Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 5, Book 9 : Jean Valjean (Supreme Shadow, Supreme Dawn) | Summary



Cosette passively accepts her husband's rejection of her father. Marius tells her he is on a trip, and when she sends a message to his house to inquire whether he has returned, he pretends he is not back yet. In the meantime Jean Valjean is becoming more despondent, and one day he takes to his bed. The concierge calls the doctor, who says it would help if his daughter came to visit. Although very ill, Jean Valjean writes a letter to Cosette to explain how he made her dowry money because he knows Marius will not spend it. However, he is too ill to finish the letter.

At the Gillenormands, Marius is visited by Thénardier in disguise, who has come to scam the rich baron. He announces that Marius is sheltering a robber and assassin, Jean Valjean. Marius then tells him he recognizes him as Thénardier and calls him a scoundrel, but he gives him 500 francs. He already knows Valjean robbed Monsieur Madeleine and killed Javert. Thénardier contradicts him, saying Jean Valjean and Madeleine are the same person and Javert killed himself. Since Thénardier had come prepared to back up his assertions, he pulls out two old articles—one that describes the arrest of Madeleine, and the other that reports on Javert's suicide. He calls Jean Valjean a thief and assassin because he lately killed and robbed a man, and he relates the incident that occurred in the sewer. He provides this information in the hope of getting additional money from Marius. To prove the truth of his story, he pulls out the scrap of cloth he saved from Marius's coat. The young man suddenly realizes everything he has not previously known. He calls Thénardier a liar and slanderer and many other names besides and promises him additional money, telling him to go to America and never return.

Marius now calls Cosette and says they must immediately go to Jean Valjean's house. "The convict was transfigured into a Christ," the narrator says, relating Marius's bewilderment. On the way Marius tells Cosette her father rescued him from the barricade. Unfortunately, by the time they get there, it is too little too late, because Jean Valjean is dying. Marius scolds him for not telling the whole truth and says Jean Valjean must return to his grandfather's house. The hero answers he will not remain long in the world; he is still a convict and "Death is a good arrangement." Jean Valjean brings up the fact that the dowry money is honest, but Marius knows that already. He also reveals to Cosette her mother's name was Fantine. Jean Valjean asks them to come near and says he is dying happily but wants to put his hands on their heads. They drop to their knees weeping, and Jean Valjean grasps their hands and then takes his last breath. "The light from the candlesticks fell across him; he let Cosette and Marius cover his hands with kisses; he was dead." The narrator ends by saying that in the starless sky "some mighty angel was standing, with outstretched wings, waiting for the soul."


Marius wastes more money on Thénardier out of a stubborn and misplaced loyalty to him, which he thinks honors his dead father. In a twist of situational irony, he remembers his dead father in a way that is not at all honorable, even as he pushes Cosette's father away in a way that is dishonorable. Jean Valjean is a man he should honor for raising his wife, giving him close to 600,000 francs in dowry, not to mention saving his life. For the second time he puts a living father's life at risk to keep a promise to a dead father. The narrator even says the money he ends up giving Thénardier to set him up in America is used for the slave trade. When Thénardier reveals the truth about Jean Valjean—both deliberately and inadvertently—the pieces fall into place, and Marius rushes to make amends. But he and Cosette are too late. They have abandoned Jean Valjean, and as a result he has abandoned life and cannot be brought back from death's door.

Jean Valjean has the happiness of making peace with his daughter before he dies and knowing he has been vindicated in Marius's eyes, but even more important for him is the knowledge that he has passed all the tests God has assigned him and accomplished his goal of becoming a righteous man, in spite of society's repeated attempts to take away his humanity.

Les Misérables is a history and a social commentary, but as Victor Hugo himself said, it is also a meditation on the Infinite, which he claimed is the main character of the novel.

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