Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 4, Book 3 : Saint-Denis and Idyll of the Rue Plumet (The House on the Rue Plumet) | Summary

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Summary

The narrative moves back in time: Jean Valjean is now living in the Faubourg Saint Germain, in a house on the Rue Plumet. A large garden conceals the house on one side from passers-by, and the back of the property has a small building with two rooms. This is where Jean Valjean lives. He has installed Cosette in the house with a servant, Toussaint. Behind the cottage is a long, narrow corridor between two walls and ending in the unbuilt end of another street. Thus the residents can get to and from the property without using the Rue Plumet.

The narrator relates how Jean Valjean left the convent after five years because he believed Cosette had a right to learn about life outside the cloister before renouncing it. The narrator mentions Jean Valjean carries with him a mysterious case that seems very precious to him. He also rents two additional apartments, and from time to time he and Cosette live in these other residences. The three addresses are a way of eluding the police. Jean Valjean does mandatory service in the National Guard as Ultimus Fauchelevent to avoid suspicion while staying under the radar.

The garden fronting the Rue Plumet is left uncultivated, so it is hard to tell if someone is living in the house. Covering almost an acre, the garden is a favorite haunt of Cosette's. She has vague memories of her childhood and does not remember her mother, but she imagines her mother's spirit has somehow passed into this man she calls father, whom she loves with a "frank, filial passion."

Like Marius, Cosette has fallen in love during the time of their odd courting in the Luxembourg Gardens. She has never discussed this with her father, even after he discontinued their visits, because there is no suitable context within their relationship in which she can examine or verbalize her feelings. For his part Jean Valjean becomes wildly jealous of Cosette's affections, fearing he will lose the joy of his life to a "booby ... [who had] seen fit to come and loiter at the Luxembourg." Although Jean Valjean knows Cosette is suffering, he doesn't know what to do about it.

The father and daughter are in the habit of walking around the city early in the morning, and on one of their excursions they encounter wagonloads of chained prisoners on their way out of the city. This horrific scene upsets both of them. She asks him, "Father, are they still men?" He answers, "Sometimes."

Analysis

Although it would have been easy for Jean Valjean to stay at the convent after Fauchelevent died, he feels it is his duty to give Cosette a choice of whether she wants a religious vocation. If he had not left, she would have naturally become a nun and stayed close to him all his life. On the other hand, she may have hated him later for imprisoning her in the cloister, so his decision to leave is not completely selfless.

Ever a canny fugitive, Jean Valjean rents three residences in case he has to make a quick getaway, and that's exactly what he does when he disappears after Marius comes looking for Cosette. All men under 60 have to do mandatory guard service, and rather than arouse suspicion now he is back in society, Jean Valjean registers as Fauchelevent. He does not try to quit after he is past 60 because the last thing he needs is someone official to inquire into his background.

Jean Valjean is intensely envious of the love that blooms between Cosette and Marius because it will separate him from the only person he has ever loved. While this may seem to be an exaggerated view, the hero is better than most at projecting future difficulties, and he is not wrong in thinking he will be cut out of any new life Cosette may start with a husband—in fact this is exactly what happens at the end of the novel. He has some regret about cutting her off from Marius, and when he sees how sad she is he asks if she wants to return to the park, but by then it is too late—Marius has disappeared. There is now, for the first time, a rift between them—a subject they cannot talk about—since neither of them knows how to approach it. Thus they are both sad, even though the love between them continues to bind them together. Without meaning to do so, perhaps, Jean Valjean has appropriated Cosette for himself and metaphorically incarcerated her, forgetting he took her out of the convent to experience life.

When the pair of them encounter the convicts, Jean Valjean is reminded of the heavy past he continues to drag behind him like a ball and chain and from which he is never free. He inwardly winces when his daughter says, "It seems to me that if I should meet one of those men in my path ... I would die just from seeing him near me!" Later she asks him, "Father, what are they then, the convicts?" The narrator does not record an answer.

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