Les Miserables 26: A Tempest Within a Brain

Now that Victor Hugo has officially outed Father Madeleine as Jean Valjean, we shall look at the deliberations in his mind about whether or not he would go to Arras.

First, Victor Hugo fills us in on a little bit more of what happened to Valjean after he left Digne, telling us that there isn’t much we don’t already know.  Basically he just migrated across the country, from town to town, until he wound up at MSM and struck it rich.  He sold off all of Monseigneur Bienvenu’s silver, except for the two candlesticks which he held on to as something to remember the bishop by.  He slipped from town to town, basically trying to stay under the radar.  His encounter with the bishop had changed him, and (with the exception of his encounter with Petit Gervais) he continued to live in that change for all of this time.

A side note:  Victor Hugo doesn’t say anything about this, but we saw how Valjean was treated when he tried to find lodging at Digne.  Digne is in the south of France, MSM is in the north.  If Valjean had to travel all the way up to the other side of France–and on foot, no less–to find a town that would be willing to let him live and work in peace, that would be remarkable.  If, at every town he tried to enter prior to reaching MSM, he got the same reception that he got at Digne, and he managed to remain good in spite of it all, that would be even more remarkable.  That would truly show the power of the transformation which the bishop’s act of mercy and generosity had upon him.

But in order to see the true power of the transformation which the bishop’s generosity had upon Valjean, we must follow his deliberation as he decided whether or not to go to Arras.

First, Victor Hugo lays out the primary issue for Valjean in all of these deliberations:  He had lived his life up to this point “with two remaining thoughts:  to conceal his name, and to sanctify his life; to escape from men and to return to God.”  But never before had there been any conflict between these two aims; now there was.  Never before had Valjean had to choose one or the other; now he did.

From the time that Javert first came into his office and broke the news about Champmathieu, Valjean was in a state of inner turmoil, even though he did not betray any of it to anyone on the outside.  This turmoil remained just a nameless, wordless state of feeling until he got home and had the opportunity to sit down and think things through by himself.

His first thought was that, however crazy the situation happened to be that he had found himself in, he was completely the master of it.  All he had to do was sit back and do nothing, and once this Champmathieu was convicted, he would never be troubled again by anyone who might suspect him of being Jean Valjean.  And this is apparently the will of God.  Who is he to mess with that?

“…Providence has done it all.  That is what He apparently wants.  Have I the right to change what He arranges?  What am I asking for now?  Why would I interfere?  It doesn’t concern me.  I’m not satisfied!  But what do I need?  The goal I have been aiming at for so many years, my nightly dream, the object of my prayers to heaven–security–I have gained.  It is God’s will.  I must do nothing contrary to the will of God.  And why is it God’s will?  So I may carry on what I have begun, so I may do good, may one day be a great and encouraging example, so it may be said that there was finally some happy result from the suffering I have undergone and this virtue to which I have returned!  Really I don’t understand why I was so afraid of going to the honest cure and confessing the whole story and asking his advice; this is clearly what he would have said to me.  Leave the matter alone!  Let’s not interfere with God.”

Just think how much in this world that is not the will of God has been done with this precise line of reasoning as its justification.  The idea:  Whatever happens in this world is happening because God has willed it.  And who are we to interfere with the will of God?

I’m sure that many of us have run across this idea in one form or another.  Such as when a person dies:  “God must have needed him/her more up there than down here.”  Or when you don’t get the job or the promotion or get into the school you applied for:  “God must not have wanted me to be there.”  Surely you can think of a whole host of other examples.  So while we’re on this, check out Udo Middelmann’s The Islamization of Christianity, in which he argues that this idea has a lot more in common with Islam than with Christianity.

As it turns out, Jean Valjean wasn’t very crazy about that line of reasoning after all.  At first, he simply did not feel any joy in the decision that he had reached.  As he thought it through further, he came to the conclusion that Champmathieu did not deserve what he was getting, and if he let things remain as they were, he would be just as guilty as if he had arranged everything himself.

He confessed to himself that everything he had been arranging in his mind was monstrous, that to let the matter alone, not to interfere with God, was simply horrible, to let this mistake of fate and men be accomplished, not to prevent it, to lend himself to it by his silence, to do nothing, was ultimately to do everything!  It was the last degree of hypocritical wrong!  It was a base, cowardly, lying, abject, hideous crime!

For the first time in eight years, the unhappy man had just tasted the bitter flavor of a wicked thought and a wicked action.

He spit it out with disgust.

Jean Valjean questioned himself further:

He told himself that his life did truly have a goal.  But what goal?  To conceal his name?  To deceive the police?  Was it for so petty a thing that he had done all he had done?  Had he no other goal, the great one, the true one?  To save, not his body, but his soul.  To become honest and good again.  To be an upright man!  Was that not above all, that alone, what he had always wanted, and what the bishop had urged?  To close the door on his past?  But he was not closing it, great God!  He was reopening it by committing a vile act!  He would be a robber again, and the most despicable of robbers!  He was robbing another man of his existence, his life, his peace, his place in the world, he would be a murderer in a moral sense; he was killing a miserable man, inflicting on him that terrible living death, that live burial called prison!  On the contrary, to give himself up, to save this man stricken by so ghastly a mistake, to reassume his name, becoming again out of duty the convict Jean Valjean, that was really the way to his resurrection, to closing forever the hell from which he had emerged!  To fall back into it in appearance was in reality to emerge!  He must do that!  All he had done was nothing, if he did not do that!  His whole life was useless, his suffering lost.  He could only ask, “What is the use?”  He felt the bishop’s presence all the more since he had died, that the bishop was staring at him, that henceforth Mayor Madeleine with all his virtues would be abominable to him, and the convict Jean Valjean would be splendid and pure in his sight.  That men could see his mask, but the bishop saw his face.  That men saw his life, but the bishop saw his conscience.  So he had to go to Arras, save the false Jean Valjean, turn in the true one.  Alas!  That was the greatest sacrifice, the most poignant victory, the final step to be taken, but he had to do it.  Painful fate!  He could only enter into holiness in God’s eyes, by returning to infamy in men’s!

And that was the crux of the matter for Valjean.  To remain righteous in the eyes of men while becoming corrupt in the eyes of God, or to fall out of righteousness in the eyes of men and become righteous in the eyes of God.

Many critics have likened Jean Valjean to a Christ figure.  Here he justifies the comparison through his willingness to give himself up for the sake of Champmathieu and take upon himself the punishment that Champmathieu would have otherwise received, just as Christ gave Himself up for us and took upon Himself the punishment which we would have otherwise received from God.  But this likeness is not perfect; the key problem here is that in this instance Valjean is actually guilty.  The things that Champmathieu is charged with are things which Valjean did; Champmathieu is actually innocent.

So it’s settled.  Valjean is going to Arras to turn himself in.  Right?

Uh…not so fast.

Valjean has one more thought which strikes him in this moment.  We will look at this next time.

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