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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 5, Book 7 : Jean Valjean (The Last Drop in the Chalice) | Summary



The next morning Jean Valjean calls on Marius, who refers to him as father and reminds him they have prepared a room for him and expect him to move into Gillenormand's house. Jean Valjean says he has wrestled with his conscience and has now come to tell Marius about his true background. He says he could not live with them as an imposter, and he is degrading himself in Marius's eyes so he can keep his self-respect in his own eyes. After he confesses he is a convict, Jean Valjean begs Marius not to tell Cosette, and he agrees. He also says perhaps he should not see his foster child again, and Marius thinks that is best. But Jean Valjean cannot bear such an exile and asks to see her from time to time, and Marius relents, telling him to come by every evening. Jean Valjean thanks him and leaves.

Marius is repulsed by the thought that Jean Valjean is an ex-convict, and now feels justified in his feelings of antipathy toward him. He remembers the scenes from the Gorbeau House and the barricade and assumes Jean Valjean killed Javert at the barricade. Jean Valjean sinks low in his estimation, and Marius cannot reconcile his picture of him with his proximity to Cosette. The narrator notes with sarcasm that while Marius was a democrat, he "still adhered upon penal questions to the inexorable system, and in regard to those whom the law smites, he shared all the ideas of the law. ... He had not yet come to distinguish between what is written by man and what is written by God, between law and right." For this reason he is upset by the idea that Jean Valjean will continue to have contact with Cosette.


True to form, Marius, a rigid and self-righteous young man, cannot find a way to live with a father-in-law who is an ex-convict. Surely he has enough evidence that Jean Valjean is an exemplary individual, and if he stopped to think about what happened at the barricade, he would realize who saved him. He has conveniently forgotten so much, including the escapade at the Thénardiers. Now when he remembers it with horror, he forgets how Jean Valjean put the hot chisel to his own arm. Marius proves to be something of a hypocrite as well. While he condemns Jean Valjean for being a thief, he doesn't condemn himself for being a murderer. He has taken several lives on the barricade. He is at heart a bourgeoisie, not a revolutionary, and he went to the barricade in despair of losing his love, not to defend a revolutionary cause. And yet he is not at all worried about how he has broken the law. Surely if Javert were still alive he would have arrested him for his actions against the state. Jean Valjean is not of his class, however, and he taints Cosette with his proximity. He belongs to les misérables, and for that reason Marius wishes to separate himself and Cosette from the unfortunate man.

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