Summary: Book Six: Petit-Picpus

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.

Summary: Book Seven: A Parenthesis

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.

Summary: Book Eight: Cemeteries Take What Is Given Them

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.

Analysis: Books Six–Eight

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.