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.