Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – Part Five: Jean Valjean



The last part of Hugo’s great book begins in medias res: with the Army’s assault on the Rue Saint-Denis barricade in full force. Enjolras and the other revolutionaries have managed to capture Javert and are holding him, planning to kill him when time permits. M. Fauchelevent, our Jean Valjean, has also joined the men at the barricade, and Javert recognizes him as Valjean.
But things are looking bad for our revolutionaries; they have little ammunition, few other weapons, and they’re hopelessly outnumbered. The Army has posted a sniper to pick off our men. Valjean takes up a gun and continually shoots at the sniper—not to kill, but to keep him from being a threat to the barricade defenders.
Finally, the Army breaches the barricade, and the defenders retreat through a wine shop. Valjean, who has thought of Marius as a threat to his well-being (Remember? Marius would take away his beloved Cosette, he thought), picks up the wounded young man and carries him away—to safety, he hopes.
Escape, however, is problematic in a city in the throes of revolt, so Valjean takes to Paris’ sewers. Before he goes, however, he promises his mates he’ll kill Javert; instead, he lets him go.
At this point of the story, Hugo treats us to one more of his digressions, an exposition on the history of Paris’ sewer system and a rather detailed explanation of the history of human waste disposal.
In the sewers he encounters…yes! Thénardier. This foul excuse for a human being (okay, a different form of human waste) doesn’t recognize Valjean, nor does he recognize the unconscious Marius. He thinks Valjean is carrying away the body of someone he’s murdered. Thénardier, believing he’s encountered a like soul, must assist Valjean. He aids his escape from the sewers.
Meanwhile, Javert: Valjean’s act of kindness toward Javert has the policeman in the midst of an existential meltdown. His life has always been a cascade of cases in black and white, but Valjean’s act had created for him many shades of gray. Left with such cognitive dissonance, Javert lets himself drown in the Seine.
Finally, Valjean returns Marius to M. Gillenormand’s home. The old man has believed Marius dead; now he rejoices in him, despite Marius being near death. Marius recovers and asks the old man once more for permission to marry. This time, Gillenormand agrees. Valjean brings Cosette there, and the couple—and M. Gillenormand—become deliriously happy. But for Valjean, there’s only sadness. He realizes Cosette has been his reason for living, that despite her happiness with Marius, he's lost a part of himself forever. So, Valjean decides, he must make the break a clean one—he mustn’t linger in their lives.
At last, Valjean owns up to whom he really is—a former galley slave, and a fugitive from the law. But, after some consternation, neither Marius nor Cosette are particularly concerned with his identity. Valjean returns to his home in the slums, having given most of his fortune of six hundred thousand Louis to the couple.
With the loss of Cosette, Valjean’s life force begins to ebb. He grows frightfully ill.
This close to the story’s end, Hugo still has one more plot card to play. Enter Thénardier (for the last time). He tries to extort money from Marius regarding Valjean’s reputation. By now, Marius is showing signs of a mature man capable, not only of being a responsible husband, but of being able to handle persons like Thénardier. He does, however, give our villain enough money to make his way to the New World, where Thénardier becomes a slave trader.
In Hugo’s final scene, Valjean lies dying, Cosette and Marius with him. Valjean’s last request is that he be buried with a simple tombstone and no epitaph. And so Valjean is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris where, coincidentally, Hugo himself is finally laid to rest at the end of his days.
So what are we to make—in as few words as possible—of Valjean and this story of Hugo’s? Two quotes from Hugo’s text come to mind by way of explanation:

“There is no thinker who has not at times contemplated the splendors below among the dregs.”

I think Hugo realizes that the affluent life, as well as the educated life are quite removed from the realities of the lives of most people. That is, these "normal" lives are sterile existences compared to “street life, it’s passion, its creativeness in staying alive. Consequently, in Hugo’s view, that life is “splendorous.” It’s in a certain sense the “real” life. Many of the passages I’ve marked in my reading of Les Misérables allude to this point in different ways.

“At intervals we see truth, that sunshine of the human soul, glimmering away there (in the stormy cloud of systems, passions, and theories).”

Here, Hugo clearly recognizes that, despite one’s life situation, despite all failed revolts, there’s something common to all, something divine, something that is essentially truth incarnated and, in the end, something that will out. Certainly, this is Valjean’s story. Hugo believed it was (and is) France’s story.
My hope is that it’s the story of us all.

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