Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 2, Book 8 : Cosette (Cemeteries Take What Is Given Them) | Summary

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Summary

In the morning Fauchelevent is eager to help his old mayor who saved his life, and Jean Valjean knows the cloister can keep him invisible. Fauchelevent says they need a way to get out and get back in, since no men are allowed in the convent without the prioress's consent. He can easily carry Cosette out in a basket and temporarily leave her with a friendly fruit vendor. But the mayor is a bigger problem. Fauchelevent is then summoned by the prioress, and he asks her if his younger brother can join him as an assistant gardener; he also mentions Cosette's attending the convent school. The nun needs a favor of her own: she asks Fauchelevent if he can get a strong iron bar to be used as a lever. Mother Crucifixion, the nun who just died, is considered to be a saint by the community and highly revered. She has slept in her own coffin for the past 20 years and asked to be buried in the chapel, in the vault under the altar. Such a burial is forbidden by the authorities, but the prioress is determined to carry out her wish. With the help of the strongest nun, Fauchelevent will pry up the stone and put the nun's coffin in the enclosure. He suggests they can put dirt in the state's coffin to be carried to the cemetery. She then tells Fauchelevent to bring his brother and the child to her the next evening, after the cemetery burial.

Fauchelevent tells Jean Valjean about the whole conversation, since he is worried the pallbearers will be suspicious if he fills the coffin with dirt. Valjean then comes up with a plan to solve two problems: he will put himself inside the coffin after they knock a few air holes in the lid, and he will be carried out of the cloister. One of Fauchelevent's duties is to help with burials. His plan is to get Mestienne, the gravedigger, drunk before the burial and then leave him at the tavern while he comes back to the cemetery to get Jean Valjean out of the coffin.

The first part of the plan goes off without a hitch. But Mestienne has inconveniently died, and Fauchelevent finds a new gravedigger at the gravesite, one who is less fond of alcohol. The new man begins throwing dirt on the coffin. Jean Valjean loses consciousness, and Fauchelevent does some fast thinking. He steals the new gravedigger's card out of his vest pocket and then asks him if he has it. He needs this pass to get in and out of the cemetery. Fauchelevent advises him to go home and find it while he waits. When the gravedigger leaves, he gets Valjean out of the coffin and they bury it together; then he drops the man's card in the gatekeeper's box. He then stops at the gravedigger's house and tells him he found he card, no worries, and has buried the coffin.

The two friends and Cosette return to the convent. Jean Valjean, now Ultimus Fauchelevent, joins the community as the new gardener, and Cosette is enrolled in school. She is able to spend an hour with her father each day. When Jean Valjean muses, he thinks the nuns in the convent are very like the prisoners in a jail. Both work hard and live in obedience under a harsh rule. But while the convicts have committed all sorts of crimes, the nuns are innocent. He thinks about the expiation of sins and feels enormous gratitude that "two houses of God had received him in succession at the two critical moments of his life," after every other door had been closed to him.

Analysis

This episode in which Jean Valjean finds a new safe haven is both hair raising and humorous. Hugo takes the opportunity to present an extended conversation between Fauchelevent and the convent's learned prioress, in which the clever gardener has trouble keeping up with the erudite nun, as they speak at cross-purposes until they sort themselves out. He helps the Mother Superior break the laws of both the health department and the police as a quid pro quo for accepting his "brother" and the brother's "granddaughter" into the community. Here is another instance in which a holy and pious woman finds it necessary to break the law, this time more radically than simply lying to the police, as Sister Simplice did. The prioress, much like a lawyer before the bar, reels off a dizzying list of reasons why it is right to bury the nun under the altar. Ultimately she says God's law is higher than man's, and she has no compunction about answering to a higher authority. This is a theme that runs through the novel: the difference between law and justice and the idea that sometimes the law is not just. In this instance the saintly nun who has died wished to stay in death where she prayed in life, and the prioress sees no harm in bypassing regulations, since the single burial will do no harm. In the nun's calculus it would be wrong to not carry out the wishes of the dead—especially one marked as a saint.

At the same time Fauchelevent and Valjean lie to the prioress so she will agree to take in the fugitives. Yet lying in this case also is the right thing to do. Fauchelevent doesn't know Jean Valjean's real story anyway, and neither man can put the nun in a position in which she would willingly be an accomplice to a crime. They are not putting the community in any danger, and Jean Valjean, who turns out to be a skilled gardener, is a boon to the community. Jean Valjean symbolically dies in this episode and is reborn as Ultimus Fauchelevent, baptized into a new life. As long as he stays in the cloister he can finally be at ease, knowing the people outside chasing him cannot get in. He sees how the cloister is somewhat like a jail, but everyone came there willingly. The narrator says perhaps Jean Valjean was in danger of becoming too proud about the way he has changed and the good works he has done, so the nuns serve as a strong corrective to keep him humble. They live to expiate the sins of the world, while he has expiated only his own sins. He has been saved by God, moreover, from falling back into a life of crime and has been given someone to love; for this he is grateful.

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