Les Misérables

by: Victor Hugo

“Jean Valjean,” Books One–Three

Analysis: Books One–Three

Valjean’s offer to execute Javert for the revolutionaries turns out to be a gesture of compassion and concern, and befuddles the hard-hearted Javert. When Valjean brings Javert into the empty courtyard, Javert thinks that Valjean is finally going to punish him for his years of obsessive pursuit. It turns out, however, that not only does Valjean have no intention of executing Javert, but he also goes out of his way to save his tormentor’s life. By faking Javert’s execution, Valjean ensures that no one else kills the inspector. Javert is floored by Valjean’s inherent goodness, and his belief in his cause starts to waver. Unlike before, when Valjean has to beg Javert to let him retrieve Cosette in Montreuil, Javert now allows Valjean one favor, permitting him to bring Marius back to his grandfather’s. Valjean acts the part of Javert’s executioner almost too well, and there is an important moment of foreshadowing when Marius recoils from Valjean in horror. As far as Marius can tell, Valjean is a murderer, and as long as Marius remains unaware that Valjean has saved both his and Javert’s lives, he does not change his opinion.

Valjean arrives at the barricade just in time to save one unnamed man from certain death, a moment strongly reminiscent of his salvation of Cosette in the woods outside the Thénardiers’ inn. This episode at the barricade reinforces our perception of Valjean as a nearly providential figure who arrives when people need him most. Just as he seems to drop from the sky in answer to Cosette’s desperate plea for help, Valjean once again appears out of nowhere to come to the rescue of one of the five men chosen to sneak out of the barricade. In describing Valjean’s generosity, the narrator writes that “[a] fifth uniform dropped, as if from heaven, onto the four others.” Phrased in these terms, Valjean’s uniform is like the giant hand that helps the young Cosette with her pail of water, a vehicle sent from heaven to help the unfortunate. Valjean’s criminal past, which has taught him to slip in and out of places unnoticed, contributes to his otherworldly air and turns him into a deus ex machina, a literary device in which a character or event unexpectedly swoops in to resolve a difficult situation. The deus ex machina is a device commonly used in drama, and Hugo’s use of it here highlights the impact of his theatrical background on his novel. It also reveals Hugo’s enormous faith in his protagonist: Valjean is so decent and good that the rules of the everyday world no longer apply to him. Indeed, his helpful appearances are worthy of an angel.


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