Les Miserables 19: Father Fauchelevent

Last time we met Javert and we saw that he was one man who was not taken in by Father Madeleine.  There was one other, and that would be the man whom we will meet today:  Father Fauchelevent.

Father Fauchelevent was a well-educated notary, but by the time Father Madeleine came along, his business had begun to decline.  He felt a serious twinge of jealousy:  This mere artisan was growing rich, while he, an educated professional, was only going downhill.  So he took every opportunity he could come across to injure Father Madeleine.  Eventually he went bankrupt and lost everything but his horse and cart; this left him with no choice but to try to make his living as a carter.

One day he had an accident.  He fell under his cart; his horse was injured in the fall and could not get up.  The streets were wet that day from recent rains; the cart was sinking fast and soon he would be crushed.

A crowd had gathered around to watch.  Father Madeleine was walking down the street and he saw this.  Someone had sent for a jack to lift the cart off of Fauchelevent, but it would be fifteen minutes before the jack arrived and the cart was sinking so fast that by that time he would long since have been crushed.

When Father Madeleine became fully aware of the situation, he asked for someone–anyone–to go under the cart and help to lift it off him.  But there were no takers.  Javert, who was there as well, told him that there was no one there who was strong enough to lift that cart.  The only person Javert knew who would be strong enough to do that was a certain convict from the prison at Toulon.

Now recall that Jean Valjean had been imprisoned at Toulon.  Also recall that Jean Valjean, while in prison, had been noted for his extraordinary strength–he had even been nicknamed “Jean the Jack”.  It should be clear that this prisoner Javert was referring to is none other than Jean Valjean.

Well, Father Madeleine turned pale when Javert mentioned Toulon.  Now I am sure that you have been wondering what ever happened to Jean Valjean when he left Digne, and I promised you earlier that you would find out all in due time.  And by now you have probably figured out that Javert’s suspicions are correct–there is, in fact, more to Father Madeleine than meets the eye.  I think it is now safe to say that Father Madeleine is none other than Jean Valjean, even though Victor Hugo does not confirm this just yet.

And herein lies the power of this moment.  On the one hand, you have Father Madeleine, who knows that he is really Jean Valjean and that Javert is awfully close to figuring this out if he hasn’t done so already.  He doesn’t want to do anything that would cause himself to be exposed in the eyes of Javert.  On the other hand, you have the old man Fauchelevent, lying there trapped under his cart, crying out for help, only a few minutes away from being crushed to death under its sinking weight.  Does Victor Hugo know how to create a compelling conflict or what?

Feel the tension in the air as Father Madeleine hesitates, asking once again if there is anyone among the bystanders who will crawl under Fauchelevent’s cart and lift it up, Javert reminding him once again that the only person who could do what he was asking was that prisoner at Toulon (Jean Valjean).  Fauchelevent’s cry for help, Javert’s fully watchful gaze, the unmoved and unmoving peasants all gathered around.

And then–under the cart he went.  After a few awful moments when it seemed as if in fact both men would be crushed–up went the cart.  As soon as it came up, everyone jumped in to help lift it off the two men.  Fauchelevent was safe.  And Javert was watching Father Madeleine as he left the scene, apparently confirmed (partially, at least) in his suspicion that Father Madeleine was in fact Jean Valjean.

The story ends happily for Father Fauchelevent.  He was taken to the hospital; the next day he found on his nightstand a thousand-franc bill with a handwritten note from Father Madeleine:  “I have purchased your horse and cart.”  (The horse was dead and the cart was worthless after the accident.)  Father Madeleine worked with the nuns at the hospital to set Fauchelevent up as gardener at a convent in Paris.

Don’t forget about Father Fauchelevent; we will run into him later.

Well, it was shortly after all of this went down that Father Madeleine was appointed mayor of MSM.  And that really rocked Javert’s world.  Victor Hugo describes it like this:

The first time that Javert saw M. Madeleine wearing the municipal sash that gave him full authority over the city, he felt the same sort of shudder a bulldog would feel on scenting a wolf in his master’s clothes.  From that time on he avoided him as much as he could.  When his official duties absolutely demanded it, and he could not avoid contact with the mayor, he spoke to him with professional respect.

And this was the state of affairs at MSM at the time Fantine returned.  No one remembered her, but the door of Father Madeleine’s factory was open to her.  She got a job there.  She was not the most skilled laborer there by any stretch of the imagination, so she did not make very much.  But she did make enough to eke out a living for herself and meet her obligations toward Cosette.