Les Miserables 33: Counter-Stroke

Jean Valjean (aka Father Madeleine) has just finished testifying in Arras at the trial of Champmathieu.  Champmathieu was arrested on suspicion of being Jean Valjean but was released when Father Madeleine confessed to being the real Jean Valjean.  We will breeze through what happens next, but there are a couple of things that I want to pause and camp out on.

After Valjean (and from here on out we will refer to him as Valjean and not Madeleine) finished up in Arras, he hotfooted it back to MSM and went to visit Fantine at the hospital.  Javert found him at Fantine’s bedside and arrested him, in a poignant scene where Fantine dies from the shock of seeing Javert haul him away.  But Valjean busted out of the city jail and was able to buy a couple of days’ time to tie things up before going away to prison for real.

A couple of things to note here:  The scene where Javert busts in to arrest Valjean at Fantine’s bedside shows Victor Hugo’s genius as a plot writer.  We knew that Valjean would want to visit Fantine first thing when he got back to MSM, and we knew that Javert was probably hot on his tail.  We knew what a shock it would be to Fantine to see her protector Madeleine hauled away by her archenemy Javert, and what the shock would do to her with her health being what it was.  Victor Hugo brought all of that together in a single moment with an explosive dramatic impact.

Next:  Politics comes into play here.  When Champmathieu was released, the prosecuting attorney wanted to go after Madeleine and arrest him as Jean Valjean.  The judge showed no reluctance to this:

With the first emotions over, the judge made few objections.  Justice must take its course.  Then to confess the truth, although the judge was a kind man and quite intelligent, he was at the same time a strong, almost zealous royalist, and had been shocked when the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer, in speaking of the landing at Cannes, had said “the Emperor” instead of “Buonaparte.”

A simple slip of the tongue, perhaps, and it wound up possibly costing Valjean his freedom.  (Perhaps the judge would have ruled in favor of the prosecuting attorney just the same, but with Valjean exposed as a closet Bonapartist, the judge had much less reluctance in doing so.)  This goes to show just how politically charged the atmosphere of 19th century France was, as I mentioned back in the introductory posts.

Next:  Sister Simplice.  We haven’t seen or heard from her since Valjean left for Arras, but at this juncture in the story she plays a momentous role.  Sister Simplice was at Valjean’s house when he returned after busting out of jail.  Recall how Victor Hugo described her penchant for truthfulness earlier in the story:

Never to have lied, never to have spoken for any purpose whatever, even carelessly, a single word that was not the truth, the sacred truth, was the distinctive trait of Sister Simplice; it was the mark of her virtue.  She was almost celebrated in the Community for this imperturbable veracity….Sincere and pure as we may be, we all have the mark of some little lie on our truthfulness.  She had none.  A little lie, an innocent lie, can such a thing exist?  To lie is the absolute of evil.  To lie a little is not possible; whoever lies, lies a whole lie; lying is the very face of the Devil.  Satan has two names:  He is called Satan, and he is called the Liar.  That is what she thought.  And as she thought, she practiced.

But note what she does for Valjean in this moment:

Sister Simplice fell on her knees near the table.

The door opened.

Javert entered.

…Javert saw the sister, and stopped, shamed.

It will be remembered that Javert’s very foundation, his natural element, the medium in which he breathed, was veneration for all authority.  He was all of a piece, admitting no objection or restriction.  To him, of course, ecclesiastic authority was the highest of all; he was devout, superficial, and correct on this point as on all others.  In his eyes, a priest was an infallible spirit, a nun was a being who never sinned.  They were souls walled away from this world, with a single door that never opened except for the release of truth.

On seeing the sister, his first impulse was to leave.

But there was also another duty that held him and urged him imperatively in the opposite direction.  His second impulse was to remain and to venture at least one question.

This was the Sister Simplice who had never lied in her life.  Javert knew this, and venerated her particularly because of it.

“Sister,” he said, “are you alone in this room?”

…The sister raised her eyes and replied, “Yes.”

Then Javert continued, “Excuse me if I persist, it is my duty–have you seen this evening a person, a man–he has escaped, and we are searching for him–Jean Valjean–you have not seen him?”

The sister answered, “No.”

She lied.  Two lies in succession, one upon another, without hesitation, quickly, as if she were adept at it.

“Your pardon!” said Javert, and he withdrew, bowing reverently.

Oh, holy maiden!  For many years now, you are gone from this world; you have joined in glory your sisters, the virgins, and your brothers, the angels; may this lie be counted for you in Paradise.

That’s right.  Sister Simplice, who had never told a lie in her life, told a lie that night.  And what’s more, she did it convincingly, as if it was something that came naturally to her.

Why?  Because this time, an innocent man’s life was at stake.  In her eyes, Valjean was innocent, and his life was a higher priority than her convictions about truthfulness.  Thus she had no trouble lying to save Valjean.

One more thought:  We have seen all that the people of MSM did to Fantine.  And when it came out that their mayor was really the ex-convict Jean Valjean, they turned on him rapidly.

M. Madeleine’s arrest produced a sensation, or rather an extraordinary commotion, at Montreuil-sur-mer.  We are sorry not to be able to disguise the fact that, merely because of the sentence “He was a convict,” almost everybody abandoned him.  In less than two hours, all the good he had done was forgotten, and he was “nothing but a convict.”

Thus, because the people of MSM were so ready and willing to forget the good that Valjean had done for them as mayor, they showed themselves to be completely undeserving of it.  And when they would experience the fallout from Valjean’s absence as mayor of MSM, they were only getting what they deserved.

Finally, note how Victor Hugo closes out his account of Fantine’s life:

We all have one mother–the earth.  Fantine was restored to this mother.

…Fantine was buried in the common grave of the cemetery, which belongs to everybody and to nobody, and in which the poor are lost.  Fortunately, God knows where to find the soul.  Fantine was laid away in the darkness among the homeless bodies; she suffered the promiscuity of dust.  She was thrown into the public pit.  Her grave was like her bed.

Here again we see the Christian basis of Les Miserables:  Fantine’s body was lost in the common pit, but God knows where to find the soul.  God is concerned with the weak, the oppressed, the downtrodden, those whom society has forgotten, and He will not forget.  This is one of the recurring themes of Scripture:  Those whom society has forgotten and cast aside are closest to the heart of God.

In closing:  Fantine was a creature of the streets.  She had no parents–at least, no one who would admit to being her parents.  She just appeared from out of nowhere, from the streets, spontaneously as it were, was raised by whomever was willing to pay attention to her, was ultimately forced by her life circumstances to open her bed to whomever was willing to pay to sleep with her, and was finally laid to rest in a common, public grave.  It was a tragically fitting end to her life.