Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 1, Book 2 : Fantine (The Fall) | Summary

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Summary

A "stout and hardy" traveler in his late 40s passing through Digne attempts to find food and shelter after visiting the mayor's office. Both the inn and tavern keepers refuse to serve him, and a woman advises him to knock at the bishop's house. When Monseigneur Bienvenu receives him, he immediately reveals he is an ex-convict—the reason no one will offer him hospitality. He shows his yellow passport, which details his history; the passport says he was imprisoned for five years for burglary and an additional 14 years for four attempted escapes and notes he is "highly dangerous." The bishop asks Madame to put sheets on the bed "in the alcove" of the oratory and invites the convict to supper. Madame takes out the good silver for the guest.

Valjean's back story is he was born a poor peasant. Orphaned early in life, he lived with his older sister and her seven children. He was a tree pruner by trade, and after his brother-in-law died, he and his sister had an increasingly difficult time feeding the family. One night in desperation, he broke the window of a bakery and stole a loaf of bread, for which he is sentenced to the notorious Toulon prison for five years. Jean Valjean has an almost supernatural physical strength and agility, which is why he was able to attempt four escapes. He deeply feels the injustice of his excessive punishment and concludes life is a war in which his only weapon is his hatred. In prison he learns reading, writing, and arithmetic.

At the bishop's Jean Valjean awakens after four hours of sleep. Restless in the dark he opens the door of the bishop's room and sneaks in to steal the silver, which he saw Madame Magloire put away in the cupboard, and then quickly leaves the premises. When Madame discovers the theft the next day, the bishop claims the silver belonged to the poor, and Jean Valjean is clearly a poor man. During breakfast three police officers arrive with Jean Valjean in tow. Monseigneur Bienvenu greets him warmly and asks him why he didn't also take the candlesticks he gave him. After the police release Valjean and leave, the bishop hands them over, telling him in a low voice, "Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man ... It is your soul I am buying for you ... and I give it to God!"

As Jean Valjean leaves the city, he is in a daze, overwhelmed by new emotions. He sits behind some bushes, lost in his thoughts, when a 10-year-old chimney sweep, Petit Gervais, happens by, tossing some coins in the air. A 40-sous piece rolls away, toward Valjean, and he puts his foot over it, refusing to give it back. After the boy leaves, he picks up the money and begins calling the boy's name, but Gervais has disappeared. He then begins weeping, calling himself "a miserable man." He realizes the bishop's pardon is an assault on his hardened heart, a call to renounce hatred. He feels himself filled with radiance, and he weeps for a long time. He returns briefly to Digne in the middle of the night and kneels in prayer, on the pavement in front of the bishop's door.

Analysis

Jean Valjean has been given the life sentence of pariah. Although technically at liberty, he cannot travel to a new town without showing the passport announcing his criminal status. Moreover, he must settle himself in the town of Pontarlier as the condition of his parole. Of course, the fact that he must announce his status leaves him open to continual abuse and discrimination, if he is hired at all. The only way for Jean Valjean to start fresh is to immediately break the law by hiding his criminal status.

Jean Valjean's original crime does not match his punishment, and the narrator notes "English statistics show that in London starvation is the immediate cause of four out of five thefts." Valjean is assigned to the terrible prison in Toulon, where convicts were sent originally to row the ships in the French navy. However, by the time he gets there, the ships are used only for prisoners' quarters, and the convicts work on construction projects or power the machinery used to make rope in the factory—by continually walking a treadmill. Valjean's punishment is deliberately archetypal, a typical example of how society abuses those least able to defend themselves. The protagonist represents the views of the author when he asks "whether human society could rightfully make its members submit equally, in the one case by its unreasonable carelessness and in the other by its pitiless care; and to hold a poor man forever between a lack and an excess, a lack of work and an excess of punishment." Valjean steals bread only because he lacks enough work to make the pennies he needs to put food on the table. In post-Revolutionary France things had not gotten better for poor people, and economic gains were made mostly by the middle classes.

Nonetheless, despite nearly two decades of living in hell, Jean Valjean is still redeemable, and the bishop buys back his soul with an act of kindness. While the ex-convict ponders the unexpected grace bestowed by the bishop, he is still in his old mode of behavior, which is why he—almost unconsciously—steals Gervais's coin. After the boy moves on, he realizes "he had done a thing of which he was no longer capable." The narrator says, "Excessive misfortune ... had made him ... a visionary," and in his grief, which becomes an ecstasy, the bishop grows large while Jean Valjean himself fades; it is as if he is "looking at Satan by the light of Paradise." Thus he resolves to become like the bishop.

An important theme is this novel is transformation in political, social, and spiritual realms. Although a tragic and sorrow-filled story, the novel is uplifting because some of the characters radically change and even experience transcendence. In Book 1, Monsieur Myriel, a privileged aristocrat, becomes Monseigneur Bienvenu, a Christ-like shepherd who experiences communion with the Infinite. In Book 2, Jean Valjean is rescued by the bishop and becomes his spiritual son and heir to his vision.

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