Les Miserables 9: Profoundest Despair

In the previous post we began to look at Jean Valjean’s backstory.  We learned about his growing up years, his arrest and time in prison–five years for breaking a pane of glass and stealing a loaf of bread, the fate of his sister and her children who simply vanished from the face of the earth in his absence, and his four unsuccessful escape attempts which pushed his sentence to a grand total of nineteen years.

Now Victor Hugo turns to the question of what was going on in Jean Valjean’s soul during the course of those nineteen years.  (Heads up:  There are going to be a lot of quotes in this post, with minimal commentary from yours truly.  Victor Hugo does such a masterful job of describing the inner state of Jean Valjean that I think it is best to just get out of the way and let his words speak for themselves.)

Let us try to give an answer.

Society absolutely must look into these things since they are its own work.

He was, as we have said, ignorant, but he was not stupid.  The natural light was burning within him.  Misfortune, which also has its illumination, added to the faint glow that existed in his mind.  Under the whip, under the chain, in the cell, in fatigue, under the searing sun of the galleys, on the convict’s plank bed, he turned inward to his own conscience, and he thought things over.

He set himself up as a tribunal.

He began by arraigning himself.

Jean Valjean took a long, hard look at himself.  He found that he was not without guilt in all of this, and that indeed he had done a reprehensible thing.  He did not have to take the bread by force; it might have been offered freely to him if he had asked for it.  At any rate, it would have been better to wait; waiting while hungry would not have been an impossible thing because man is capable of withstanding long periods of starvation.

But then he asked himself if he was the only one to be blamed in all of this, and he found the answer to be a resounding no.

He asked himself whether human society could rightfully make its members submit equally, in the one case by its unreasonable carelessness and in the other by its pitiless care; and to hold a poor man forever between a lack and an excess, a lack of work, an excess of punishment

If it was not outrageous that society should treat with such rigid precision those of its members who were most poorly endowed in the chance distribution of wealth and were therefore most deserving of tolerance.

With these questions asked and answered, he condemned society and sentenced it.

He sentenced it to his hatred.

He made it responsible for his fate, and promised himself that he perhaps would not hesitate someday to call it to account.  He declared to himself that there was no equity between the injury he had committed and the injury committed on him; he concluded, in short, that his punishment was not merely an injustice but, beyond all doubt, a gross injustice.

Anger may be foolish and absurd, and one may be wrongly irritated, but a man never feels outraged unless in some respect he is fundamentally right.  Jean Valjean felt outraged.

In passing, let me note that some may bristle at the point in the above quote where Victor Hugo talks about the chance distribution of wealth.  Bear in mind that Victor Hugo was writing to a society which had a very rigid class structure and took this structure for granted.  In the French society of Hugo’s day, there was no such thing as a self-made fortune.  Indeed, the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and making a fortune, or at the least a comfortable living, with nothing but your own hard work, resourcefulness, and ingenuity, which is very strongly ingrained into our American consciousness, was completely and totally foreign to Hugo’s France.  In that society, the rich were rich, the poor were poor, you were what you were, and that was that.  Also bear in mind that, though it is possible to advance yourself financially and socially if you are sufficiently hardworking and resourceful, chance still plays a huge part in determining the wealth that you will have and the opportunities that you will have to create wealth.

Jean Valjean had nothing but his hatred to bring against society, so he resolved to sharpen it into as much of a fighting edge as he possibly could.  He took advantage of the opportunities at his disposal, which included a prison school which was conducted by some poor and ignorant friars.  Here, at the age of forty, he learned to read and write and do arithmetic.  He felt that, by increasing his knowledge, he was increasing his hatred and the power which he would have to act on that hatred.  “In certain cases, instruction and enlightenment can actually work to underscore the wrong.”

But he did not stop with society.  After he had tried society, he tried Providence and found it to be deserving of his hatred as well, since Providence had created society and was responsible for all that society had done.

Thus, during those nineteen years of torment and slavery, this soul rose and fell at the same time.  Light entered on the one side and darkness on the other.

Jean Valjean was not, we have seen, born evil.  He was still good when he arrived at the prison.  There, he condemned society and felt himself becoming wicked; he condemned Providence and felt himself becoming impious.

Victor Hugo notes that Jean Valjean did not move methodically in his mind through the thought process which he just outlined.  He was too ignorant to undertake such a rigid, coherent process of introspection.  Instead, this thought process was formed in him by feelings and impressions which he experienced over the years.  Hugo describes his internal state as follows:

Jean Valjean was in the dark, suffering in the dark, hating in the dark.  He lived constantly in darkness, groping blindly, like a dreamer.  Except, at times, there broke over him suddenly, from inside or out, a shockwave of anger, an overflow of suffering, a sudden white flash that lit up his whole soul and showed all around him in front and behind in the glare of a hideous light the fearful precipices and dark perspectives of his fate.

The flash passed away, night fell again, and where was he?  He no longer knew.

Victor Hugo notes here that Jean Valjean was a man of extraordinary strength.  He was nicknamed “Jean the Jack” and could lift enormous weights on his back; at jobs which required physical strength he was equal to four men.  Valjean was also a man of extraordinary agility, a trait developed and refined through the course of his years in prison and unsuccessful escape attempts.

Certain convicts, constantly planning escape, have developed a veritable science of strength and skill combined–the science of the muscles.  A mysterious system of statics is practiced daily by prisoners, eternally envying birds and flying insects.  To scale a wall, to find a foothold where you could hardly see a projection, was a game for Jean Valjean.  Given an angle in a wall, with the pressure of his back and his knees, with elbows and hands braced against the rough face of the stone, he would ascend, as if by magic, to the third floor.  Sometimes he climbed up in this way to the prison roof.

Throughout the course of Jean Valjean’s time in prison, he had the appearance of someone who was absorbed in something terrible.  As a matter of fact, he was absorbed in comtemplating a vision of society, which Victor Hugo describes as follows:

Through the sick perceptions of an incomplete nature and a vanquished intelligence, he vaguely felt a monstrous weight was on him.  In that wan half light where he crouched, whenever he turned his head and tried to raise his eyes, he would see, with mingled rage and terror, forming, massing, rising out of view above him with horrible ramparts, a frightening accumulation of laws, prejudices, men, and acts, whose outlines escaped him, whose weight appalled him–it was that prodigious pyramid we call civilization.  Here and there in that shapeless, seething mass, sometimes near, sometimes far, or at inaccessible heights, he could make out some group, some vivid detail, here the jailer with his cudgel, here the gendarme with his sword, there the mitered archbishop, and high up, in a blaze of glory, the emperor crowned and resplendent.  It seemed to him that these distant splendors, far from dissipating his night, made it blacker, deathlier.  All this–laws, intolerance, actions, men, things–came and went above him, according to the complicated, mysterious movement God imposes on civilization, walking over him and crushing him with an indescribably serene cruelty, an inexorable indifference.  Souls sunk to deepest misfortune, unfortunate men lost in the depths of limbo where they are no longer visible, the rejects of the law, feeling on their heads the whole weight of human society, so formidable to those outside it, so terrible to those beneath it.

From his position, Jean Valjean meditated.  What sort of reflections could they be?

If a millet seed under a millstone had thoughts, undoubtedly it would think as Jean Valjean did.

All this, realities full of specters, phantasmagoria full of realities, had finally produced in him an almost inexpressible mental state.

Sometimes in the midst of his prison work he would stop and begin to think.  His reason, more mature and yet more disturbed than before, would rebel.  All that had happened to him would appear absurd, everything surrounding him impossible.  He would say to himself, “This is a dream.”  He would look at the jailer standing a few steps away like some phantom; suddenly this phantom would strike him with a club.

The external world scarcely had an existence.  It would be almost true to say that for Jean Valjean there were no sun, no beautiful summer days, no radiant sky, no fresh April dawn.  Some dim light from a small, high window was all that shown in his soul.

Such was the mental state of Jean Valjean during his time in prison, as most eloquently described by Victor Hugo.

From year to year this soul had progressively withered, slowly but inevitably.  A dry eye goes with a dead soul.  When he left prison, he had not shed a tear for nineteen years.