Tag Archives: Jean Valjean

Marius Joins the Persecution

It’s so frustrating to watch Marius take part in the same condemnation that the people of Digne showed Jean Valjean when he arrived there two decades earlier. With all his ideals, you want him to know better, but he “had not yet made full progress” and still believes that shunning the ex-convict is the right thing to do. He makes Valjean unwelcome and does his best to distract Cosette and weaken her emotional ties to her father.

But Marius has also scrupulously tried to pay back Thénardier for saving his father’s life, despite knowing how vile he is. Unlike Javert, who struggles with the idea of owing Valjean his life, Marius wouldn’t hesitate to honor his debt of gratitude.

Valjean knows this. Maybe not the Thénardier connection, but he’s observed Marius’ character, and Marius has mentioned looking for the man who saved his life at the barricade. And he knows that Marius would insist that he stay…which is why he doesn’t tell him. Valjean tells Marius the bare minimum, leaving him to fill in the blanks as darkly as possible: he already believes Valjean murdered Javert, and as he investigates, he comes to believe that Valjean defrauded M. Madeleine.

Strangely enough, the one time Thénardier proves to be better at something than someone else is in investigating Jean Valjean. He turns up irrefutable evidence that Valjean is Madeleine, that he did not kill Javert, and that he rescued Marius. To be fair, that’s not what he was trying to prove…

But if Marius had asked questions, and Valjean had answered them, he would have reconciled the conflicting views right then and remained welcoming. Valjean might still have fallen into despair, might still have insisted on leaving (as he does in the musical), but Marius wouldn’t have been complicit.

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Valjean’s Depression Pretends to be his Conscience

Valjean’s steps to remove himself from Cosette and Marius’ new family are infuriating: he doesn’t need to do that! Why does he think he needs to do that?

But you can’t argue with depression.

It’s the beginning of a downward spiral: he’s come to believe that Cosette is better off without him.

His internal struggle, trying to decide whether he can accept the place offered in their household, is presented as the same type of struggle he fought at Digne before and after robbing the bishop, deciding to go to Arras to rescue Champmathieu, deciding whether to rescue Marius at the barricade…what kind of man will he be, and will he put others ahead of himself? It’s presented as the final test of his conscience, but I can’t read it that way.

All those cases involved significant harm to someone else balanced against his own wishes. That’s not the case here. While the law might still catch up to him, it’s a flimsy risk at best, and the danger to Cosette is no greater now that it has been for the past decade.

It’s no longer about sacrificing himself to help others. It’s about self-sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, because he feels deep down that he doesn’t deserve happiness. It’s the lingering impact of his 19 years in prison, how he was treated and the “dangerous man” he became as a result of it. He thinks his conscience wins out, but I disagree. It’s not his conscience. It’s the triumph of the prison system that condemned him to nineteen years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread for seven starving children. He’s free in body, but still there in spirit.

Despite everything he’s done, all the people he’s helped, the way he transformed other lives the way the bishop transformed his, deep down Valjean still believes he’s the scum of the earth, just like Javert did. So all the entreaties from Marius, Cosette and even Gillenormand that Valjean should stay can’t compete with the voice of his “conscience” – really his depression – telling him “they’re better off without you.” And he pushes them away.

Everyone is worse for it, himself included. But he simply sees it as proof that he was right: he doesn’t deserve to be happy with them.

I want to take Valjean by the shoulders, shake him, tell him he’s being an idiot, he doesn’t deserve to cut himself off, he’s loved here…

But depression doesn’t work that way.

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Cosette is Separated from Another Parent

By the time Jean Valjean rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers, she no longer remembers her mother. (She was about two when they last saw each other.) By the time she’s grown, she’s blocked out the trauma of those years so thoroughly that she’s forgotten that Valjean isn’t her real father.

This comes up when Valjean, drawing on his experience as a mayor, lays out a false paper trail giving her a legitimate family history (all dead) so she can legally marry. The money he had stashed away is presented as an inheritance from one of these dead relatives, setting her and Marius up for life.

It’s telling that he doesn’t fabricate this history in a way that makes him officially her father, but instead claims that he’s her uncle. (The nuns didn’t pay much attention to which Fauchelevent was Cosette’s father.)

In part it might be too easily disproven. Even if no one is looking for him anymore, he’s still a fugitive, and Thénardier at least is still out there. On the off chance he is found out, she’s insulated by being his ward and niece instead of his daughter. He even goes so far as to fake an injury so that he can’t sign her marriage certificate, so that there’s no risk of it being invalidated.

But he’s also already preparing to leave, and this makes it cleaner.

Also worth noting: the money he’s stashed away helps smooth over “a few peculiarities here and there” in the legalities. That’s not something Fantine would have had access to if she’d tried to pose as a widow back in Montrieul-sur-Mer and keep Cosette with her.

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Valjean’s Hidden Decisions and the End of Resilience

We don’t see inside Jean Valjean’s head when he decides to go to the barricade, so it’s not clear why he goes. But the lead-in to the decision is much like the lead-in to the Champmathieu fiasco: There’s a threat to his way of life, but all he has to do is wait for another man to lose his, and he’ll be safe. From that standpoint, the question of whether he goes to protect Marius or to watch him die isn’t so ambiguous. It’s the same kind of dilemma, and whether he’s decided or not (just as before, it’s Schrödinger’s decision), he can’t let fate relieve him of the responsibility, so he goes.

Valjean has wrapped up way too much of his sense of self-worth in his role as Cosette’s father. That’s what makes the prospect of losing her seem like such a threat. And he’s right: not that it should be a danger, but that it is, because he can’t handle the transition. After nineteen years of prison and seventeen years on the run from the law, Valjean has latched onto supporting Cosette as the one thing he’s good for. And if Marius is doing that, he can’t see any place for himself.

Just like Javert, he dies from inflexibility.

Javert kills himself because he realizes that his world view is wrong, and he can’t see a place for himself in the world as he now understands it.

Valjean sinks into depression and starves himself because his world has changed, and he can’t see a place for himself in the new one.

In the past, Valjean has been incredibly resilient. He adapted to life in prison, out of prison, as a businessman, a fugitive, a father, a gardener, and a retiree. But he’s become stuck here, seeing his life with his adopted daughter as the endgame, not as one more stage in his life, unwilling to let it change until his conscience forces his hand, and then unwilling to embrace it

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Mugging Fail

I love this scene: Montparnasse tries to rob Jean Valjean, but gets trounced and lectured to instead. And Gavroche picks the would-be-mugger’s pocket, leaving the coins for Mabeuf, whose hedge he’s hiding in.

It’s got quick reversals, irony, and over-the-top coincidence.

“Who was this old gent? The reader has probably guessed.” But Gavroche doesn’t know him, and he’s the viewpoint character for the scene, so the narrator dances around his name instead of giving it.

Incidentally, Gavroche is trying to steal apples – which is what Champmathieu was arrested for. Back in that chapter it was mentioned that it could be excused of a boy, but not a grown man.

These last few chapters bring back two looks at Valjean’s years as a prisoner: The chain gang being taken to prison, and his scare-em-straight tale to Montparnasse. The story has moved on, structurally…but of course Valjean isn’t allowed to move on. That’s the whole point of his arc, that society won’t let him just be, and always sees him as an ex-convict.

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