Summary: Book Four: The Old Gorbeau House

Valjean finds an out-of-the-way place where he and Cosette can live —a rundown tenement called the Gorbeau House. Valjean tells the landlady that Cosette is his granddaughter. He soon acquires a reputation in the neighborhood for philanthropy, and because his own clothes are so shoddy, the locals call him the “beggar who gives alms.” One day, Valjean stops to give a beggar some money and is petrified when he sees what he thinks is Javert’s face peering out from under the beggar’s hood. Valjean has heard rumors that the beggar is a police spy, but he assures himself that he is imagining things.

The next night, Valjean hears the sound of unfamiliar footsteps coming up the stairs of his tenement. He tells Cosette to keep absolutely silent and stays up all night waiting for the person outside their apartment to leave. Toward daybreak, Valjean hears someone heading back downstairs. Valjean peers through the keyhole and sees the unmistakable figure of Javert. Later that morning, the landlady asks Valjean if he heard anyone come in during the previous evening. Valjean replies that he heard footsteps, and the landlady tells him it was probably the new tenant, a man named Dumont. Valjean begins to worry that the landlady is spying on him for Javert. He resolves to leave the Gorbeau House as quickly as possible.

Book Five: A Dark Chase Requires a Silent Hound

Valjean hurriedly packs all of his and Cosette’s belongings and they rush out of the apartment as soon as it is dark. Valjean senses that they are being followed and sees Javert and two other policemen close behind them. With Cosette in his arms, Valjean runs across the eastern quarters of Paris for hours, but he is unable to shake Javert completely. After crossing the river Seine on the Austerlitz Bridge, Valjean is confident that he is finally free. He soon sees, however, that Javert is still close behind and that the number of men with him has grown.

Without hesitation, Valjean rushes down a dark alleyway, only to realize that it is a dead end. Peering around the corner of the alley, he sees that Javert has commandeered a passing patrol and that they are at most fifteen minutes away from finding him. Desperate, Valjean decides to draw on his old talent for climbing, a skill that he mastered as a convict. To persuade Cosette to go along with his desperate plan, he tells her that the Thénardiers are after them. By a stroke of luck, he finds a length of rope attached to a nearby lamppost. He cuts the rope down and attaches it to Cosette. Valjean expertly scales the steep wall at the end of the alley and then pulls Cosette up to him. They find a way down from the wall just as Javert and his men enter the dark alley.

Valjean and Cosette find themselves in a vast, dark garden. They hear music and drop thankfully to their knees in prayer. A man approaches them with a bell clanging softly against his leg. Surprised, Valjean offers the man one hundred francs to let them spend the night in his lodgings. By incredible coincidence, the man is Fauchelevent, whom Valjean rescued from underneath a carriage in Montreuil. Fauchelevent addresses Valjean as M. Madeleine and declines his one hundred francs, remembering that Valjean once saved his life and found him a job. Fauchelevent tells Valjean that he and Cosette are in the garden of the convent of Petit-Picpus. He offers them a place to stay for the night. Valjean accepts, and they quickly move Cosette inside, out of the cold.

Book Five concludes with an explanation of how Javert manages to track down Valjean. Like the rest of the world, Javert thinks that Valjean died after his fall from the Orion, but the news of Cosette’s kidnapping from the Thénardiers arouses his interest. The Thénardiers, anxious to hide their own crimes, say Cosette was retrieved by her grandfather. Their answer initially puts Javert’s mind at ease, but when he hears the anecdotes about a “beggar who gives alms,” he becomes suspicious again. After a brief investigation, Javert realizes that this man is really Valjean. He lies in wait on the night that Valjean flees the Gorbeau House, but he is so thrilled by the idea of hunting down Valjean that he intentionally toys with him and gives him time to get away. After carefully searching the area, Javert returns to police headquarters frustrated and ashamed.

Analysis: Books Four–Five

Valjean and Cosette’s escape from the Gorbeau House begins a pattern of relocation and flight that continues throughout the novel, revealing how French society can make it difficult to find a home. Valjean and Cosette’s constant movement reflects the advantages and pitfalls of the fluid social structure of the nineteenth-century city; while it is easy for them to disappear, it is difficult for them to settle down. Their neighbors are always strangers, which means that they can easily hide their troubled pasts, but it also means that these neighbors cannot be counted on for friendship and help when the truth about Valjean and his past comes out. Nor can Valjean or Cosette turn to their family for help, since the structure of poor families in nineteenth-century France is so loose and casual that neither of them knows where his or her surviving family members are. In a city that guarantees anonymity, Valjean and Cosette can depend only on each other. This is one of Hugo’s sharpest criticisms of Parisian society, an environment whose families are dissolved and neighbors are only friendly if they are spies for the police.

Valjean and Cosette’s flight from the Gorbeau House is motivated partly by Valjean’s concern for Cosette. Although he has made many escape attempts before, this is the first time his flight is motivated by something greater than his simple instinct for self-preservation. Valjean recognizes that if he is caught, Cosette will most likely spend the rest of her childhood in the same kind of orphanages in which Fantine grew up and will lose any opportunity to improve her circumstances. Cosette’s presence therefore adds a degree of legitimacy and urgency to Valjean’s escape. We have already come to appreciate Valjean as a person, but now that his fate is tied up with Cosette’s, we become even more concerned that his escape be successful.

The reappearance of Fauchelevent in the convent garden emphasizes the positive effects of good deeds. Fauchelevent’s sudden appearance is so implausibly convenient, but Hugo is willing to sacrifice realism to show that good things happen to good people in times of need. Valjean’s kindness thus far has brought him only trouble—his rescue of Fauchelevent raises Javert’s initial suspicions, and the money Valjean gives the poor starts so much gossip that it leads Javert back to his trail. Now, however, Valjean’s courageous rescue of Fauchelevent pays off when Valjean most needs help. With these turns of fate, Hugo encourages us to recognize the worth of helping others, even when doing so seems more trouble than it is worth. In return, Hugo suggests,we can expect the help of others during our own personal crises.

In Book Five, Javert’s determination to recapture Valjean has become obsessive and maniacal, and his quest appears cruel and absurd. We see that even Javert is aware of the obsessive nature of his preoccupation with Valjean, since he keeps his suspicions to himself for fear that his colleagues will think him mad. Javert’s manic determination to hunt down Valjean contradicts his claim that he is trying merely to uphold the law. His obsession with Valjean has clearly become a personal vendetta. Javert has always seen Valjean’s prosperity as an affront to society and now sees Valjean’s ability to escape from seemingly impossible situations as an affront to his own skills as a police officer. On a symbolic level, Valjean’s ability to evade the police suggests that some higher force does not want Javert to capture Valjean—a notion that infuriates the uncompromising and logical Javert.

The inhumanity of Javert’s persecution of Valjean is underscored by his lack of concern for Cosette. When Javert hears that an old man has kidnapped a girl from Montfermeil, he pursues the case not to ensure the girl’s welfare but merely to track down his nemesis. Javert does not even inquire about the wretched conditions that Cosette endured under the Thénardiers. We sense that, given the chance, he would probably return the girl to their care. Javert’s narrow-minded investigation into Cosette’s alleged kidnapping further undermines his claim that he only wishes to uphold the law. By this point, it is apparent that Javert’s only motive is to punish Valjean to the full extent of the law.