by Victor Hugo
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Victor Hugo and illustration by Emile Bayard to the 1862 edition
Victor Marie Hugo was born on 26th February 1802 at the ancient city of Besançon in Eastern France. His political views were firm and radical, though somewhat variable. Hugo was elevated to the peerage by King Louis-Philippe, but his opposition to Louis Napoleon's seizing power in 1851 led to his exile in Jersey, from where he was, in turn, expelled for criticising Queen Victoria. He finally settled in Guernsey, returning to France in 1870 as a significant national hero.
This essay on generosity, one of the best-known novels of the 19th century, has generated numerous stage and screen adaptations, of which the most famous is the opera known simply as 'Les Mis'.
For more books by Victor Hugo, see The Index
Early in October 1815, at the close of the afternoon, a man came into the little town of D-. He was on foot, and the few people about looked at him suspiciously. The traveller was of wretched appearance, though stout and robust, and in the full vigour of life. He was evidently a stranger, and tired, dusty, and wearied with a long day's tramp.
But neither of the two inns in the town would give him food or shelter, though he offered good money for payment.
He was an ex-convict - that was enough to exclude him. In despair he went to the prison, and asked humbly for a night's lodging, but the jailer told him that was impossible unless he got arrested first. It was a cold night and the wind was blowing from the Alps; it seemed there was no refuge open to him.
Then, as he sat down on a stone bench in the marketplace and tried to sleep, a lady coming out of the cathedral noticed him, and, learning his homeless state, bade him knock at the bishop's house, for the good bishop's charity and compassion were known in all the neighbourhood.
At the man's knock the bishop, who lived alone with his sister, Madame Magloire, and an old housekeeper, said "Come in;" and the ex-convict entered. He told them at once that his name was Jean Valjean, that he was a galley-slave, who had spent nineteen years at the hulks, and that he had been walking for four days since his release. "It is the same wherever I go," the man went on. "They all say to me, 'Be off!' I am very tired and hungry. Will you let me stay here? I will pay."
"Madame Magloire," said the bishop, "please lay another knife and fork. Sit down, monsieur, and warm yourself. We shall have supper directly, and your bed will be got ready while we are supping."
Joy and amazement were on the man's face; he stammered his thanks as though beside himself.
The bishop, in honour of his guest, had silver forks and spoons placed on the table. The man took his food with frightful voracity, and paid no attention to anyone till the meal was over. Then the bishop showed him his bed in an alcove, and an hour later the whole household was asleep.
Jean Valjean soon woke up again. For nineteen years he had been at the galleys. Originally a pruner of trees, he had broken a baker's window and stolen a loaf one hard winter when there was no work to be had, and for this the sentence was five years. Time after time he had tried to escape, and had always been recaptured; and for each offence a fresh sentence was imposed.
Nineteen years for breaking a window and stealing a loaf! He had gone into prison sobbing and shuddering. He came out full of hatred and bitterness. That night, at the bishop's house, for the first time in nineteen years, Jean Valjean had received kindness. He was moved and shaken. It seemed inexplicable.
He got up from his bed. Everyone was asleep, the house was perfectly still. Jean Valjean seized the silver plate-basket which stood in the bishop's room, put the silver into his knapsack, and fled out of the house.
In the morning, while the bishop was breakfasting, the gendarmes brought in Jean Valjean. The sergeant explained that they had met him running away, and had arrested him, because of the silver they found on him.
"I gave you the candlesticks, too!" said the bishop; "they are silver. Why did not you take them with the rest of the plate?" Then, turning to the gendarmes, "It is a mistake."
"We are to let him go?" said the sergeant.
"Certainly," said the bishop.
The gendarmes retired.
"My friend," said the bishop to Jean Valjean, "here are your candlesticks. Take them with you." He added in a low voice, "Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man. My brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good."
Jean Valjean never remembered having promised anything. He left the bishop's house and the town dazed and stupefied. It was a new world he had come into.
He walked on for miles, and then sat down by the roadside to think.
Presently a small Savoyard boy passed him, and as he passed dropped a two-franc piece on the ground. Jean Valjean placed his foot upon it. In vain the boy prayed him for the coin. Jean Valjean sat motionless, deep in thought.
Only when the boy had gone on, in despair, did Jean Valjean wake from his reverie.
He shouted out, "Little Gervais, little Gervais!" for the boy had said his name. The lad was out of sight and hearing, and no answer came.
The enormity of his crime came home to him, and Jean Valjean fell on the ground, and for the first time in nineteen years he wept.
On a certain December night in 1815 a stranger entered the town of M-, at the very time when a great fire had just broken out in the town hall.
This man at once rushed into the flames, and at the risk of his own life saved the two children of the captain of gendarmes. In consequence of this act no one thought of asking for his passport.
The stranger settled in the town; by a happy invention he improved the manufacture of the black beads, the chief industry of M-, and in three years, from a very small capital, he became a rich man, and brought prosperity to the place.
In 1820, Father Madeleine, for so the stranger was called, was made Mayor of M- by unanimous request, an honour he had declined the previous year. Before he came everything was languishing in the town, and now, a few years later, there was healthy life for all.
Father Madeleine employed everybody who came to him. The only condition he made was - honesty. From the men he expected good-will, from the women, purity.
Prosperity did not make Father Madeleine change his habits. He performed his duties as mayor, but lived a solitary and simple life, avoiding society. His strength, although he was a man of fifty, was enormous. It was noticed that he read more as his leisure increased, and that as the years went by his speech became gentler and more polite.
One person only in all the district looked doubtfully at the mayor, and that was Javert, inspector of police.
Javert, born in prison, was the incarnation of police duty - implacable, resolute, fanatical. He arrived in M- when Father Madeleine was already a rich man, and he felt sure he had seen him before.
One day in 1823 the mayor interfered to prevent Javert sending a poor woman, named Fantine, to prison. Fantine had been dismissed from the factory without the knowledge of M. Madeleine; and her one hope in life was in her little girl, whom she called Cosette. Now, Cosette was boarded out at the village of Montfermeil, some leagues distance from M-, with a family grasping and dishonest, and to raise money for Cosette's keep had brought Fantine to misery and sickness.
The mayor could save Fantine from prison, he could not save her life; but before the unhappy woman died she had delivered a paper to Mr. Madeleine authorising him to take her child, and Mr. Madeleine had accepted the trust.
It was when Fantine lay dying in the hospital that Javert, who had quite decided in his own mind who M. Madeleine was, came to the mayor and asked to be dismissed from the service.
"I have denounced you, M. le Maire, to the prefect of police at Paris as Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, who has been wanted for the robbery of a little Savoyard more than five years ago."
"And what answer did you receive?"
"That I was mad, for the real Jean Valjean has been found."
Javert explained that an old man had been arrested for breaking into an orchard; that on being taken to the prison he had been recognised by several people as Jean Valjean, and that he, Javert, himself recognised him. To-morrow he was to be tried at Arras, and, as he was an ex-convict, his sentence would be for life.
Terrible was the anguish of M. Madeleine that night. He had done all that man could do to obliterate the past, and now it seemed another was to be taken in his place. The torture and torment ended. In the morning M. Madeleine set out for Arras.
M. Madeleine arrived before the orchard-breaker was condemned. He proved to the court's astonishment that he, the revered and philanthropic Mayor of M-, was Jean Valjean, and that the prisoner had merely committed a trivial theft. Then he left the court, returned to M-, removed what money he had, buried it, and arranged his affairs.
A few days later Jean Valjean was sent back to the galleys at Toulon, and with his removal the prosperity of M- speedily collapsed. This was in July 1823. In November of that year the following paragraph appeared in the Toulon paper: "Yesterday, a convict, on his return from rescuing a sailor, fell into the sea and was drowned. His body has not been found. His name was registered as Jean Valjean."
At Christmas, in the year 1823, an old man came to the village of Montfermeil, called at the inn, paid money to the rascally innkeeper, Thenardier, and carried off little Cosette to Paris.
The old man rented a large garret in an old house, and Cosette became inexpressibly happy with her doll and with the good man who loved her so tenderly.
Till then Jean Valjean had never loved anything. He had never been a father, lover, husband, or friend. When he saw Cosette, and had rescued her, he felt his heart strangely moved. All the affection he had was aroused, and went out to this child. Jean Valjean was fifty-five and Cosette eight, and all the love of his life, hitherto untouched, melted into a benevolent devotion.
Cosette, too, changed. She had been separated from her mother at such an early age that she could not remember her. And the Thenardiers had treated her harshly. In Jean Valjean she found a father, just as he found a daughter in Cosette.
Weeks passed away. These two beings led a wonderfully happy life in the old garret; Cosette would chatter, laugh, and sing all day. Jean Valjean was careful never to go out in the daytime, but he began to be known in the district as "the mendicant who gives away money." There was one old man who sat by some church steps, and who generally seemed to be praying, whom Jean Valjean always liked to relieve. One night when Jean Valjean had dropped a piece of money into his hand as usual, the beggar suddenly raised his eyes, stared hard at him, and then quickly dropped his head. Jean Valjean started, and went home greatly troubled.
The face which he fancied he had seen was that of Javert.
A few nights later Jean Valjean found that Javert had taken lodgings in the same house where he and Cosette lived. Taking the child by the hand, he at once set out for fresh quarters. They passed through silent and empty streets, and crossed the river, and it seemed to Jean Valjean that no one was in pursuit. But soon he noticed four men plainly shadowing him, and a shudder went over him. He turned from street to street, trying to escape from the city, and at last found himself entrapped in a cul-de-sac. What was to be done?
There was no time to turn back. Javert had undoubtedly picketed every outlet. Fortunately for Jean Valjean, there was a deep shadow in the street, so that his own movements were unseen.
While he stood hesitating, a patrol of soldiers entered the street, with Javert at their head. They frequently halted. It was evident that they were exploring every hole and corner, and one might judge they would take a quarter of an hour before they reached the spot where Jean Valjean was. It was a frightful moment. Capture meant the galleys, and Cosette lost for ever. There was only one thing possible - to scale the wall which ran along a wide portion of the street. But the difficulty was Cosette; there was no thought of abandoning her.
First, Jean Valjean procured a rope from the lamppost. This he fastened round the child, taking the other end between his teeth. Half a minute later he was on his knees on the top of the wall. Cosette watched him in silence. All at once she heard Jean Valjean saying in a very low voice, "Lean against the wall. Don't speak, and don't be afraid."
She felt herself lifted from the ground, and before she had time to think where she was she found herself on the top of the wall.
Jean Valjean grasped her, put the child on his back, and crawled along the wall till he came to a sloping roof. He could hear the thundering voice of Javert giving orders to the patrol to search the cul-de-sac to the end.
Jean Valjean slipped down the roof, still carrying Cosette, and leaped on the ground. It was a convent garden he had entered.
On the other side of the wall the clatter of muskets and the imprecations of Javert resounded; from the convent came a hymn.
Cosette and Jean Valjean fell on their knees. Presently Jean Valjean discovered that the gardener was an old man whose life he had saved at M-, and who, in his gratitude, was prepared to do anything for M. Madeleine.
It ended in Cosette entering the convent school as a pupil, and Jean Valjean being accepted as the gardener's brother. The good nuns never left the precincts of their convent, and cared nothing for the world beyond their gates.
As for Javert, he had delayed attempting an arrest, even when his suspicions had been aroused, because, after all, the papers said the convict was dead. But once convinced, he hesitated no longer.
His disappointment when Jean Valjean escaped him was midway between despair and fury. All night the search went on; but it never occurred to Javert that a steep wall of fourteen feet could be climbed by an old man with a child.
Several years passed at the convent.
Jean Valjean worked daily in the garden, and shared the hut and the name of the old gardener, M. Fauchelevent. Cosette was allowed to see him for an hour every day.
The peaceful garden, the fragrant flowers, the merry cries of the children, the grave and simple women, gradually brought happiness to Jean Valjean; and his heart melted into gratitude for the security he had found.
For six years Cosette and Jean Valjean stayed at the convent; and then, on the death of the old gardener, Jean Valjean, now bearing the name of Fauchelevent, decided that as Cosette was not going to be a nun, and as recognition was no longer to be feared, it would be well to remove into the city.
So a house was taken in the Rue Plumet, and here, with a faithful servant, the old man dwelt with his adopted child. But Jean Valjean took other rooms in Paris, in case of accidents.
Cosette was growing up. She was conscious of her good looks, and she was in love with a well-connected youth named Marius, the son of Baron Pontmercy.
Jean Valjean learnt of this secret love-making with dismay. The idea of parting from Cosette was intolerable to him.
Then, in June 1832, came desperate street fighting in Paris, and Marius was in command of one of the revolutionary barricades.
At this barricade Javert had been captured as a spy, and Jean Valjean, who was known to the revolutionaries, found his old, implacable enemy tied to a post, waiting to be shot. Jean Valjean requested to be allowed to blow out Javert's brains himself, and permission was given.
Holding a pistol in his hand, Jean Valjean led Javert, who was still bound, to a lane out of sight of the barricade, and there with his knife cut the ropes from the wrists and feet of his prisoner.
"You are free," he said. "Go; and if by chance I leave this place alive, I am to be found under the name of Fauchelevent, in the Rue de l'Homme-Arme, No. 7."
Javert walked a few steps, and then turned back, and cried, "You worry me. I would rather you killed me!"
"Go!" was the only answer from Jean Valjean.
Javert moved slowly away; and when he had disappeared Jean Valjean discharged his pistol in the air.
Soon the last stand of the insurgents was at an end, and the barricade destroyed. Jean Valjean, who had taken no part in the struggle, beyond exposing himself to the bullets of the soldiers, was unhurt; but Marius lay wounded and insensible in his arms.
The soldiers were shooting down all who tried to escape. The situation was terrible.
There was only one chance for life - underground. An iron grating, which led to the sewers, was at his feet. Jean Valjean tore it open, and disappeared with Marius on his shoulders.
He emerged, after a horrible passage through a grating by the bank of the river, only to find there the implacable Javert!
Jean Valjean was quite calm.
"Inspector Javert," he said, "help me to carry this man home; then do with me what you please."
A cab was waiting for the inspector. He ordered the man to drive to the address Jean Valjean gave him. Marius, still unconscious, was taken to his grandfather's house.
"Inspector Javert," said Jean Valjean, "grant me one thing more. Let me go home for a minute; then you may take me where you will."
Javert told the driver to go to Rue de l'Homme-Arme, No. 7. When they reached the house, Javert said, "Go up; I will wait here for you!"
But before Jean Valjean reached his rooms Javert had gone, and the street was empty.
Javert had not been at ease since his life had been spared. He was now in horrible uncertainty. To owe his life to an ex-convict, to accept this debt, and then to repay him by sending him back to the galleys was impossible. To let a malefactor go free while he, Inspector Javert, took his pay from the government, was equally impossible. It seemed there was something higher and above his code of duty, something he had not come into collision with before. The uncertainty of the right thing to be done destroyed Javert, to whom life had hitherto been perfectly plain. He could not live recognising Jean Valjean as his saviour, and he could not bring himself to arrest Jean Valjean.
Inspector Javert made his last report at the police-station, and then, unable to face the new conditions of life, walked slowly to the river and plunged into the Seine, where the water rolls round and round in an endless whirlpool.
Marius recovered, and married Cosette; and Jean Valjean lived alone. He had told Marius who he was - Jean Valjean, an escaped convict; and Marius and Cosette gradually saw less and less of the old man.
But before Jean Valjean died Marius learnt the whole truth of the heroic life of the old man who had rescued him from the lost barricade. For the first time he realised that Jean Valjean had come to the barricade only to save him, knowing him to be in love with Cosette.
He hastened with Cosette to Jean Valjean's room; but the old man's last hour had come.
"Come closer, come closer, both of you," he cried. "I love you so much.
It is good to die like this! You love me too, my Cosette. I know you've always had a fondness for the poor old man. And you, M. Pontmercy, will always make Cosette happy. There were several things I wanted to say, but they don't matter now. Come nearer, my children. I am happy in dying!"
Cosette and Marius fell on their knees, and covered his hands with kisses.
Jean Valjean was dead.
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