Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who Am I? I am Jean Valjean!

Yes, I'm running behind schedule. But! It builds the tension, no? 

When last we saw them, Fantine was withering away in a hospital bed, longing for Cosette, still being held by the money-grubbing Thenardiers, despite the cash M. Madeline keeps sending them. Meanwhile, Javert has confessed to Madeline that he suspected him of being some scumbag named Jean Valjean, but has just found out that the scumbag is, in fact, being held for trial in nearby Arras, having stolen some apples. Not the most major of crimes, but due to his past record, failure to abide by parole, and probable theft from that excellent Bishop M. Welcome, it'll be back to the galleys with him. The mayor pretended not to care, but in reality....

Welcome to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Volume 1: Fantine, Book 7. Cue the swelling music.

Probably this scene is from later
in the novel, but I can't
resist the garish colors and
the pathos. Oh, the pathos!
Book Seventh - The Champmathieu Affair
Fantine, as we've seen, is winning over the Nursing Sisters but not faring well. She lives for Madeline's daily half-hour visits, when she can bask in his kindness and ask him about Cosette. But Madeline, in the wake of Javert's news about that scumbag Champmathieu who is really Jean Valjean, is a little preoccupied. He heads to a guy named Scaufflaer to ask about the guy's fastest means of transport for hire. After some haggling, Scaufflaer agrees to have his fastest horse and cabriolet at the mayor's door at 4:30 the next morning. 

Madeline spends an hour with Fantine, then heads home, in a bit of a daze. He commences to pacing all night long. Then! The delightfully-titled chapter "A Tempest in a Skull" opens with these 'well, yeah' words:

  • "The reader has, no doubt, already divined that M. Madeline is no other than Jean Valjean." (p.159)
  • We also see, after much moralizing, that after we last saw him as Valjean, "but little" happened to make him Madeline. "From that moment forth he was, as we have seen, a totally different man. What the Bishop had wished to make of him, that he carried out. It was more than a transformation; it was a transfiguration." (p.160)
  • "He succeeded in disappearing, sold the Bishop's silver, reserving only the candlesticks as a souvenir...." (p.160) Then he became brilliant successful factory-owner turned mayor Madeline.
  • And he thought that "he lived in peace, reassured and hopeful, having henceforth only two thoughts, -to conceal his name and to sanctify his life; to escape men and to return to God." (p.160)
  • Despite the desire to conceal his name, though, he found himself putting God first often, which accounted for the candlesticks, the rescue of the guy under the cart, the searching for his sister's family, and the attempts at restitution for stealing a coin from a little Savoyard kid he ran into right after he got the Bishop's candlesticks. (I may not have mentioned that earlier. It was the final straw that showed him he had to turn his back on the man he'd become in prison.)
But this whole deal with a look-alike going to the galleys in his stead had a bigger risk-to-reward ratio. It didn't seem all that easy to do the Godly thing and ensure his freedom without the ultimate failure of his quest to conceal his name. Hence the night of pacing in his room. After a while he chose to pace in the darkness, because "It seemed to him as though he might be seen.   By whom?   Alas! That on which he desired to close the door had already entered; that which he desired to blind was staring him in the face,- his conscience." (p.161) A.k.a., God.

In fact, this:

Why should I save his hide
Why should I right this wrong
When I have come so far
And struggled for so long?
If I speak, I am condemned
If I stay silent, I am damned!
I am the master of hundreds of workers
They all look to me
How can I abandon them, how can they live
If I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned
If I stay silent, I am damned!

just about sums up what's going on with Valjean throughout his night. Of course, Hugo has a lot more detail about Valjean's torment, the many pro/con lists that run through his head, the excuses both craven and noble as well as the denials of those excuses, the idea that "it is Providence which has done it all; it is because it wishes it so to be, evidently. Have I the right to disarrange what it has arranged? What do I ask now? Why should I meddle?" (p.163) So God wants him to feel secure from the wolf Javert, to have peace as reward for the good works he does, he doesn't need to ask the local priest for advice because clearly it's wrong to mess with God's plan!


  • "He confessed to himself that all that he had just arranged in his mind was monstrous, that 'to let things take their course, to let the good God do as he liked,' was simply horrible; to allow this error of fate and of men to be carried out, not to hinder it, to lend himself to it through his silence, to do nothing, in short, was to do everything! that this was hypocritical baseness in the last degree! that it was a base, cowardly, sneaking, abject, hideous crime!" (p.164) (Nice use of adjectives, Hugo!)
  • "For the first time in eight years, the wretched man had just tasted the bitter savor of an evil thought and an of an evil action.   He spit it out with disgust." (p.164)
  • "Had he not another and a grand object, which was the true one-to save, not his person, but his soul; to become honest and good once more; to be a just man? Was it not that above all, that alone, which he had always desired, which the Bishop had enjoined upon him-to shut the door on his past? But he was not shutting it! great God! he was re-opening it by committing an infamous action! He was becoming a thief once more, and the most odious of thieves! He was robbing another of his existence, his life, his peace, his place in the sunshine. He was becoming an assassin." (p.164)
Thus resolved, he sets about tidying up his affairs. A letter to his banker, a packet of papers and cash to carry on him, and then - second (third, fourth, fifth) thoughts. Surely the Champmathieu guy was no good, what with the apple stealing and all? And anyway, the courts wouldn't send him to the galleys if he did confess, since everyone knew how nice he was now. But in that case, he may as well confess and save Champmathieu from galleys or death. But what about Fantine! She needs him, him personally, no one else was around to help her in her suffering! And all the factory workers! And all the other good works! If he keeps his name a secret, he can do a hundred times more good in the future with the millions he'll make - so many people need him to be free!

It's actually MORE selfish to confess - yeah. That's it. The desire to confess would cause untold misery and economic privation to a whole country-side. And any time he feels bad about the deception, he can just do even better for others, thus mitigating the sin almost entirely. Whew!

  • "Diamonds are found only in the dark places of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought. It seemed to him, that, after having descended into these depths, after having long groped among the darkest of these shadows, he had at last found one of these diamonds, one of these truths, and that he now held it in his hand, and he was dazzled as he gazed upon it." (p.167)
At this point he realizes that if he's going to make a break, it has to be a clean break, so he goes to the hidden cupboard in his wall and removes the clothes he'd worn out of the galleys, and the bag and stick he'd carried as he passed through the Bishop's town, and tossed them in the fire. As they burned, he saw that forty-sou piece he'd stolen from Little Gervais the Savoyard. Valjean left it in the ashes.

And then he looked at those candlesticks. The wonderful Bishop, M. Welcome, had given them with the hopes that he'd become a Godly man. And they proved, as much as anything, that he was Valjean.

He threw them in the fire.


So then a voice within him started ranting at him, among other things, pointing out: "there will be around you many voices, which will make a great noise, which will talk very loud, and which will bless you, and only one which no one will hear, and which will curse you in the dark. Well! listen, infamous man! All those benedictions will fall back before they reach heaven, and only the malediction will ascend to God." (p.169)

Candlesticks, back out of the fire.

As Valjean continues his pacing, he notices his stuff. The table he likes to write at, the books he loves to read, the coffee he drinks each day. And there's the intangibles - the smiles of the children he gives toys to, fields full of chirping birds and sunshine, townspeople who admire and appreciate him. Instead, he would have ankle chains, convict clothes, random body searches, disrespectful address, and people who would point him out as the former mayor fallen low. Whippings. Derision. Toil.

  • "And do what he would, he always fell back upon the heartrending dilemma which lay at the foundation of his reverie: 'Should he remain in paradise and become a demon? Should he return to hell and become an angel?'    What was to be done? Great God! what was to be done?" (p.170)
Then he sleeps a little, and has a dream, which I'm skipping in my eternal protest against meaningful dreams in literature. Eventually his doorlady (I assume that's what a 'portress' is) wakes him to say a horse and cabriolet await him, which confuses him. What are they for again?

Oh, right.

The trip to confession. (Well, at this moment he's telling himself that there's no reason not to go to Arras, just to see the guy for himself. Purely so he can make a fully informed decision and all. It wouldn't endanger him just to go there.)

The next chapter is titled "Hindrances" and I'm going to try to catch all the things that interfere with Valjean's simple trek to Arras, which he thinks will take just a few hours:

  1. On the way out of M. sur M. the mail-wagons wheel spikes hit his wheel, which doesn't really bother him for the first five leagues, but two spokes and the hub are too damaged for him to continue.
  2. It would take all day to fix the wheel, no matter the financial incentive offered.
  3. There are no replacement wheels that will fit the axle in town.
  4. No one in town has an alternate cabriolet he can borrow, rent, or buy.
  5. The only spare vehicle would take two horses, and all the horses in town are in the fields and unable to be pulled from that work.
  6. He can't just ride the horse he got from M. sur M., because it's notoriously freaked by riders.
  7. Right after he figures that Providence is trying to stop him after all, an old woman comes up to say she has a rickety old spring-cart he can use. It's uncomfortable and damp and slow, but it works, so off he goes (failing, for once, to be generous with his tips to the kid who brought the old woman to him.)
  8. Carrying this cart is harder on the horse, and it's almost dark, and he has five leagues to go when he's told nope, it's actually seven. Road works mean he has to detour.
  9. He can't deal with the detour since he doesn't know the way and it's dark - maybe Providence wants him to give up again! But no, a stable-boy goes with him to show him the way.
  10. It's pitch dark and the horse is exhausted. The roads are horrible.
  11. The whiffle-tree on the harness? cart? (I dunno what a whiffle-tree is, but it sure is fun to say!) breaks, and the stable-boy suggests giving up, but Valjean fixes it with a branch and some rope.
  12. As he hears a clock strike seven, with an hour to go, it occurs to him that he doesn't even know what time the hearing was to take place. Probably it'll be over when they arrive.
  13. After 14 hours on the road, he stables the poor exhausted horse and sets off through the town, but not really knowing the way to go. So he wanders about, then asks a passing guy with a lantern, who happens to be headed just past the court-house.
  14. Normally the Assizes finish up by six, so probably he's too late. But look! It's after eight, and they're still in session.
  15. He asks a lawyer who says the case is closed, the prisoner got life! But it turns out that was a woman. Another case, of an apple thief, started just a couple of hours previously. (The lawyer notes what a criminal face Champmathieu has, BTW.)
  16. There's a massive crowd, so probably he can't get into the room to watch.
  17. The usher tells him there's no chance, standing room only.
  18. Except, well, actually behind the Président (who presides over the hearing), there are a couple of spots. But only public functionaries can sit there.
  19. Valjean turns away, starts to head off, but his inner voice prompts him to give a note with M. Madeline's name on it to the usher.
  20. "Although he did not suspect the fact, the mayor of M. sure M. enjoyed a sort of celebrity." (p.188) Therefore the Président is quick to admit this nice guy whose bounty is being spread far and wide in the area.
  21. The usher sticks him in an ante-chamber and says to just head through the next door to see the Assizes. "The supreme moment had arrived." (p.189)
Valjean stares blindly at the walls, paces, sweats, staggers, paces, heads in the opposite direction, is generally blind and deaf and dumb, but ends up back in the ante-chamber, looking at the knob to the court-room door. "He gazed at it as a lamb might gaze into the eye of a tiger." (p.190)

And in he went.

Corn-flowers ARE blue.
Take that, violets!
(Meanwhile, back in the hospital, Fantine is fretting mightily that M. Madeline didn't show up for his usual visit. The sisters try to keep news of his absence from her - no one knows where he's gone, just that he expected to travel 20 leagues - but she finds out. She's overjoyed because she's convinced he's gone to fetch her daughter. Oh, poor Fantine.) (And she starts singing plaintive songs, not, as you'd expect, about castles on clouds, but "Roses are pink, corn-flowers are blue, I love my love, and corn-flowers are blue," which will be on all my Valentine's from here on out.) (Fantine expects to die the next day, but she'll have seen Cosette first, so she's calm about it.)

Valjean can't help looking instantly at the convict. "He thought he was looking at himself, grown old; not absolutely the same in face, of course, but exactly similar in attitude and aspect... full of hated, concealing his soul in that hideous mass of frightful thoughts which he had spent nineteen years in collecting on the floor of the prison." (p.190)

Now he's getting courtroom flashbacks, and contemplating the horror of becoming like Champmathieu again. Champmathieu, meanwhile, is putting forth his story that he was in Paris making wheels all that time, that's why no one local knew him during the time Valjean was in the galleys, and also he hadn't jumped over the wall and broken the apple tree, he'd just found the branch of fruit lying in the road, which wasn't stealing, and no one can prove otherwise, so the whole thing should be dismissed. The prosecution is having none of that, and brings back in the three convicts who had IDed him as Valjean. He wants to bring back Javert, too, but that good man had been dismissed to return to M. sur M. after his initial testimony. The prosecuting attorney is full of incredulity at Champmathieu's denials. He reads off Javert's statement swearing how evil a monster Valjean is, and asserting that the prisoner is Valjean. The court is clearly sympathising with his side.

  • "At that moment there was a movement just beside the Président; a voice was heard crying:- 'Brevet! Chenildieu! Cochepaille! look here!'  All who heard that voice were chilled, so lamentable and terrible was it...." (p.198) Everyone looks, and see Madeline standing there.
  • He's not quite as he was: "his hair, which had still been gray on his arrival in Arras, was now entirely white: it had turned white during the hour he had sat there." (p.198)
  • The three convicts are as befuddled as the rest of the courtroom. 
  • "M. Madeline turned towards the jury and the court and said in a gentle voice:- 'Gentlemen of the jury, order the prisoner to be released! Mr. Président, have me arrested. He is not the man whom you are in search of; it is I: I am Jean Valjean." (p.199)
The court officials communicate in the stunned and disbelieving silence, then ask if there's a doctor present. (My son's scout troop claims that if you have a heart attack on an airplane and there's no doctor or nurse on board, they'll intercom for an Eagle Scout. Maybe one of them could have helped Valjean at this point?)

Valjean says thanks but no thanks to the mad-house idea. "God, who is on high, looks down on what I am doing at this moment, and that suffices." (p.199) He says that although he's tried to be a good man, he is indeed the same guy who stole from the Bishop and Little Gervais, didn't register his papers at M. sur M., etc. He makes a speech pointing out that society is also to blame, not just for his criminal past but for that of others, since the only difference between the wretch Valjean and the beloved Madeline is the opportunities presented to them, the galleys vs. God's grace. Frankly, I think he's wasting his breath, since mostly everyone is still stunned and not really taking it all in.

After bemoaning that Javert is gone, he prompts the three convicts with info only the real Valjean would know about them, and gets them to make the positive ID. "The unhappy man turned to the spectators and the judges with a smile which still rends the hearts of all who saw it whenever they think of it. It was a smile of triumph; it was also a smile of despair." (p.200) (also, 20% of this book complete!)

No one remembers their jobs, their duties, the proper course of action to take. It's all too unreal. Still:

  • "...the whole crowd, as by a sort of electric revelation, understood instantly and at a single glance the simple and magnificent history of a man who was delivering himself up so that another man might not be condemned in his stead. The details, the hesitations, little possible oppositions, were swallowed up in that vast and luminous fact." (p.200)
  • Silence, so Valjean says, "I shall withdraw, since you do not arrest me. I have many things to do. The district-attorney knows who I am; he knows whither I am going; he can have me arrested when he likes." (p.200)
  • The crowds part, the door opens for him, and the newly-discovered Valjean makes his exit. 
  • Champmathieu is released, "in a state of stupefaction, thinking that all men are fold, and comprehending nothing of this vision." (p.201)
Wow. Big move, Valjean.

No comments:

Post a Comment