Les Miserables 31: A Place for Convictions

It is in these upcoming chapters that Victor Hugo ramps up his critique of the French court system of his day.

Jean Valjean (aka Father Madeleine) has just stepped into the courtroom after an excruciating deliberation over whether or not he would give himself up in place of Champmathieu.  Now, let us look at Victor Hugo’s first impression of the scene inside the courtroom at Arras:

It was a rather large space, dimly lit, filled in turn with noise and silence, where all the machinery of a criminal trial was unfolding with its petty yet solemn gravity, in the midst of the crowd.

At one end of the hall, where he happened to be, judges in threadbare robes were distractedly biting their fingernails or closing their eyelids; at the other end was a rabble in rags; there were lawyers in all sorts of positions; soldiers with honest, hard faces; old, stained wainscoting, a dirty ceiling, tables covered with serge, more nearly yellow than green; doors blackened by fingermarks; tavern lamps giving off more smoke than light, hanging on nails in the paneling; candles in brass candlesticks on the tables; everywhere shadows, ugliness, sadness; and from this emanated an austere and august impression; for men felt there the presence of that great humane thing called law, and that great divine thing called justice.

The first impression we get is that the space is large and dimly lit, and that a mechanical process known as a criminal trial is unfolding there.  We see the judges at one end of the room, and it is perfectly clear that they couldn’t care less about what they are judging and presiding over.  We see that the room is very old and worn out from heavy use.  Even the lamps are giving off more smoke than light.  This whole scene produces an overall impression of darkness, sadness, and ugliness, and it is from this that the impression of law and justice emanates.  Notice the irony in the last sentence here, where Victor Hugo talks about how it is through all of this darkness, sadness, and ugliness that man feel the weight of “that great humane thing called law, and that great divine thing called justice.”  The irony:  If law is humane and justice is divine, and if the impression which these things produce is one of sadness, darkness, and ugliness, then something is terribly, terribly wrong.

As soon as Valjean entered the courtroom, the first thing he saw was Champmathieu sitting right there in the middle of the room, with all eyes in the room gazing upon him.  Here is Valjean’s first impression of Champmathieu:

He thought he was seeing himself, older, undoubtedly, not exactly the same in features, but alike in attitude and appearance, with that bristling hair, those wild restless eyes, with that shirt–just as he had been on the day he entered Digne, full of hatred, and concealing in his soul that hideous hoard of frightful thoughts he had spent nineteen years harvesting on the prison floor.

He said to himself, with a shudder, “Great God!  Will I return to that?”

…Judges, clerks, gendarmes, a throng of heads, cruelly curious–he had seen them all once before, twenty-seven years earlier.  Once again he had fallen on these disastrous things; they were there before him, they moved, they existed.  It was no longer an effort of his memory, a mirage of his fancy, but real gendarmes and real judges, a real throng, and real men of flesh and bone.  It was done; he could see reappearing and existing again around him, in all their cruel reality, the monstrous visions of his past.

All this was looming before him.

Horror-stricken, he closed his eyes and cried out from the depths of his soul, “Never!”

So all the memories of Valjean’s trial and time in prison and the bitterness he had in his heart have come rushing back to him, and he is determined that he will never go back there again.  “I am so done with that; I’m not even going to go there.”

But then he has another thought:

And by a tragic trick of fate that was stirring up all his ideas and driving him almost insane, it was another self that faced him.  This man on trial was being called Jean Valjean!

Right before his eyes he had an unthinkable vision, a sort of re-creation of the most horrible moment of his life, being played by his shadow.

A little bit of further reflection:

It was all there–the same paraphernalia, the same time of night–almost the same faces, judge and assistant judges, soldiers and spectators.  But above the head of the judge was a crucifix, something not in courtrooms at the time of his sentence.  When he had been tried, God had been absent.

Here we see a couple of things come into play.  Recall that the regular courthouse was under renovation, and so the court was temporarily relocated to the city hall which had previously been a bishop’s palace.  That cross may have been a holdover from the days when this building was a bishop’s palace.  (But then, it was during the Revolution that this bishop’s palace was converted into a city hall, and it is doubtful that the crucifix on the wall would have survived the Revolution.)  But be that as it may, it is nevertheless quite fortuitous for Champmathieu, and symbolic as well, that the court was relocated to the former bishop’s palace when his trial was taking place.

Also:  Recall that the story begins in fall 1815; Jean Valjean has just been released after a nineteen-year sentence.  Back up nineteen years from 1815, and that puts you in 1796–right in the heart of the time when the Directory was in power.  Note what Victor Hugo says about the Directory concerning Fantine:  “At her birth, the Revolutionary Directory was still in power.  She could have no family name, because she had no family; she could have no baptismal name, because at the time there was no church.”  And on this occasion, Victor Hugo goes even further and says that God was absent during this particular time in French history, by saying that God was absent when Jean Valjean was tried.

And at this point, Victor Hugo drops it on us that Monsieur Bamatabois was one of the jurors.  Recognize that name from a few chapters back?  He was the “dandy” that Victor Hugo was describing in his little essay on provincial dandies.  He was the one who lobbed a snowball at Fantine and initiated the final sickness from which she would never recover.  He got her arrested for assaulting a gentleman; he was the one who should have been arrested.

And here he was, helping to decide the fate of Champmathieu.  Feel the injustice of this.

Now I am sure that when he saw Madeleine walk into the room, he was thinking “Oh, snap!!!”

Victor Hugo now proceeds to rant on what had happened with the Champmathieu case up to this point:

…The trial had been in progress three hours.  During those three hours, the spectators had seen a man, an unknown, wretched being, thoroughly stupid or thoroughly artful, gradually bending beneath the weight of a terrible similarity.  This man, as we already know, was a vagrant who had been found in a field, carrying a branch heavy with ripe apples, which had been broken off a tree in a nearby orchard called the Pierron enclosure.  Who was this man?  An examination had been held, witnesses had been heard, they had been unanimous, light had been shed on every aspect of the case.  The prosecution said, “We have here not merely a fruit thief, a robber; we have here, in our hands, a bandit, an outlaw who has broken his parole, a former convict, a most dangerous outlaw, a former offender, Jean Valjean, whom justice has long been seeking, and who, eight years ago, on leaving the prison at Toulon, committed an armed highway robbery on the person of a young Savoyard, Petit Gervais, a crime specified in Article 383 of the Penal Code and for which we reserve the right of further prosecution once his identity is judicially established.  He has now committed a new theft.  He is a repeated offender.  Convict him for the new crime and he will be tried later for the previous one.”

Feel the sarcasm dripping from Hugo’s pen here as he describes the trial of Champmathieu.

Champmathieu’s response was one of mute astonishment.  He just stood there, saying nothing, looking like a complete idiot.  He seemed to have no awareness whatsoever of what was going on around him, or of the magnitude of the charges facing him.  Nobody in that courtroom could figure out if he was simply pretending to not know anything, or if he really didn’t know anything.

And Champmathieu’s defense attorney was practically worthless.  He spoke in formal language which sounded very eloquent and was once used by virtually all lawyers, but was now only used by official orators of the bar and was thus out of place in this particular trial.  He began by trying to describe the theft of the apples, which was poorly suited to the lofty language he was trying to use.  Victor Hugo draws the comparison with the orator Bossuet, who once mentioned a hen in the context of a funeral oration and pulled it off brilliantly.  This guy was nothing compared to Bossuet.

In the course of his defense, he all but admitted that Champmathieu was Jean Valjean.  We have already seen several of the flaws in the prosecution’s argument for Champmathieu being Jean Valjean–it is based strictly on the fact that Champmathieu came from the same part of the country as Jean Valjean, that his name can be loosely derived from Valjean (Jean Valjean -> Jean Mathieu Valjean -> Jean Mathieu -> Champmathieu), that this crime is similar to the crime for which Valjean was initially arrested, and that Champmathieu’s identification as Jean Valjean was based entirely upon the word of three convicts and an overzealous police chief.  A competent defense attorney would have been able to poke holes in any of these bases for the prosecution’s case–yet this guy did not even attempt to go there.  He had even counseled Champmathieu to admit to having been a convict, but Champmathieu wouldn’t do it.  He confessed this in his closing argument, asking the court to not hold it against Champmathieu that he was making a bad defense.  How’s that for advocating for your client?  Wouldn’t you love to have this guy as your defense attorney?

Since the defense attorney all but admitted that Champmathieu was Jean Valjean, the prosecuting attorney gratefully accepted this–and then proceeded to unleash a withering diatribe against Jean Valjean.  When the defense attorney rose to make his rebuttal, everyone could sense the ground giving way under him.