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

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LES MISERABLES: PLOT ANALYSIS / LITERARY ELEMENTS

JEAN VALJEAN

Book Ninth: Supreme Shadow, Supreme Dawn

Summary

Marius admits to himself that he was responsible for banishing Valjean from the Gillenormand home, but he feels that his reasons were well founded. He attempts to locate the source of the money Valjean has left to Cosette, believing that he must restore it to its rightful owner.

Valjean himself has stopped going to Cosette’s new home. In fact, after one last trip to the street, he has taken to his bed. He does not get up and does not eat. A doctor who visits him at the request of the portress says that “Valjean is a man who has lost a dear friend,” and that “people die from that.” One day Valjean drags himself out of bed and to his inkstand. There, with many stops and starts, he begins to write a letter explaining where the money came from and how he had invented a new, cheaper way to make the popular jet baubles. The weakness and despair of dying without ever seeing Cosette again forces him to pause in his writing. At the moment, there is a knock at his door.


Thenardier has arrived at the home of Gillenormand and has directed a servant to carry a letter to Marius. The letter claims a secret that will be of use to Marius. He signs his name “Thenard” which Marius immediately suspects. Thenardier is disguised, but soon gives himself away. He tries to tell Marius that Valjean is a convict and assassin, but Marius already knows these things and scoffs. However, Marius thinks Valjean robbed Monsieur Madeleine and assassinated Javert. He becomes interested when Thenardier produces documents proving that Valjean was himself Madeleine and that Javert was not assassinated but committed suicide.

The murder that Thenardier has come to reveal is the one he thinks he saw in the sewer. He produces the scrap of cloth he had torn from the coat of the presumed “dead man.” Marius immediately recognizes the scrap and produces the coat itself. He also realizes that Valjean was the one who saved his life and is deserving of gratitude and even veneration. As Thenardier had saved Marius’ father from death at Waterloo, Marius pays him off, giving him enough money to go to America.

Marius and Cosette go immediately to Valjean’s apartment although Cosette does not exactly understand what has happened. Valjean admits them and the three experience a reunion mixed with joy and sorrow. Valjean revels in seeing them again and in knowing that they have “forgiven” him, but also insists that he is dying. Marius realizes that there was never anything to forgive, but that, on the contrary, he owes everything to Valjean. They want to take him home with them, but it is too late. Valjean dies, content that at least he did not have to die without seeing Cosette again. They bury him, at his request, in a grassy plot at the edge of the woods, leaving an unmarked stone over his grove.

Notes

The narrator claims that it would be unjust to blame Marius for his behavior toward Valjean. He did what he felt was necessary and just in placing himself between Cosette and Valjean. Cosette herself still loved Valjean dearly, but she loved her husband more. Nevertheless, she sent Nicolette to inquire after him several times and was always told that he was “away.” To some extent, the narrator finds the separation “natural.” The affection of the young is “chilled by life, that of the old by the grave,” he says. Thus Cosette gradually grew apart from Valjean in the same way that the branches of a tree gradually grow further and further away from the main stem.

Valjean actually starves himself to death. He drinks a little water from time to time, but refuses food and confines himself first to his room and then to his bed. Again, the Christ image emerges for Valjean dies of a broken heart. The arrival of Cosette and Marius relieves him of his agony, but it is too late for him to recover his lost strength. But in the fulfillment of his last wish-that Cosette and Marius would forgive him for his past-he is finally able to forgive himself.


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