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

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LES MISERABLES: ONLINE NOTES / STUDY GUIDE

JEAN VALJEAN


Book Sixth: The White Night

Summary

The wedding of Cosette and Marius takes place on the night of Mardi Gras. On the way to the wedding, the carriages of the wedding party pass those of the masked revelers traveling in opposite directions. Two of the masked persons are Azelma and her father Thenardier who recognizes Valjean. He tells Azelma to follow the wedding party and find out who they are and where they have gone.

The wedding supper is a gala occasion, but Valjean keeps himself apart. He had given the honor of escorting Cosette to Gillenormand as his arm is in a sling-the result, he says, of a mild injury. Valjean also manages to slip away before he supper begins by claiming that his arm is bothering him and he wishes to retire early. He spends the night weeping and agonizing over his final and ultimate self-sacrifice. As Javert is dead, he should be free to take the room Marius has offered and live happily with the Gillenormand family in peace and comfort. He cannot bring himself to live the lie that such action would require; he also fears the possibility that he might somehow bring his past upon the young people and ultimately cause them harm.

Notes


Valjean has successfully given Cosette the name of an extinct family. However, he knows that to sign the marriage documents under the name of Fauchelevant himself would risk casting a shadow of fraud on the marriage. The man never stops thinking; he is never for a second unaware of his true identity, and yet he is so disciplined that he does not give himself away until he is ready to do so.


Book Seventh: The Last Drop in The Chalice

Summary

Valjean visits Marius early enough in the morning that Cosette is not yet awake. Marius calls him father, significant for the fact that it comes close to breaking an icy barrier that has always stood between himself and Valjean. Valjean refuses the invitation to breakfast and bluntly states that he is an old convict. There is nothing wrong with his arm, but he had worn the sling at the wedding to avoid having to sign the marriage documents under false pretenses. Marius challenges Valjean, asking why he bothered to come forward now. Valjean insists that it is because he is an honest man and could not live with himself if he did otherwise. By facing the condemnation of others, he creates his own salvation. Marius promises not to tell Cosette and they agree that he will visit her every evening in a downstairs room.

Once Valjean is gone, Marius ponders the situation, recalling times when he had seen Valjean-the Jondrette garret and the barricades. He realizes that he did not ask questions about certain things because he was afraid of the answers. Nevertheless, he cannot deny that the man he perceives as the very shadow or darkness has protected, raised and nourished Cosette into an “angel of light.”

Notes

It is the ultimate irony that an old convict reveals the truth of his past for the sake of honor. But as he says, his misfortune “is a cord” in his heart which he can never break. He claims he never really had a family and thus cannot belong to that of Gillenormand. He admits that on the day that Cosette was married, life was essentially over for him. For her, he could have continued the lie, but she has no need of him now, and he cannot lie for himself. He further acknowledges that even with Javert gone, he is a hunted man. He is hunted by himself, urged, and checked by himself. And even though it cannot make sense to Marius, it is by degrading himself in Marius’ eyes that Valjean elevates and redeems himself in his own.

It seems that with Javert gone, Valjean still feels the need to atone for his misdeeds. He has condemned himself for something so minor, it makes the modern reader cringe to think of it. In order to be free of that condemnation, he must find someone else with the power to condemn and punish him.


Book Eighth: The Twilight Wane

Summary

Valjean visits Cosette every evening staying downstairs in a basement room . On the first night, she objects and questions his behavior, but by the second night she is more subdued although not entirely happy about the situation. He asks her to call him Monsieur Jean rather than “Father” and he addresses her as “Madame.” Thus he gradually puts distance between himself and her, breaking his own heart by degrees.

Valjean’s visits become longer until one day he silently “shown the door.” He visits to find the fire extinguished in the fireplace and the room cold and dark. He and Cosette light the fire and the candles. The next day, the fire is burning but the chairs are placed at the opposite end of the room. The day after that, the chairs are gone. Valjean stays only a few minutes and does not return although he takes a walk every evening and approaches just closely enough to see the house. He begins to waste away physically.


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