Bonjour mes amis et bienvenue à la cinquième (et dernière) semaine de #MiserablesMay! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, long story short: I decided reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the space of the month of May would be a good idea. (I was wrong.) If you’re curious about the intended weekly schedule and organisation of this, be sure to check out my announcement post or the post of my co-host Liz.
Recap of Volume Five: Jean Valjean
When we left the last volume Cosette had written a note to Marius to tell him the date and time of her and Valjean’s planned departure for England but Valjean had found the impression it had left on the blotter she wrote it. What did he do next? Well, obviously he loaded his musket and sought out the place where the lad was and… joined in with his revolution?? (I’m only half joking.) The fifth and final volume is entitled ‘Jean Valjean’ which is a pretty telling sign – it probably means he’s likely to be dead by the end of it. Considering we’ve been following his life for some 1000 pages it wouldn’t be unreasonable that the reasonably aged man would now be on his way to meet his maker; he’s been through a lot of shit (quite literally by the end of this volume) so if there’s anyone who deserves a peaceful death surrounded by his loved ones, it’s Valjean. Obviously though, this is Victor Hugo, so he can’t just let characters chill for a minute.
What actually opens this volume, though, is a digression is typical Victor Hugo form – just related enough to not actually feel irrelevant but removed enough from the real meat of the book’s plot that you start to question whether you would lose any comprehension of the novel if you just skim-read it. This time it’s a piece about barricades, but not the barricade we’re reading about, oh no, a different one entirely. (These sections mostly just make me miss university because you can bet all your money that I would be close-analysing the shit out of it, if I were writing an essay on the subject.) Thankfully, however, Hugo manages to bring it back around to the ‘present’ before I lose the will to live and compares the barricades he’s just mentioned to the current one of Enjolras and pals. He calls it barely an embryo in comparison which doesn’t exactly bode well for its longevity, especially when we’re quickly told the food is running out. As anyone who’s ever organised a sit-in protest knows there are two important considerations: access to toilet facilities and adequate provisions of food and water.
Enjolras does a bit of recon and returns with the gloomy proclamation that the city of Paris has not risen up as hoped for, the army will pummel them with their forces, and that they’re all likely to die that day. Not the best of news, all in all, but a random barricade boy declares that they should all ‘make a protest of their corpses’ and people agree. Enjolras, however, tries to bargain with them and it’s decided that any of the men who have responsibilities (i.e. families who depend on them for their survival) should leave – this is met with protest but eventually they pick out five (not so willing) men who intend to sneak out from the fighting by disguising themselves in the uniforms of National Guard that the barricade have previously killed. They do another count, however, and realise they only have four uniforms after all. What to do? Luckily, rather than it dissolving into another argument, a fifth uniform suddenly falls from the heavens… well, from the hands of Valjean (aka M. Fauchelevent as Marius knows him) who has managed to sneak into the barricade by being disguised into it. I’m starting to question just how good of a watch either of the sides have on this barricade.
After the five leave the barricade, Enjolras breaks off from his philosophising speeches for long enough to check on their prisoner Javert who asks to be tied up differently so that he can lay down. Valjean watches from the doorway and when Javert sees him he doesn’t seem surprised, he simply says ‘of course’ i.e. ‘of course this MF would be here to see the tables turned’. Elsewhere at the barricade, Gavroche practically skips back in and tells Marius he has delivered his letter to Cosette directly (spoiler alert: he hasn’t) whilst Enjolras and Combeferre have a nice moment after killing a gunner, saying he might have been their brother, isn’t their enemy etc. etc. which is nice and all but the army is still shooting at them so all the philosophising is pretty much wasted on this situation. It does give Enjolras an excuse to (I presume prettily) cry a single lonely tear.
In amongst the moments of assault on the barricade (during one of which they decide they need a mattress to block up a hole and Valjean is conveniently an incredible shot and shoots ropes holding up a mattress to a balcony, letting it fall oh so conveniently right where they need it), there’s the oft-quoted passage where the amis are joking about women stirring up the blood in men and they lament about how Enjolras is not in love yet is somehow passionate still (it’s almost like they aren’t cause to effect???). Enjolras mutters something about his mistress’ named being Patria. Then the moment is ruined by that pesky cannon starting another assault on the barricade, at which point his attention and speech is focused on the fact they are running out of ammunition, something which Gavroche hears and proceeds to involve himself in because this kid can’t just stay out of the way. Predictably, Gavroche somehow gets quite far outside the barricade and begins to gather unused cartridges from the soldiers who are dead which is a great scheme up until the point that they notice and shoot him dead. He goes down singing, obviously.
There’s a brief interlude to all this action when we cut back to the two children (remember them? The ones who are unknowingly Gavroche’s brothers?) who are alone and hungry and confused. This section is incredibly sad when you think about its implications and how many children there were in similar situations at the time, and all the time to be honest. However, I get the sense that Victor Hugo doesn’t spend quite enough time on it to cement this as a lasting impression of the book.
We head back to the barricade and get the sense that this really is the beginning of the end as the amis start to refortify their position, move the provisions (wine bottles included) upstairs, and ready their axes to cut away the staircase below them if needed. Oh and Enjolras tells the last man to leave the ground floor to blow out Javert’s brains. Obviously, this mysterious stranger appears at that moment and asks for a reward in the shape of being allowed to shoot Javert. Enjolras has bigger fish to fry at this moment so just shrugs it off and lets him. Valjean drags him away to a quiet corner and then does the unthinkable… he lets Javert go and fires his gun off, only pretending to shoot him dead.
Meanwhile, Enjolras really does have bigger fish to fry as the amis are pushed further into the shop and up to the upper level. They cut the staircase down and they even go so far as throwing the contents of the wine bottles at their assailants – the contents of which is, quite nastily, not wine but nitric acid. Eventually, however, they’re shot down one by one until only Enjolras remains. However, just as the soldiers are lining up to make something of a firing squad out of this death, a drunken and dazed Grantaire stumbles into the scene. He had drunk himself into unconsciousness and slept through the entire thing. Now, he moves towards Enjolras, looking enraptured by the other man’s presence, and asks his permission to stand by him and be killed with him. Enjolras permits it, they are shot dead, and the barricade finally falls.
Ah but where, a discerning reader might wonder, are Marius and Valjean come to think of it? Luckily, or unluckily as the case may be, Marius was knocked unconscious during the assault and grabbed from behind by a hand which dragged him away and to (relative) safety. That hand obviously belonged to Jean Valjean, who drags the unconscious Marius away from the fighting and thereby saves his life, though Marius conveniently remains none the wiser. What then proceeds in the narrative is a long section about the history and geography of the Parisian sewer system that no one ever needed nor asked for. Looking back it’s a mere 50 pages of the book but reading about Valjean up to his eyeballs in literal shit does not make for quick reading; in fact, it is as slow-going as his progress through the quagmire of excrement undoubtedly was. Just as Valjean sees the light at the end of the literal tunnel, there is one remaining obstacle – a locked gate which, conveniently, a passing stranger has the key for. Who is this passing stranger? Why, it’s Thénardier! Of course, in yet another case of disguised identity, Valjean recognises the man but the man does not recognise him, probably because he’s difficult to make out when he’s covered in literal shit. (Hey, I’ll stop with the shit now if Hugo does.) Anyway, Thénardier sees this mysterious man skulking about the sewers with a body on his back and naturally presumes he’s a criminal who has murdered some poor unfortunate soul and is now looking for somewhere to dump the body. Thénardier says he will help him out in exchange for the contents of the dead dude’s pockets – classy but predictable.
One obstacle down, Valjean starts to wash off Marius’ face in river water only to feel that sensation of being watched. He turns around and sees Javert watching him – of all the river banks in all of Paris… Valjean says he’s doing a good deed and begs only a couple of days leave to finish his deed and then he will surrender willingly to Javert. We’ve heard that one before but Javert seems to have a change of heart this time and actually helps Valjean to get Marius into a carriage and safely back to his grandfather’s house to recuperate from the brink of death. Having safely dumped him there, Valjean and Javert go back to Valjean’s place and the latter allows the former a moment to say goodbye to his home, telling him he will wait for him down in the street. But when Valjean chances to look out the window when he’s upstairs, he discovers that the street is empty and Javert has disappeared. Anyone who has seen the musical or film(s) will know that Javert is having an existential crisis because of Valjean’s mercy; the idea of it shakes every fibre of his being and his understanding of the world and its people on which he has based his entire philosophy in life. Understandably, this leads Javert to spiral into a very dark place and this section sadly ends with Javert jumping into the Seine and committing suicide.
Back at the Gillenormand household, Marius is slowly recuperating and one of his first thoughts after his near-death experience is that he still wishes to marry Cosette. Gillenormand, who has since had a wake up call of sorts after his grandson nearly died, consents. Long story short: Cosette comes by with her father (remember, Marius still doesn’t know Valjean was the person who saved his life) and the loved-up pair plan their wedding. Conveniently, Cosette is also rolling in it, which is handy and will set them up quite nicely in life. Valjean, meanwhile, is acting weirder as the days go by. The day before the wedding he conveniently hurts his arm, requiring a sling, and meaning he can’t sign any of the official documentation required of the bride’s father. Gillenormand graciously steps in to fulfil this role but, obviously, it’s a ruse by Valjean so that he doesn’t have to lie on official documentation and thereby potentially bring the legality of such a document into question if he’s ever found out. He also leaves their wedding early to go home and secret himself away to take out a secret package of Cosette’s clothing from the night he rescued/adopted her – he ends up weeping over it because, of course, this is difficult for him to let go of his daughter as she is essentially the reason he redeemed himself and became an ‘honest man’. Of course, this prompts Valjean to have another of his moral crises because would it even be a volume of Les Misérables if someone didn’t have an emotional crisis?
In the end, he comes clean and tells Marius everything, about how he’s not Fauchelevent, about how Cosette isn’t his biological daughter but is adopted, about how he was a convict. Marius seems chill with this until Cosette interrupts their little secret sharing party to be all happy and flouncy (and a little unbearable) and I don’t quite remember why or how but Marius doesn’t seem as easily forgiving of Valjean’s honesty afterwards. However, he tells Valjean he will come and see Cosette every single day and it will be expected of him, which is more than Valjean expected to be allowed. Valjean does come to visit everyday but seems to strangely distance himself from Cosette more and more with each passing day, not allowing her to call him father anymore. He feels like he is slowly also being edged out of the picture by Marius as he arrives on some occasions and the chair he sits in isn’t in the room, or the fire hasn’t been lit in the grate, so he takes this as a not so subtle invitation to stop coming around for these visits. Valjean entirely withdraws and stops visiting, sinking further into a mental and physical depression.
Marius, meanwhile, receives a curious letter from a Baron Thenard, in a hand that he recognises immediately as belonging to ‘Jondrette’ aka Thénardier. Thénardier tells Marius that he has valuable information he ought to hear about his new father-in-law, specifically that he’s an escaped convict and an assassin. In an uncharacteristic show of sarcasm, Marius tells the man he already knew this information, as he knows that Valjean has robbed a man called M. Madeleine and killed the police officer Javert. Thénardier surprises everyone by telling the truth – Javert committed suicide and Madeleine is Valjean – but stops Marius’ astonishment in its tracks by agreeing that Valjean is a murderer after all probably because he killed someone in the sewers and was dragging his dead body to the river. Of course, once Thénardier tells Marius this, the penny finally (finally!) drops and Marius realises that his knight in shining armour that night must have been Valjean himself! As you can imagine, he’s beside himself, and quickly shoves money at Thénardier to get rid of him (telling him that he’s protected by Waterloo, that old chestnut again) and drags Cosette with him to seek out Valjean.
When they arrive, he is not in a good way. He has been slowly dying and is probably on his last few days. (Timing in this novel really is a bitch.) Valjean uses up some of his remaining moments to assure a repentant Marius that Cosette’s fortune is legitimate, that he made money as Madeleine because he invented a manufacturing process that revolutionised how things were done, and made dollar dollar from it. He says he is a poor man so therefore should be buried in a simple grave bearing no name on the stone. He also tells Cosette her mother’s name was Fantine (finally) and assures them both how much he loves them and wishes them health and happiness etc. Then he dies. Shortly afterwards the novel ends on these few lines of verse, and so will my recap:
‘He is asleep. Though his mettle was sorely tried,
He lived, and when he lost his angel, died.
It happened calmly, on its own,
The way night comes when day is done.’
My reading experience of Volume Five: Jean Valjean
In this final week of the readalong, I struggled big time – part of this was because of the shortened week, part of this was because I was already (and nearly always) behind when the week dawned, and part of this was because I was reaching the end and knew I had a trek through the Parisian sewers to complete before I was ‘rewarded’ with the sickeningly sweet coupling up of Marius and Cosette in holy matrimony. The book has a lot of important things to say about sacrifice and redemption though, and the closing chapters of this book are really where it brings that all to a philosophical conclusion, culminating in the death of its main character, Jean Valjean. If I could say absolutely nothing else about this novel, I can easily say that it has truly been a journey that we readers have followed him on.
After what seemed like an eternity, we’re finally at the end of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. If you have been taking part in the readalong, I sincerely hope you have enjoyed the experience of reading this literal Brick of a book, and I thank each and every person who has participated in the readalong or even read just these recap posts of mine. I think I can safely say that we’ve all learnt some valuable life lessons from ol’ Victor Hugo, the main one being that digressions and diversions into the Parisian sewer system are rarely appealing to the characters or the readers. And what a fine note to leave the readalong on…