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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 5, Book 3 : Jean Valjean (Muck, But Soul) | Summary



Once Jean Valjean accustoms his eyes to the gloom, he realizes he's in a cul-de-sac and there is only one way forward. As he begins walking through the fetid fog, he worries Marius may bleed to death or they may get lost in the subterranean passages and starve to death. He senses he is moving away from the uprisings, and after walking for a half hour, he runs into a patrol of officers who are looking for revolutionaries. After successfully avoiding them, he stops to rest, putting Marius down and attempting to stanch the blood from his wounds. When he looks in the young man's pockets he finds the note that says to carry his corpse to his grandfather's address. When he starts again, he almost drowns in some muck that is like quicksand, but he finally reaches an outlet. Unfortunately, the arch is protected by a grate and the gate is locked. Jean Valjean collapses in despair, but a man comes up quietly behind him—it's Thénardier.

Jean Valjean is so covered in muck and obscured by darkness the villain does not recognize him. Thinking Valjean is a miscreant who has killed a man, he asks him for money to open the gate because he has a key. Valjean gives him 30 francs, and the villain surreptitiously rips off a scrap of cloth from Marius's coat, thinking it may come in handy later. As soon as Jean Valjean is outside, he runs into Javert, who has been looking for Thénardier and his gang. Jean Valjean reveals his identity to the inspector and asks him to help carry Marius home before he arrests him. Javert agrees, and they go by carriage to Gillenormand's house and leave the young man with his distraught grandfather. The hero also asks to be taken home to put his affairs in order. The inspector acquiesces again, and since the carriage cannot get into Jean Valjean's street, they get out and walk a short distance. Later when Jean Valjean looks out his window, he is shocked to see the policeman is not in the street and has gone away.


Jean Valjean's harrowing journey through the "intestine" of the city puts readers on the edge of their seats. Although they know the superhuman hero will make it through the tunnels, avoid the patrol, and save himself and Marius from the muck, they still feel the suspense Hugo creates through superb pacing and descriptive language. It is not surprising this novel has been staged so many times, as both play and movie, because so many of the scenes are cinematic: "His first sensation was blindness. Suddenly he could not see a thing ... He reached out one hand, then the other, touched the wall on both sides, and realized that the passage was narrow; he slipped, and realized that the pavement was wet."

In still another of the many coincidences the reader has come to accept as a plot device, Jean Valjean meets Thénardier at the end of his journey through the sewer, and in an ironic twist of fate, the relentless villain saves him and will save him a second time. Of course, Thénardier knows that Inspector Javert, who immediately went back to work after being released by Jean Valjean, is on the other side of the sewer grate. Thus he kills two birds with one stone: he gets money from Jean Valjean and he serves him up as a sacrificial offering to the inspector, a diversion that will allow him to later make his getaway.

In an uncharacteristic move, the inspector helps Jean Valjean carry Marius to his grandfather's house and then allows him to go home, presumably to wash up and get his affairs in order before he is hauled off to jail. Javert has finally changed. Unlike the last time he picked up Jean Valjean, which ended in the death of Fantine, he gives him time to save Marius—and even helps him—and then allows him to briefly go home. Javert has had a visitation of grace and a chance at redemption. But he lets that opportunity go by, as seen in the next book.

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