The sight of this procession had a fearsome effect on Jean Valjean, because it stirred up memories from his own past. For he had once been on one of those wagons, in a procession similar to this. He knew full well what awaited these prisoners at the end of their journey. He had experienced in his own soul the transformation which we have seen in these prisoners. He had once been just as wretched–inside and out–as these prisoners, and if not for his meeting with Monsigneur Bienvenu at Digne, he would still be just as wretched, if not worse. And yet, in this section of the story, as Valjean runs Marius off and tries desperately to cling to Cosette, we see his soul trending back in this direction. If unchecked, Valjean will once again become precisely what we have just seen in this procession–on the inside at least, if not on the outside.
Jean Valjean’s eyes had become frightening. They were no longer eyes; they were the deep windows that take the place of seeing in certain unfortunate creatures, that seem unconscious of reality, reflecting dazzling horrors and catastrophes. He was not looking at a sight; he was experiencing a vision. He endeavored to get up, to flee, to escape; he could not move a limb. Sometimes things that you see grab and hold you. He was spellbound, dazed, petrified, asking himself, through a vague unutterable anguish, the meaning of this vague sepulchral persecution, and the source of this pandemonium pursuing him. All at once he raised his hand to his forehead, a common gesture with those to whom memory suddenly returns; he remembered that this really was the route, that this detour was usual to avoid meeting the king, which was always possible on the Fontainebleau road, and that, thirty-five years before, he had passed through this city gate.
This sight also had a fearsome effect upon Cosette, though not for the same reasons as for Valjean.
…She did not understand; what she saw did not seem possible to her; at last she exclaimed, “Father! What can that be in those wagons?”
Jean Valjean answered: “Convicts.”
“And where are they going?”
At this moment the cudgeling, multiplied by a hundred hands, reached its climax; blows with the flat of the sword joined in; it was a fury of whips and clubs; the prisoners crouched, a hideous obedience was produced by the torture, and all fell silent with the look of chained wolves. Cosette trembled all over; she asked, “Father, are they still men?”
“Sometimes,” said the man of misery.
Here Hugo inexorably links Valjean to the procession we have just seen, by referring to the misery which deformed these men and took away their humanity, and then calling Valjean “the man of misery”.
Cosette gets what is happening here. These people are still men, yet the punishment to which they are subjected has stripped them of their humanity to the extent that one has good cause to doubt whether or not they are still men.
Valjean is in a tricky place when Cosette asks him this question, because he was once in a similar procession, experiencing similar punishment. He knows that under the strain of this punishment many of these men lose their humanity and turn into horrible monsters, yet if he were to say that they are not still men he would be damning himself, because he was once in such a procession.
And yet he does not want to reveal to Cosette that he was once a prisoner in such a procession. Why? Because he loves Cosette and is still trying selfishly to cling to her. He is afraid that revealing this to her will cause her to lose her love for him and become revulsed with him and afraid of him, just as she is afraid of this procession.
So he answers carefully: “Sometimes.”
It was in fact the chain that, setting out before daybreak from Bicetre, took the Mans road to avoid Fontainebleau, where the king was at the time. This detour made the terrible journey last three or four days longer; but to spare the royal person the sight of the torture, it could well be prolonged.
Herein lies a bit of thinly veiled social criticism: the idea that the king, by virtue of his office, was above the other people of France and should be spared the sight of human suffering. These human beings, having been reduced to this inhuman state, could be forced to endure for a few days longer just to spare the king the sight of their anguish. Because the king is better than other people and should not have to experience the horror that they would experience upon seeing such human suffering. Even if that suffering was created by his nation’s laws and his nation’s justice system. Victor Hugo was not a fan of this.
Jean Valjean returned home overwhelmed. Such encounters are shocks, and the memory they leave resembles a convulsion.
Jean Valjean, however, on the way back to the Rue de Babylone with Cosette, did not notice that she asked him other questions regarding what they had just seen; perhaps he was himself too much absorbed in his own dejection to heed her words or answer them. But at night, as Cosette was leaving him to go to bed, he heard her say in an undertone, and as if talking to herself, “It seems to me that if I should meet one of those men in my path, O my God, I would die just from seeing him near me!”
Little does Cosette know that her father, whom she has loved so much for so long, is in fact one of those men. Imagine the effect it would have on her if she ever found out. So we see that Valjean has very good reason to be afraid, and to keep the secret of his past to himself.
But there was a multi-day festival in Paris which started the day after this procession. Valjean took Cosette to this, to get their minds off the horrible sight they had just seen. Valjean was able to put on his National Guard uniform and thus remain inconspicuous.
Several days later Cosette was standing with Valjean on the garden steps one morning, picking a daisy to pieces, just like she would if she were playing “He loves me/he loves me not…”. But she knew nothing of this game or anything like it; growing up in the convent, how could she have learned?
…She was fingering this flower by instinct, innocently, without suspecting that to pick a daisy to pieces is to pluck a heart. If there were a fourth Grace called Melancholy, and if it were smiling, she would have seemed that Grace.
Jean Valjean was fascinated by the contemplation of her slender fingers on that flower, forgetting everything in the radiance of this child. A robin was twittering in the shrubbery beside them. White clouds were crossing the sky so gaily that one would have said they had just been set free. Cosette went on plucking the petals off her flower attentively; she seemed to be thinking of something; but it must have been pleasant.
Once again, it is early morning and the birds are singing, just as it was on the day that Valjean and Cosette saw the awful prison procession. And now Cosette shows that she has not forgotten what they saw that day. She picks right up where she left off when she asked Valjean if the prisoners in the procession were still men:
…Suddenly she turned her head over her shoulder with the delicate motion of the swan, and said to Jean Valjean, “Father, what are they then, the convicts?”
Here Victor Hugo leaves us hanging. Cosette is pushing Valjean for an answer that he is extremely reluctant to give. Valjean has just come face-to-face with his own horrible past, we see that his soul is trending precisely in that direction, and that he needs some kind of help from outside to get back on the right path. Will he get it? What will it be? Keep reading to find out.