Les Miserables 38: The Old Gorbeau House

Now Victor Hugo takes us to Paris.  We are in an old, dilapidated stretch of Boulevard de l’Hopital near La Salpetriere (an old gunpowder factory which was turned into a mental hospital; nowadays it is a general teaching hospital.  Princess Di was treated there the night that she died).  It is not very heavily populated; it isn’t the city, yet it isn’t quite the country either.  (At least it wasn’t back in Victor Hugo’s day.)  It is exactly the sort of place Jean Valjean is looking for, because he wants to live a quiet life and evade detection by the authorities.

50-52 Boulevard de l'Hopital, circa 2010

On this God-forsaken stretch of Boulevard de l’Hopital is an old, dilapidated house.  Victor Hugo goes into great detail describing this house; it is a hovel but with some architectural features reminiscent of a rich mansion.  The short end of this house faces the Boulevard, so it looks like a very small house, but it goes back a long ways.  It is a one-story house with an unused basement which is not accessible from inside the house.  This house contains a series of garret apartments.  The street address of this house is quirky; on the outside it is number 50 but on the inside it is number 52.  If the address ranges on Google Maps are consistent with what they were back in Victor Hugo’s day, then this house would have been located across the street from the La Salpetriere complex, just south of Rue des Wallons, one block beyond Boulevard Saint-Marcel (perhaps the Rue des Vignes-Saint-Marcel of Victor Hugo’s day).  The house is obviously long gone; the building which is there now is a seven-story apartment building with storefronts which include a flower shop and a driving school.

The owner of this house was a man named Gorbeau.  Victor Hugo tells us all about this man; he was a lawyer who was originally named Corbeau.  He did not like this name because his professional colleagues made fun of him and his partner (Corbeau is the French word for crow.  His partner was named Renard; this is the French word for fox).  So he and his partner petitioned the king to have their names legally changed.  Changing one’s name was not nearly as easy in 19th century France as it is today here in America.  You had to petition the king, and who knows how that would work out?  But Corbeau and Renard lucked out.  Their petition came before the king on a day when he was in a good mood; Victor Hugo tells us all about what the king (Louis XV) was doing that day.  Corbeau was allowed to change his name to Gorbeau.  Renard did not make out quite so well.  He was allowed to change his name to Prenard (which means “grasping fellow”).  But Victor Hugo tells us that this new name was perfectly apropos for him.

This house, known in local parlance as the Gorbeau House, is where Valjean and Cosette ended up.  They lived there for several months.  At first Cosette was unaccustomed to being treated well, but she got used to it.  Valjean let her play with her doll; occasionally he would attempt to teach her to read.  During this season of life Valjean felt something coming to life inside of him as he learned to love Cosette.  Victor Hugo sums up the state of the relationship between Valjean and Cosette as follows:

Life seemed full of promise to him, men seemed good and just; in his thoughts he no longer reproached anyone with any wrong; he saw no reason now why he should not live to a very old age, since the child loved him.  He looked forward to a whole future illuminated by Cosette as if with charmed light.  The very best of us are not altogether exempt from some tinge of egotism.  At times, with a sort of quiet satisfaction, he reflected that she would be by no means pretty.

This is only personal opinion; but to express our views completely, at the point Jean Valjean had reached when he began to love Cosette, it is not entirely clear that he did not need this fresh supply of goodness to keep him on the straight and narrow.  He had just seen the wickedness of men and the misery of society in new ways–incomplete aspects and, unfortunately, showing only one side of the truth–the lot of woman summed up in Fantine, public authority personified in Javert.  This time he had been sent back to prison for doing good; new waves of bitterness had swept over him; disgust and weariness had once more seized him; even memories of the bishop might occasionally fade, to reappear afterward, luminous and triumphant; but with time this blessed remembrance was growing fainter.  Who can tell whether Jean Valjean was on the verge of discouragement and falling back on evil ways?  He loved, and he grew strong again.  Alas, he was as frail as Cosette.  He protected her, and she gave him strength.  Thanks to him, she could walk upright in life; thanks to her, he could persist in virtue.  He was this child’s support, and she was his prop and staff.  Oh, divine unfathomable mystery of Destiny’s compensations.

But surely you know that this state of blissful satisfaction is not going to last forever.  If it did–well, we wouldn’t have much of a story now, would we?

Sure enough, the landlady began to snoop around and watch Valjean.  She saw him sneak into a back room and take some money out of his coat which had been sewn into it.  In another unguarded moment, she examined the coat and found it to be loaded with money and other things.

Shortly after this, Valjean stopped to give alms to a beggar whom he always stopped to give alms to.  But this time the beggar looked up at him and he thought he saw the face of Javert.  (Victor Hugo describes Valjean’s reaction in that moment as “the sensation of someone suddenly face to face in the dark with a tiger”–more animal imagery for Javert.)  The next night he stopped and gave alms to this beggar, and noticed that it was not Javert after all.  This put his mind at ease.

But then one night a new lodger came to the Gorbeau House.  The landlady did not say anything about him except that he was an older gentleman living off his savings just like Valjean.  But he parked outside Valjean’s door and watched him through the keyhole.  The next day Valjean watched him through the keyhole and saw that it was in fact Javert.

He knew he had to get out quick.  So he looked outside and, seeing that the coast was clear, he grabbed Cosette and took off.

Where does Valjean go from here?  Tune in next time.


One thought on “Les Miserables 38: The Old Gorbeau House

  1. Joe,

    I’ve enjoyed your comments so much I decided to read the book myself. It’s available at Google Books as a FREE pdf download.


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