Here we return to the story. Jean Valjean and Cosette are in Fauchelevent’s shanty in the convent, but it is clear that they can’t stay there forever, because they will be discovered at some point. Children are naturally curious creatures, and the girls in the boarding school at the convent would eventually discover that there was someone in Fauchelevent’s shanty that wasn’t supposed to be there. At this point, the problem is for Fauchelevent to find a way that Valjean and Cosette to remain there lawfully.
One of the nuns in the convent has just died, an old nun who was revered throughout the convent as a saint. She had slept in a coffin for the previous twenty years as part of the in pace which Victor Hugo defines and describes in the previous section, and had requested that she be buried in this coffin, in the convent vault. No one had ever been buried in this vault because the city required the convent to bury their dead in the local cemetery. But because this nun was so revered by the convent, they were not going to deny this request. Carrying out this request would involve deceiving the local government; they would send a coffin for the deceased nun and then take it to the nearby Vaugirard cemetery and bury it in a plot specially reserved for the nuns of Petit-Picpus. This coffin would be sent back empty.
Fauchelevent asked the Mother Superior of the convent to take Valjean on as an assistant gardener and Cosette as a boarder at the school (Valjean was identified as Fauchelevent’s brother and Cosette was identified as his granddaughter.) By carrying out the dying nun’s wishes, Fauchelevent ensured that his request would be granted.
Thus, Valjean and Cosette were provided for. The only problem which remained was getting them out of the convent so that they could enter properly. Cosette was easy enough to take care of; she could be smuggled out in a basket that Fauchelevent could carry, and then left with a friend of his. Valjean would pose a much greater challenge.
Fauchelevent had initially proposed filling the government coffin with dirt, to weigh it down so that the administration would not suspect that they were being had. Valjean suggested that Fauchelevent place him in the coffin instead. Reluctantly, Fauchelevent agreed to this. The gravedigger at Vaugirard was an old friend named Father Mestienne; Fauchelevent could easily get him drunk, come back to the cemetery, and get Valjean out of the coffin.
But when the burial procession arrived at the cemetery, Fauchelevent was in for a rude surprise. Father Mestienne had died; the new gravedigger was a young, conscientious man named Gribier. Gribier would not agree to go for drinks with Fauchelevent; he wanted to finish the work first. Desperately Fauchelevent tried to ply him away, but to no avail. It is almost hilarious to see the extent of Fauchelevent’s desperation at this point. Fauchelevent’s desperation increased as the coffin was lowered into the ground and Gribier began to shovel dirt on top of it; one of the shovelfuls of dirt blocked the breathing hole Fauchelevent had made for Valjean and Valjean fainted.
At this point things look terrible for Valjean. But don’t worry. We are only a third of the way through the story. Victor Hugo is one of the greatest novelists of all time; surely he knows better than to kill off his hero a third of the way through the story.
Sure enough, as Gribier was reaching down to pick up another shovelful of dirt, his front pocket, which contained his gravedigger’s pass, was exposed. (All the Paris cemeteries closed at sunset, but the gravediggers at Vaugirard could stay after hours as late as necessary to finish their work. Each one was issued a pass; when he left the cemetery he would drop his pass into the drop box on the side of the gatekeeper’s shack. The gatekeeper would hear the thump of the gravedigger’s pass falling into the drop box and open the gate for him. If a gravedigger lost his pass, he would have to knock on the gatekeeper’s door and wait for the gatekeeper to come out and identify him and let him out. He would have to pay a fifteen franc fine for the gatekeeper’s trouble.)
Seeing Gribier’s pass exposed, Fauchelevent deftly swiped it. He then reminded Gribier that the cemetery was about to close. Gribier checked for his pass; of course he did not find it. He ran home to retrieve it; Fauchelevent agreed to stay behind and guard the grave.
With Gribier gone, Fauchelevent opened up the coffin to get Valjean out. At first, he thought Valjean was dead and he was greatly distressed. But after a few minutes the fresh air revived Valjean. They closed up the coffin and finished closing up the grave. Fauchelevent went to return Gribier’s pass and fetch Cosette. Gribier was so relieved that Fauchelevent had found his pass and finished the work that he agreed to go for drinks with him anytime. Fauchelevent brought Valjean and Cosette back to the convent, and they were successfully admitted.
In this section of the story we see Victor Hugo’s genius as a plot novelist on full display. We know that in all probability it will turn out all right for Valjean because Hugo is surely not stupid enough to kill off his hero with two-thirds of the story still left to go. But Hugo nevertheless manages to keep us on the edge of our seats wondering how it will turn out for Valjean, throwing in one complication after another. The rule of good plot writing is to make things as bad as possible for your characters; when you think there is no way it can get any worse, find a way to make it worse.
And that is precisely what Hugo does here. Valjean uses his convict’s ingenuity to hatch a scheme for his escape. Reluctantly Fauchelevent goes along with it. But on the way to the cemetery, problems start to pop up. Everything would have worked out fine if the old gravedigger Mestienne whom Fauchelevent was counting on getting drunk was there at the cemetery to meet them. But that would not have made much of a story. So we find that Mestienne is dead. Now who is his replacement? Another old man like Mestienne? That would have been no problem for Valjean and Fauchelevent. And not much of a story. Thus it has to be a conscientious young man who will not touch a drop of alcohol until the work is done. So Fauchelevent keeps plying him, growing increasingly desperate and pathetic in his efforts–digging himself deeper and deeper into the hole, so to speak. But the new guy won’t budge. He starts shoveling dirt, and where does it land? It could have landed anywhere on the coffin, but Hugo has it land right on Valjean’s breathing hole, just to make things MORE dicey for him. Finally, just in the nick of time, Fauchelevent improvises a daring scheme to get the new guy out of the way. He opens up the coffin to rescue Valjean, only to find that Valjean is dead. Hugo lets us sit in that moment for almost a full page, feeling the full force of the unbridled grief which Fauchelevent felt in that moment. But wait. Valjean isn’t dead. We experience the shock of Fauchelevent seeing the man thought to be dead open his eyes and look at him–and then, once Fauchelevent comes to his wits, it’s all good.
Another thing to note here is that the convent is a defining moment in Valjean’s life. In Valjean’s wanderings the night he fled from Javert, it is clear that he was trusting God to lead him. He thought God was leading him to the country and to freedom–but instead, God was leading him to this convent. Why? Because the convent was precisely what Valjean needed at that point in his life. Victor Hugo expresses what the convent meant to Jean Valjean so eloquently that I think it is best to just let him say it in his own words. But that would be too much to get into here. So tune in next time.