Les Miserables 8: Jean Valjean

Last time we met Jean Valjean as a rough-looking stranger entering the town of Digne on foot.  We learned that he was a convict freshly released after serving nineteen years in prison.  We saw how he attempted to obtain dinner and lodging for the night, and we saw how the bishop Monseigneur Bienvenu took him in when no one else was willing to.  They had a real, civilized meal together, a kindness that Jean Valjean was totally unaccustomed to.  And we left off just as the bishop and Jean Valjean were getting ready to turn in for the night.

It is at this point that Victor Hugo breaks off to give us Jean Valjean’s backstory.  We learn that he was the son of Jeanne Mathieu and another Jean Valjean (or perhaps it was Vlajean.  Uncertainties such as this are a touch that Victor Hugo uses to try to add authenticity to his story).  At any rate, Valjean/Vlajean was probably a nickname, a contraction of “Voila Jean”.  Both of these parents died when Jean Valjean was very young, so he went to live with his older sister.  She was a widow with seven children.  While her husband was alive she took care of him; by the time her husband died Jean Valjean was grown, so he took care of her and helped to provide for the children.

Jean Valjean was a pruner at Faverolles.  In this he was simply following in the footsteps of his father, who was a pruner before him.  Outside of the pruning season he did whatever he could do to earn money.  But the winter of 1795 was a severe winter in which there was no work for Jean Valjean, and his sister and family had no bread.  Literally.  So he busted out the window of a baker’s house and grabbed a loaf of bread.  He was pursued and caught; by the time he was caught he had thrown away the bread but his arm was still bleeding from breaking the window.  He was arrested and charged with robbery, and Victor Hugo describes what happened next:

Jean Valjean was found guilty:  The terms of the penal code were explicit.  In our civilization there are fearful times when the criminal law wrecks a man.  How mournful the moment when society draws back and permits the irreparable loss of a sentient being.  Jean Valjean was sentenced to five years in prison.

And then Victor Hugo goes on to describe very poignantly Jean Valjean’s arrival in prison:

In Paris on April 22, 1796, came the announcement of the victory of Montenotte, achieved by the commanding general of the army of Italy, whom the message of the Directory to the Five Hundred, of the second Floreal Year IV, called Buonaparte.  That same day a great chain was riveted at Bicetre.  Jean Valjean was a part of that chain.  An old prison guard, now nearly ninety, clearly remembers the miserable man, who was shackled at the end of the fourth chain in the north corner of the court.  Sitting on the ground like the rest, he seemed to take in nothing of his position, except its horror.  Probably with the vague ideas of a poor ignorant man, there was also a notion of something excessive in the penalty.  While they were riveting the bolt of his iron collar behind his head with heavy hammer strokes, he wept.  The tears choked his words, and he only managed to say from time to time, “I was a pruner at Faverolles.”  Then, still sobbing, he raised his right hand and lowered it seven times, as if touching seven heads of unequal height, and from this gesture one could guess that whatever he had done had been to feed and clothe seven little children.

He was taken to Toulon, where he arrived after a journey of twenty-seven days, on a cart, the chain still around his neck.  At Toulon he was dressed in the red tunic.  All his past life was erased, even his name.  He was no longer Jean Valjean; he was Number 24,601.  What became of the sister?  What became of the seven children?  Who worried about that?  What becomes of the handful of leaves of the young tree when it is felled?

Unfortunately, the sister and the seven young children will all go their own way and disappear into the void, never to be seen or heard from again.  Victor Hugo describes their fate as follows:

It is an old story.  The poor little lives, these creatures of God, thereafter without support, guidance, or shelter, wandered aimlessly, who knows where?  Each took a different path, perhaps, sinking little by little into the chilling haze that swallows up solitary destinies, that sullen gloom where so many ill-fated souls are lost in the somber advance of the human race.  They left the region; the church of what had been their village forgot them; the stile of what had been their field forgot them; after a few years in prison, even Jean Valjean forgot them.  Where that heart had been wounded, there was a scar.  That was all.

But then, at the end of Jean Valjean’s fourth year in prison, news of his sister reaches him some kind of way.  By that time she had moved to Paris, and she only had one child with her, the youngest.  She had gotten a job at a bookbinder’s, as a folder and a stitcher.  She had to be at work by 6 AM, long before the sun came up during the winter months.  In the same building there was a school, and that was where she sent her boy, who was seven by this time.  But there was a problem:  she had to be at work by 6 and the school did not open until 7.  This meant that the poor boy had to wait outside for an hour every day–a cold, dark hour.  He could not wait inside at the bookbinders, because they said he was troublesome.  There was an old woman who would take pity on him and let him come into her apartment whenever it rained.  This is what Jean Valjean heard, and after this, he heard nothing more of them ever again.

That same year, Jean Valjean made his first escape attempt.  He was successful, at least for a couple of days.  Victor Hugo describes this as follows:

For two days he wandered at liberty through the fields; if it is freedom to be hunted, to cock your head constantly, to tremble at the slightest noise, to be afraid of everything, of the smoking chimney, a man going by, the baying of a dog, a galloping horse, the striking of a clock, of the day because you see and of the night because you do not, of the road, the path, the underbrush, sleep.  The evening of the second day he was captured.  He had neither eaten nor slept for thirty-six hours.  The maritime tribunal extended his sentence three years for this attempt, making eight.

(Don’t you just love this about Victor Hugo?  He will go on and on about something, piling up images upon images as if he is getting completely and totally carried away, and then the next sentence will be very dry, matter-of-fact.)

Three more escape attempts would follow for Jean Valjean; none any more successful than his first.  Each of these attempts resulted in an additional three to five years tacked on to the end of his sentence.

In October, 1815, he was freed; he had entered in 1796 for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread….

Jean Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and trembling; he left hardened.  He entered in despair; he left sullen.

What had happened within this soul?

That question will be taken up in the next post.