Les Miserables 70: The Chain

We have just seen what Marius’s falling in love with Cosette looked like from Cosette’s point of view, and we have also seen how it landed in Jean Valjean’s life.  Valjean had hoped that Cosette would stay with him and love him forever as she did when she was a little girl.  All of this changed when Cosette reached adolescence and realized she was beautiful.  And when Marius entered the picture, Valjean did not take it very well.  In fact, Marius’s appearance caused thoughts and feelings to rise up inside of Valjean which hearkened all the way back to his criminal past.

In this chapter Valjean sees a very disturbing vision which takes him straight back to his criminal past.  This scene has a very dreamlike, even nightmarish quality.  It seems to be out of place and have little if anything to do with the story, except that it is a reminder of Valjean’s past which comes at a point when he is struggling with thoughts and feelings from his past.

Valjean and Cosette had a habit of occasionally going out for early morning walks together to watch the sunrise.  This was one of their great pleasures in life together; even after the loss of Marius caused their lives to become sad they still engaged in this activity periodically.

One morning in October of 1831, Valjean and Cosette were out on an early morning walk near the city gates.  Victor Hugo gives us the date; it places this scene at about a year and some change after the July Revolution of 1830.  Also, Marius’s infatuation with Cosette happened during the spring and early summer of that year; we see here that it has been a few months  since all of that happened.  It was dawn; it was starting to get light but the sun had not yet peeked above the horizon.  And then Valjean and Cosette saw a very disturbing sight.

…a sound was heard, difficult to explain at such an hour, and a kind of moving confusion appeared.  Some shapeless thing coming from the boulevard was entering the highway.

It grew larger, it seemed to move in order, still it was bristling and quivering; it looked like a wagon but they could not make out the load.  There were horses, wheels, cries; whips were cracking.  By degrees the features became definite, although enveloped in the darkness.  It was in fact a wagon that had just turned out of the boulevard onto the road, and was making its way toward the city gate, near Jean Valjean; a second, similar one followed it, then a third, then a fourth; seven vehicles rounded the turn in succession, the horses’ heads touching the rear of the wagons.  Dark forms were moving on these wagons, flashes showed in the twilight, like drawn swords, something clanked like the rattling of chains; it kept coming, the voices grew louder, and it was as terrible as something from the cavern of dreams.

As it approached it took form hazily behind the trees with the pallor of an apparition; the mass whitened; daylight, rising little by little, spread a wan glow over this crawling thing, both sepulchral and alive, the heads of the shadows became the faces of the corpses, and it was this:

Hugo then goes on to describe the procession.  It consisted of seven oddly constructed wagons, six of which were hauling prisoners who were chained together and arranged so that they sat back-to-back in two rows, one facing each side of the street.  The seventh wagon was apparently for the sick.  It contained pots and pans and prisoners lying down in all sorts of positions.  A row of guards marched on either side of the wagons.  The prisoners were blue with the chill of morning; their clothing was a disparate array of rags.  They just sat there silently and endured whatever abuse the guards heaped upon them.  Even the prisoners in the sick wagon were not exempt from the guards’ abuse.

A crowd appeared from out of nowhere and lined up on both sides of the street as this procession approached, a sort of flash-mob, if you will.  Apparently it was a common occurrence in Paris for crowds to turn up from out of nowhere to watch something like this.

This file of wagons, whatever it was, was dismal.  It was obvious that tomorrow, that in an hour, a shower might spring up, that it would be followed by another, and another, and that the worn-out clothing would be soaked through, that once wet, these men would never get dry, that once chilled, they would never get warm again, that their trousers would be stuck to their skin by the rain, that water would fill their wooden shoes, that blows of the whip could not prevent the chattering of their teeth, that the chain would continue to hold them by the neck, that their feet would continue to swing; and it was impossible not to shudder at seeing these human beings thus bound and passive under the chilling clouds of autumn, and given up to the rain, to the wind, to all the fury of the elements, like trees and stones.

The clubs did not spare even the sick, who lay roped and motionless in the seventh wagon, seeming to have been thrown there like sacks filled with misery.

It is obvious that to Victor Hugo, even these prisoners are human beings too.  Whatever punishment they may have deserved for their crimes, they surely did not deserve this.  Especially in light of the fact that under this judicial system, real criminals like the Thenardiers and the members of Patron-Minette, whom we met earlier in the story, had ways of escaping justice–even while in prison they could still continue to carry on their crimes while the justice system turned a blind eye.

Now, as the sun rises, we see what sort of monsters these men have turned to under this dehumanizing punishment.

Suddenly, the sun appeared; the immense radiance of the Orient burst forth, and one would have said that it set all these savage heads on fire.  Their tongues were loosed, a conflagration of sneers, of oaths, and songs burst out.  The broad horizontal light cut the whole file in two, illuminating their heads and their bodies, leaving their feet and the wheels in the dark.  Their thoughts appeared on their faces; the moment was appalling; demons visible with their masks dropped, ferocious souls laid bare.  Lit up, this group was still dark.  Some, who seemed cheery, had quills in their mouths and were blowing vermin onto the crowd, selecting the women; the dawn intensified the mournful profiles through dark shadows; every one of these beings was deformed by misery; and it was so monstrous that it seemed to change the sunbeams into the glare of lightning.  The wagonload at the head of the cortege were singing at the top of their lungs with ghastly joviality, a medley by Desaugiers, then famous, La Vestale; the trees fluttered mournfully on the sidewalks, the bourgeois listened with faces of idiotic bliss to these obscenities chanted by specters.

Every form of distress was present in this chaos of a cortege; there were the facial angles of every beast, old men, youths, bald heads, gray beards, cynical monstrosities, dogged resignation, savage grimaces, insane attitudes, snouts set off with caps, heads like young girls with corkscrew curls over their temples, faces childish and therefore horrifying, thin skeleton faces that lacked only death.  On the first wagon was a Negro, who had, perhaps, been a slave and could compare chains.  The fearful leveler, disgrace, had passed over these brows; at this abased degree the utmost transformation had taken place in all of them; and ignorance, changed to stupidity, was the equal of intelligence changed to despair.  No possible choice among these men who seemed the elite of the mire.  It was clear that the marshal, whoever he was, of this foul procession had not classified them.  These beings had been bound and coupled pell-mell, probably in alphabetical disorder, and loaded haphazardly onto the wagons.  The aggregation of horrors, however, always produces a result; every addition of misfortune gives a total; from each chain came a common soul, and each cartload had its own features.  Beside the one that was singing was one that was howling; a third was begging; one was seen gnashing its teeth; another was threatening the bystanders, another blaspheming God; the last was silent as the tomb.  Dante would have thought he saw the seven circles of Hell on their way.

A march from condemnation toward punishment, made ominously, not on the intimidating flashing chariot of the Apocalypse but more dismal still on a hangman’s cart.

One old lady in the crowd saw this as a teachable moment for a young boy who was with her, probably her grandchild.

As the songs and the blasphemy increased, the one who seemed the captain of the escort cracked his whip, and at that signal, a fearful, dull, and unselective cudgeling, which sounded like hail, fell on the seven wagons; many roared and foamed; which increased the glee of the gamins who had gathered, a swarm of flies on these wounds.

Again, it is clear that Hugo wants his audience to consider:  Is it right to treat human beings like this?  Is it right for human beings, even those who have violated the laws of human society, to be subjected to punishment which turns them into inhuman monsters?

When one considers the prison system in present-day America, much has changed and yet much has not changed.  We don’t have public hangings anymore.  We don’t have chain gangs or public processions which in any way resemble what Hugo describes here.  But in the worst of our prisons, there is still a sort of inhuman lumping together and abandonment of the worst of our criminals.  Separated securely from society but left to their own devices within that environment, they lose their humanity and turn into something that is fearful even to consider, just like the prisoners on these carts.

There is still more to say about the horrible sight that Valjean and Cosette are seeing right now, but this post has gone on long enough and this is a good place to stop.