After giving a vivid description of Jean Valjean’s inner state during the course of his time in prison, Victor Hugo gives us a vivid description of what it is like for a man who falls off a ship and into the sea.
Who cares? The ship sails on. The wind is up, the dark ship must keep to its destined course. It passes on.
The man disappears, then reappears, he sinks and rises again to the surface, he hollers, stretches out his hands. They do not hear him. The ship, staggering under the gale, is straining every rope, the sailors and passengers no longer see the drowning man, his miserable head is only a point in the vastness of the billows.
He hurls cries of despair into the depths. What a specter is that disappearing sail! He watches it, follows it frantically. It moves away, grows dim, diminishes. He was just there, one of the crew, he walked up and down the deck with the rest, he had his share of air and sunlight, he was a living man. Now, what has become of him? He slipped, he fell, it’s all over.
I really would love to put the rest of this chapter up here; it’s that good. But I can’t do that because if I did, then you would have no reason to read the book for yourself. So if you want to read the rest of this, then you will have to get the book and read it yourself.
O implacable march of human society! Destroying men and souls in its way! Ocean, repository of all that the law lets fall! Ominous disappearance of help! O moral death!
The sea is the inexorable night into which the penal code casts its victims. The sea is measureless misery.
The soul drifting in that sea may become a corpse. Who shall restore it to life?
The “man overboard” in this chapter is Jean Valjean, or any other victim of the penal code of Victor Hugo’s day. This penal code had no concern whatsoever with seeking punishment for wrongdoers which fit their crimes, or of seeking their restoration to society after they have paid their debt. Instead, it was all about opening up the doorway and ushering them through, into that abyss which was the French prison system and life beyond. It was all about cutting them off and leaving them to founder in the ocean as that great ship that is society sails on.
Are things here in present-day America any different? After reading this post by John H. Armstrong over at Steve Brown Etc., I think you’ll find that not much has changed.
Jean Valjean was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread; today we have “three strikes and you’re out” laws by which minor criminals wind up sentenced to life in prison for relatively petty offenses. When Jean Valjean entered prison, Victor Hugo said, “How mournful the moment when society draws back and permits the irreparable loss of a sentient being.” Yet the exact same thing happens when nonviolent criminals enter our prisons, where the focus is upon warehousing inmates and not on providing any meaningful restoration once they have served a just sentence.
Finally, after nineteen years, Jean Valjean was released. But upon his release, he was required to carry a yellow passport, a special ID card which identified him as a released prisoner. He very quickly found out what kind of liberty came with that yellow passport. Upon receiving his savings that he had earned over the course of his time in prison, he found that he had been woefully shortchanged. And when he took a job as a day laborer at Grasse, he was required to show his yellow passport to a passing gendarme during the course of the workday. The foreman found out about this, and docked his pay by half.
Society, the state, in reducing his savings, had robbed him, wholesale. Now, at the retail level, the individual was robbing him, too.
Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave prison behind but not his sentence.
That was what happened to him at Grasse. And we have seen the welcome he received at Digne.
So by the time Jean Valjean reached the bishop’s residence, he was not a happy camper.
We now return to the story, with Jean Valjean waking up in the middle of the night. He couldn’t sleep, because after nineteen years in prison, he was simply unaccustomed to as much comfort as he had in the bishop’s bed, even though he had fallen asleep with his clothes on. So after four hours of sleep, he was wide awake and unable to get back to sleep.
And the very first thing which came to his mind was the fine silver that he had seen on the bishop’s table. He quickly calculated the worth of the set to be two hundred francs–at least double what he had gotten for nineteen years labor in prison (and he could not resist going back to the fact that he would have had more if the government had not robbed him). After much agitated thought, he got up, picked up his backpack, took out a certain tool which looked quite ominous in the dark (but turned out to be nothing more than a miner’s drill), and headed over to the door of the bishop’s bedroom.
What happens next? Another cliffhanger. Tune in next time to find out.