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The narrator gives a brief history of the Petit-Picpus
convent. The nuns are an order founded by the Spaniard Martin Verga,
and their rituals are particularly severe. At any point in the day
at least one nun is required to pray for the sins of the world while
another kneels in devotion before the Holy Sacrament. The only men
allowed inside the convent are the archbishop of the diocese and
the gardener, who wears a bell on his leg to warn the nuns he is
approaching. The nuns also run a boarding school. The girls at the
school live in austerity, but they still manage to fill the school
with signs of life. By 1840, the hard life
at Petit-Picpus begins to take its toll. There are no new recruits,
and the older nuns begin to die off.
The narrator lauds the value of prayer and affirms that
the principles of democracy and the spiritual benefits of religion
do not necessarily contradict each other. At the same time, however,
the narrator delivers a sharp criticism of monasticism—the practice
of organizing secluded religious sects such as a convent or a monastery. Monasticism,
the narrator claims, leads only to social isolation and religious
fanaticism. The girls isolated within the convent do not have sufficient
opportunities to learn about the world beyond the walls of Petit-Picpus.
In effect, the convent is a religious prison.
With Fauchelevent’s help, Valjean manages to seclude himself
inside the convent of Petit-Picpus. Fauchelevent believes that Valjean, whom
he continues to call M. Madeleine, has lost his fortune and is hiding
from creditors. Fauchelevent offers to help Valjean find work as
the convent’s associate gardener. Valjean must first leave and reenter
the convent, however, since the nuns will immediately suspect a
strange man who appears out of nowhere.
Meanwhile, one of the nuns of the convent becomes ill
and dies. The nuns wish to bury her in the convent, but Parisian
law requires that she be buried in a municipal cemetery. The nuns
persuade Fauchelevent to fill an empty coffin with dirt and deliver
it to the cemetery in place of the nun’s body. Fauchelevent is not
convinced that the ruse will work. When Valjean hears of the dilemma,
he suggests that Fauchelevent smuggle him out of the convent in
the coffin. Despite some minor setbacks, the plan succeeds. Fauchelevent
takes the coffin to the cemetery and is able to retrieve Valjean
from the coffin by tricking the gravedigger. They return to the
convent, where Fauchelevent tells the nuns that Valjean is his brother
Ultimus. The convent hires Valjean and permits Cosette to enroll
at the convent school. Valjean discovers that he is a natural gardener,
and he and Cosette remain hidden and happy for some time.
Valjean’s near-burial in the coffin is a metaphor for
the burial of his criminal past and assumption of a new identity.
For the third time in the novel, Valjean resolves his problems by
assuming a new identity, which means that his old persona must die
for his new one to begin. We have seen this resurrection before,
when Valjean falls off the Orion and fakes drowning
before resurfacing in Montfermeil. Here, a literal coffin is used
to emphasize the idea that the adoption of a new identity requires
the death of the old one. Each time Valjean seemingly dies and assumes
a new identity, however, he does more than simply repeat the same
process. Each new identity puts more distance between Valjean and
his criminal past. In his first reincarnation, Valjean discovers
philanthropy and becomes Madeleine. When he rescues Cosette, he
discovers love and takes on yet another identity. Now that Valjean
has found genuine peace and seclusion, he sheds his previous identity
and is reincarnated as a truly happy gardener and father figure.
Hugo’s account of convent life highlights his religious
philosophy, which embraces Christianity and its values but rejects
the rigid dogma of the Church and its institutions. Hugo’s simultaneous praise
of Christianity and disdain for the Church is very much in keeping
with the beliefs of many contemporary philosophers of the latter
half of the nineteenth century, who thought that the Church distorted
the original intent of Christian faith through corrupt, self-serving
practices. Although Hugo largely avoids explicit criticism of the
Church in Les Misérables, he does occasionally
point to the corrupting influence of certain religious institutions.
In Book Seven, for example, he suggests that the religious isolation
of convents leads to zealotry and personal imbalance rather than
any deeper understanding of God. Nonetheless, Hugo respects the
convent’s inflexibility more than the secular world’s rigid laws.
The convent’s exemption from the laws governing the rest of French
society provides Valjean with shelter and with the chance for rebirth.
Although the convent provides safe harbor for Valjean
and Cosette, Hugo’s negative views of the place imply that Cosette’s entrance
into the boarding school is a mixed blessing. The boarding school
has its idyllic aspects, and it will provide Cosette with the kind
of education that Hugo frequently champions. However, it is also
a sort of rustic prison. It gives Cosette the opportunity to develop
her intellect, but it forces her to do so within a secluded life that
prevents her from developing her emotional and social intelligence.
This lack of social interaction, particularly with boys, becomes
more of a problem as Cosette approaches adolescence. This situation
is optimal for Valjean, since he does not have to worry about Javert
and since he has his beloved Cosette all to himself. The confinement
of convent life, however, sows the seeds of a conflict that ultimately
threatens to drive Cosette away from Valjean.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!