Les Misérables

by: Victor Hugo

“Jean Valjean,” Books Four–Nine

Marius wonders aloud that Valjean might actually be an honest man. Thénardier contradicts him, saying that Valjean is in fact a thief and a murderer. To prove it, he tells Marius of his encounter with Valjean and his victim in the sewer. He produces the piece of cloth that he tore from the victim’s jacket as proof. Marius rushes to a closet and pulls out his bloodied jacket, and the fragment of fabric fits exactly. He throws money at Thénardier and orders him out of the house. The incorrigible Thénardier, we are told, uses the money to leave for America, where he becomes a slave-trader.

Marius realizes that Valjean is the man who saved him on the barricades and brought him home through the sewers. Overcome with guilt, Marius tells Cosette about his discovery. The couple rushes to Valjean’s apartment to see him. They find him ill and bedridden, but he is overjoyed to see them. Overcome, Valjean embraces Cosette one last time and dies in happiness.

[Valjean] had fallen back, the light from the candlesticks fell across him; his white face looked up toward heaven. . . .

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Analysis: Books Four–Nine

Though Valjean’s compassion helps persuade Javert to release him, what ultimately defeats Javert is not emotion but logic. Valjean’s unconditional love for others weakens the stern Javert not because it moves him, but because it makes it impossible for him to justify his inflexible interpretation of the law. Suddenly, Javert and his dogged sense of duty no longer appear honorable and beyond reproach. In the end, Javert cannot bring himself to arrest Valjean because such an action would make no sense. Javert does not believe that Valjean is innocent, but he does believe that Valjean is good, and that to arrest him would debase the moral authority of the law. For the exceedingly practical Javert, therefore, the only way out of his dilemma is to remove himself from it altogether, and suicide becomes the next logical step. While his suicide is a powerful and poignant moment, Javert himself never becomes emotional. He dies in the same way he has lived: determined and resolute.

Hugo employs all of his descriptive talents as Javert prepares to make his final exit in Book Four of the novel’s final section, and we see Hugo’s descriptive style at work throughout this section. We see Javert “plung[ing]” into the streets—a word choice that foreshadows his imminent leap into the river. We also see him passing a number of Parisian locales that have played a prominent role in French history. Even when Javert is alone, Hugo manages to incorporate historical references and vivid urban descriptions. Hugo also infuses this section of Les Misérables with symbolism, especially in the scene in which Javert walks past the Grève, a place where public executions are staged. The mention of this particular site standing empty reveals the hollowness of Javert’s adherence to the law and hints at the harsh judgment he will impose on himself.

Thénardier’s final appearance in the novel resolves the story’s last major conflict and raises questions about the nature of injustice everywhere. Thénardier intends to extort money from Marius and defame both Cosette and Valjean, but instead he ends up bringing about their reconciliation. We may question whether the ending is truly just , since Thénardier is never held accountable for his crimes while Valjean becomes ill and dies. From Hugo’s perspective, however, both characters get the end they deserve. Thénardier, who has never felt real satisfaction and fulfillment, will continue to live in vain. Valjean, on the other hand, dies happy and content, and he is redeemed in the eyes of others. Thénardier’s journey for America has a double meaning. On the one hand, the departure of one of Paris’s worst criminals suggests that French society as a whole is being purged of liars and cheats. On the other hand, it allows Hugo to broaden his sights and suggest that injustice is a worldwide problem. By making Thénardier become a slave-trader, Hugo points to foreign injustices, such as slavery in America.

Valjean’s final words indicate the fulfillment of the promise he makes to Myriel, the bishop of Digne, at the very beginning of the novel. In the spirit Myriel has instilled in him, Valjean preaches forgiveness, explaining that love is the most important thing that exists and that even people such as the Thénardiers must be forgiven. In the same way that Valjean’s dying words recall his promise to Myriel, the physical setting of the room evokes his stay at Myriel’s house in Digne. The description of Valjean’s death reminds us of the description of the sleeping Myriel: “[T]he light from the candlesticks fell across [Valjean]; his white face looked up toward heaven.” The candlesticks are the same ones that Myriel gives to Valjean so many years earlier, and the light they cast symbolizes Myriel’s approval and recognition of a virtuous man’s redemption.

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