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Free Study Guide for Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: "Les Mis"

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LES MISERABLES: LITERARY CRITICISM

JEAN VALJEAN

Book Fourth: Javert off the Track

Summary

After leaving Valjean, Javert heads for a dangerous point of rapid water along the Seine River. For the first time in his career, he is without answers, unsure of what he should do. He is amazed at having been set free by Valjean and frightened that he himself let Valjean go in return. He feels that he owed a debt to the convict, but that to have paid it puts personal sentiment before the law and sets the convict above the law.

To Javert, the existence of the law and duty to it is how he has defined himself. Now he is forced to reconcile the contradictions of convict and benefactor, to remember the shadowy presence of Mayor Madeleine, to acknowledge the stories of kindnesses on the part of Valjean which he, Javert, had managed to ignore and deny for years. He feels obligated to go back and retake Valjean, but cannot bring himself to do so. He has always been able to see things with one-sided vision; the answer of the law was sufficient for every expediency, but it is no longer so. Javert, in acting as his own judge and jury, finds himself guilty of one of two crimes no matter what choice he makes-the crime of arresting a good man versus the crime of letting a criminal escape.

Once a single weakness in the law is revealed, several others-which actually amount to abuse in police practice-come to his mind. Javert goes to a nearby precinct, writes a careful letter in which he lists a series of police faults, then returns to the river and throws himself in.

Notes

Javert is a one-dimensional character with an unusual twist. He has just enough depth to know that he is faced with two choices but not enough to enable him to make either choice. Valjean confounds and infuriates him. All of his regulations and axioms fall apart before this man. “Other acts which he remembered...returned to him now as realities. M. Madeleine reappeared behind Jean Valjean and the two figures overlaid each other so as to make but one, which was venerable. Javert felt that something horrible was penetrating his soul, admiration for a convict.” The very idea that he is forced to respect a galley slave is intolerable to Javert, but is nonetheless a truth he cannot escape. His inability to make a decision regarding Valjean becomes the loss of all certainty. The following quote encapsulates his predicament: “An entire new world appeared to his soul; favour accepted and returned, devotion, compassion, indulgence, no more final condemnation, no more damnation, the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, a mysterious justice according to God going counter to justice according to men. He perceived in the darkness the fearful rising of an unknown moral sun; he was horrified and blinded by it. An owl compelled to an eagle’s gaze.”


Javert has failed himself. His one goal in life was to attend to duty and to be judged irreproachable. In committing an act of kindness he has failed himself in his ultimate goal. However, being forced to admit that the law does not have an answer in every case also gives him the latitude to question other police practices that he had always known were either wrong or unnecessary, but that he had never before allowed himself to question. The law, after all, was the law and unimpeachable.

Javert’s predicament is important because he is a type representative of the harsh administration of the laws of the time. There were no grey areas or justifiable excuses. A violation of the law, no matter how slight, was a crime and therefore punishable. Part of human progress is the mellowing of such law.


Book V: The Grandson and the Grandfather

Summary

Marius spends months convalescing while his grandfather dotes on him. As he gains strength he grows quieter and stops calling out for Cosette. He also withdraws from his grandfather, refusing to call him “father,” but also refraining from addressing him as “monsieur.” He plans to tear off his bandages, ruin his partially healed shoulder and starve himself if his grandfather denies him Cosette again.

To Marius’ pleasant surprise, Gillenormand is already prepared for the confrontation. When Marius tells him that he wishes to marry, Gillenormand informs him that Cosette, represented by her father has been to check on his condition every day. Gillenormand has already investigated the girl and found her to be charming and modest. He has even prepared for her to visit Marius on a date, which he moves up at Marius’ request. Marius is both amazed and overjoyed; his reserve caves in and he calls Gillenormand “father.”

When Valjean arrives with Cosette, Gillenormand asks for her to be married to Marius. Valjean agrees; Gillenormand’s only concern is that when he dies, his income will no longer be available to Marius and Cosette. Then Valjean announces that Cosette, “Mademoiselle Euphrasie Fauchelevant,” has 600,000 francs minus perhaps 15,000. This is money that Valjean accumulated during his years as Monsieur Madeleine and has kept buried in the secret spot in the forest. He has removed all the money from its hiding place and now produces it for Mademoiselle Gillenormand and her brother to count. Valjean also knows now that he is finally free from Javert.

The two old men prepare for the wedding. Valjean, having once been a mayor, knows how to create an “identity” and history for Cosette. He claims that she is the last of an extinct family, a relative of his who was also called Fauchelevant. Gillenormand, meanwhile, makes the plans for the actual wedding, piling daily gifts of finery on Cosette.

Marius and Valjean rarely speak to each other although Valjean appears everyday to chaperone Cosette. Once Marius, who thinks he remembers Valjean from the barricade, approaches the subject of the insurrection, but Valjean claims to be unfamiliar with the street Rue de La Chanvrerie. Marius convinces himself that it must have been someone else, but his happiness with Cosette does not enable him to forget two debts that he feels obligated to settle. The first is still to Thenardier, the second to a mysterious man who carried him to his grandfather after the insurrection.

Thenardier himself has sunk into obscurity with a death sentence over his head for failure to appear in court regarding the events at the Gorbeau House. Thenardiess is dead, Claquesous has disappeared, and Thenardier’s daughters have retreated into the obscurity of the streets. Thus Marius is unable to find him. As for the other man, Valjean never hints that it was himself. All of Marius’ searching leads to dead ends.

Notes

Marius is a much gentler version of Javert with more depth of character and an ability to admit an error. He is also a student of the law and as such is driven to repay a debt. His belief in the law will ultimately cost Valjean his life. Gillenormand himself has not changed his political opinions and nearly gives himself away in conversation with Marius. However, he values Marius more than fidelity to a way of life that is passing. He also dotes on Cosette to a degree that his own daughter never received. In fact, we are told that the happiness of the young lovers was equaled by the “ecstasy of the grandfather.” He recalls the excesses of the past when people celebrated lavishly and, no doubt, wastefully. In reminiscing, he reveals that his attraction for the life of the bourgeoisie was more one of love for the lifestyle than for the politics.


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