Last time we looked at the part where Marius falls in love with Cosette. We had already seen what it was like from Marius’s point of view, and we saw the same event from Cosette’s point of view. But what was it like from Jean Valjean’s point of view?
We have already seen that Valjean loved Cosette very much, and he desperately wanted Cosette to continue to love him like she did as a child. But with Cosette’s transition to adolescence, things were starting to change in their relationship; Cosette was becoming more independent and less interested in Valjean. The worst thing for Valjean at this point would be for another man to fall in love with Cosette and take her away from him. So when Marius enters the picture, you can imagine that Valjean will not take it very well.
Every condition has its instinct. The old eternal mother, Nature, silently warned Jean Valjean of Marius’s presence. Jean Valjean shuddered in his innermost being. Seeing nothing, knowing nothing, he still gazed persistently at the darkness surrounding him, as if he perceived on one side something being built, and on the other something collapsing. Marius, also warned, and according to the deep law of God, by this same mother, Nature, did all that he could do to hide himself from the “father.” It sometimes happened, however, that Jean Valjean did catch sight of him. Marius’s ways became quite unnatural. He had a suspicious caution and an awkward boldness. He no longer came near them; he would sit some distance away, and remained there in an ecstasy; he had a book and pretended to be reading; why did he pretend? He used to wear his old suit, now he had on his new suit every day; it was not entirely certain that he did not curl his hair, he had strange eyes, he wore gloves; in short, Jean Valjean cordially detested this young man.
And that was only the beginning. Cosette did not appear to give any indication of being interested in Marius, but Marius was clearly in love with Cosette. But this did not put Valjean at ease; doesn’t all love begin as indifference?
Indeed, Marius’s interest in Cosette aroused dark feelings inside of Valjean which came straight from the criminal past that he has struggled against throughout the course of this story:
He who had come to believe that he was no longer capable of a malevolent feeling had moments in which, when Marius was there, he thought he was once more becoming savage and ferocious, and felt those old depths of his soul, once so wrathful, reawakening and rising against the young man. It seemed to him almost as if the unknown craters were forming within him again.
So now he was there, this creature? What had he come for? He came to pry, to sniff, to examine, to test; he came to say, “Now, why not?” He had come to prowl around his, Jean Valjean’s, life! To prowl around his happiness, to grab it and carry it off!
Jean Valjean added, “Yes, that’s it! What’s he looking for? An adventure? What does he want? A flirtation!–and as for me! What! After first being the most miserable of men, I’ll be the most unfortunate; I’ll have spent sixty years of life on my knees; I’ll have suffered all a man can suffer; I’ll have grown old without having been young, have lived with no family, no relatives, no friends, no wife, no children! I’ll have left my blood on every stone, on every thorn, on every post, along every wall; I’ll have been gentle, although the world was harsh to me, and good, though it was evil; I’ll have become an honest man in spite of all; I’ll have repented the wrongs I’ve done, and pardoned the wrongs done to me, and the moment I’m rewarded, the moment it’s over, the moment I’m reaching the end, the moment I have what I desire, rightfully and justly, I have paid for it, I have earned it–it will all disappear, and I’ll lose Cosette, and I’ll lose my life, my joy, my soul, because this booby has seen fit to come and loiter at the Luxembourg.”
Then his eyes filled with a strange and dismal light. It was no longer a man looking at a man; it was not an enemy sizing up an enemy. It was a dog looking at a robber.
This description of how Marius aroused feelings in Valjean that hearkened back to his criminal past is significant. In the next chapter Valjean will catch a disturbing vision from straight out of his criminal past.
Notice how Valjean says that he deserves the happiness of Cosette loving him because of all that he has been through in his life. Valjean is at his worst whenever his thoughts run along these lines.
Also, notice the last sentence in the above quote: more animal imagery. Here Valjean is likened to a dog–an earthbound creature with no capacity to fly and rise above its circumstances. And this time it isn’t just how Valjean perceives himself, it is how he really is. Because at this point his thoughts really are taking him downward on an earthbound trajectory.
Another thing to note: At this point in the story, Valjean had Marius in his power–Marius was just an inexperienced young man madly in love with his adopted daughter–and he did not treat him well. Later on in this story, the shoe will be on the other foot; Marius will have Valjean in his power, and will not treat him very well.
We already know the rest. Valjean set out traps for Marius, and Marius walked right into each of them. Finally he followed Cosette into the Rue de l’Ouest. He spoke to the building’s porter. The porter told Valjean that Marius had asked about Cosette. Valjean stopped going to the Luxembourg, and the next week, he and Cosette moved back to the Rue Plumet.
Cosette went along with this. She did not want to give Valjean any indication that she had been interested in Marius, so she kept her mouth shut and went along with it when Valjean didn’t want to go back to the Luxembourg any more. She hoped that if she kept quiet and did not tip her hand Valjean would soon take her back to the Luxembourg. But Valjean did not understand the meaning of Cosette’s behavior–he had never been in love–and so he believed that Cosette really did not want to go back to the Luxembourg. So he did not offer again until three months later, by which time Marius had long since given up on the Luxembourg.
So Cosette was pining because of the loss of Marius. And Valjean was sad because Cosette was sad. The chapter ends with these two people who had once loved each other so and had no secrets from each other, suffering in silence beside each other while pretending to be happy for the sake of the other.
These two beings, who had loved each other so exclusively, and with so touching a love, and who had lived so long for each other, were now suffering beside one another and through one another; without speaking of it, without harsh feeling, and smiling all the while.