecstasy. M. Gillenormand celebrates his cure by giving his servant three louis, singing a licentious eighteenth-century song, and even, according to an eyewitness, praying.
Marius himself is not so happy. He is still obsessed by the thought of Cosette, and he has resolved not to accept the gift of life without love. He is determined to marry Cosette even if it means defying his grandfather. And he is convinced that all M. Gillenormand's new affection is still conditional on Marius' compliance with his wishes. Finally, angrily, he announces his plans to marry. M. Gillenormand, incredible though it seems to Marius, is enchanted and expresses the greatest enthusiasm for Cosette. Their interview ends with a complete emotional reconciliation, and Marius even calls M. Gillenormand by the magic name of "Father." The old man arranges for an immediate visit from Cosette and even painfully suppresses a diatribe against the Revolution.
Cosette appears in a state of happy bewilderment, ecstatic, blushing, shy before so many bystanders. Fauchelevent-Valjean, dressed with sober correctness, stands quietly to one side with a smile that expresses more poignancy than joy. M. Gillenormand greets him courteously but mispronounces his name with aristocratic negligence. Overcome by emotion, Marius is unable to speak, but Cosette in an uninterrupted monologue pours out her anxiety, her love, her joy.
M. Gillenormand seems happiest of all. He hovers over the couple, marvels at Cosette's beauty, and courts her charmingly. Valjean, until now so quiet he has been forgotten, now intervenes. Without any theatrics he announces that Cosette is rich. He has at her disposal almost 600,000 francs, which he lays down on the table. M. Gillenormand is thunderstruck, but Cosette and Marius are too much in love to pay any attention to such a trivial detail.
The marriage is set for February. The two old men, each in his fashion, work for the happiness of the young couple. Valjean quietly takes care of all practical details and solves a problem Cosette is not even aware of. To spare her the stigma of illegitimacy, he passes her off as Euphrasie, the daughter of the real Fauchelevent.
Gillenormand's services, while not as valuable, are more dramatic. He raids the family heirlooms to offer the girl a shimmering collection of bibelots and jewels. He is as earnest about his frivolities as other men are about more serious matters, for to Gillenormand luxury is not merely a way of life, it is a philosophy. It is only through frills and superfluities, he says in effect, that life becomes a banquet. He waxes particularly eloquent about weddings. He contrasts the dull ceremony of the nineteenth century with the elegance, the sauciness, and the revelry of the eighteenth. His description of a wedding is a canvas inspired by Fragonard, Watteau, and Boucher.
Cosette is to be installed in the handsomest room in the house, which, moreover, is to be luxuriously redecorated. Mlle. Gillenormand, who had nothing but contempt for the young couple when she thought they would be poor, now plans to leave them all her money. Cosette comes to visit Marius daily with Valjean as chaperon. Marius tolerates him as Cosette's father but avoids any intimacy. They discuss only such neutral subjects as politics and education. Marius remembers still that when he last saw Valjean the old man was about to shoot a policeman, but as Valjean never refers to the events of the insurrection Marius cannot accuse him openly.
Marius is also preoccupied by the problem of Thénardier. Despite the man's viciousness, Marius still feels an obligation to carry out his father's last wishes. His investigation, however, fails to unearth Thénardier: all the man's associates have either disappeared or died; Thénardier himself has been condemned to death and has dropped out of sight.
Marius feels that he also owes a debt of gratitude to the unknown stranger who saved him and brought him home, but he too cannot be found. Neither the cabdriver nor the police can provide any information about him. Marius is bedeviled by a series of puzzles: why did a total stranger save his life? Why didn't the policeman in the cab arrest him? Why has his savior not appeared to claim a reward, or at least an expression of thanks? Throughout Marius' stubborn search, Valjean keeps silent. Even when he hears Marius' awed reconstruction of what the escape through the sewers must have cost his rescuer, he does not utter a word.
The wedding, while it is not the mad extravaganza M. Gillenormand has dreamed of, is nevertheless a heartwarming and happy event. Only one incident mars it: Valjean has had a slight accident a few days before and, with his arm in a sling, is unable to sign any of the wedding documents. The "accident" is fortunate since Valjean's signature as Fauchelevent would be illegal.
On the way to church, the nuptial procession has to take a street filled with carriages and Mardi Gras maskers. At one point, a traffic jam causes a halt, and a carriage overflowing with revelers also stops in the other line of traffic. They are a ragged, disreputable lot, noisy and sarcastic. In the midst of the general hilarity, two of the maskers, an old Spaniard with an enormous nose and gigantic mustache, and a thin young girl, carefully observe the wedding party. The man is particularly interested in the father of the bride, whom he seems to recognize. He is consumed by curiosity and urges his indifferent companion, Azelma, to find out more about them.
With their marriage vows, Marius and Cosette are transfigured. They accomplish that miracle, the realization of a dream, and all the bitterness they have endured only enhances their present happiness. Back at Gillenormand's, the wedding banquet is gay. Flowers fill the house, the dining room is ablaze with lights, crystal, and precious metal. Three violins and a flute play Haydn quartets.
Valjean slips quietly away, but nothing can dim the happiness surging in the room. M. Gillenormand, champagne glass in hand, delivers an epicurean sermon, praises love, preaches joy, and enthusiastically acknowledges the eternal domination of woman. He makes of marriage the ultimate form of piety. Led by the grandfather's contagious exhilaration, the wedding feast reaches a crescendo of gaiety. At midnight, the newlyweds take their leave and the house lapses into silence.
When he leaves the party, Valjean pauses outside for a moment to listen to the muted gaiety of the banquet. Then he returns home along the same route by which he has escorted Cosette to see Marius during the past three months. In the apartment, he wanders from one empty room to another, attentive to the heightened sound of his footsteps. Then he goes to his bedroom and removes the perfectly sound arm from its sling. His eyes fall on the suitcase containing the clothes Cosette wore when she left Montfermeil. Slowly he pulls them out and spreads them on the bed. Memories of his first meeting with Cosette throng to his mind, and he buries his head on the bed and sobs heartbreakingly.
All his life, Valjean has waged with his conscience Jacob's fight with the angel. In spite of the ferocity of the struggle, his conscience has always won. But tonight he faces the supreme challenge. He must decide whether to impose his presence on Cosette and Marius, whether to associate his dark and illegal existence with the luminous young couple. Valjean cannot accept the renunciation that his heroic lucidity dictates. Cosette is his life raft and he cannot yet resign himself to drowning. Isn't there a limit to man's sacrifice, he wonders? Can God demand absolute annihilation? As on a previous occasion with the Champmathieu affair, Valjean contemplates his fateful alternatives through the long night.
One by one, Hugo untangles his complications and brings them to a tidy conclusion. Jean Valjean is safe, Marius is healthy, M. Gillenormand and his grandson become completely reconciled, Cosette and Marius are united. Only one problem remains: the antipathy between Jean Valjean and Marius. And it is a genuine problem. Marius is young and callow, and fails to appreciate Valjean at his real value, it is true; but he also has extremely good reasons to mistrust him. It is hard to feel comfortable with your father-in-law when you have met him in a den of thieves and heard him shoot a policeman.
Valjean is fully aware of this problem, but he cannot help Marius. To reveal that he is the young man's rescuer would be to burden him with an uncomfortable debt of gratitude, and the explanations it would entail would saddle Cosette, too, with the details of a dark past from which he has done his best to shield her. The only solution is for him to vanish, but he cannot bring himself to do it. His struggle, however, is qualitatively unlike any he has undergone before. At Arras, at the barricades, the good in him struggled with the evil; now he undergoes a conflict between two goods, his human love for Cosette and the spiritual nobler love that demands he surrender his earthly joys for her ultimate salvation and his own. Neither choice can be a wrong one.