A Character Sketch ~ Jean Valjean
From the Book, ‘Les Miserables’
Work by Victor Hugo, translated by Norman Denny
Sketch Written by Janelle A. Spiers
In the year 1862, Victor Hugo released one of the most anticipated novels of the French culture. A volume twenty years in the making, Les Miserables shook the world with its pathos for the rich history of France, the poverty of the working people, and the political revolutions that stamped their names in the foundations of Paris and Waterloo. Hugo wrote about the common people, placing them in the hardships of the early 1800s and surrounding them with visions of love and revolution. From the street urchin Garoche, to the prostitute Fantine, to the well-spoken Enjorlas, Hugo swept the streets of Paris for his characters. His main protagonist, Jean Valjean, is no exception to the common life of 19th century France, in fact, he is so average, he almost blends right into the seams of Paris’ history.
There are two kinds of characters when it comes to their impressions of Jean Valjean, those who like him, and those who do not. Seldom is there a lukewarm spirit when Jean Valjean comes into question, although most of them would admit that he is quiet and odd. Jean Valjean is not accustomed to speaking more words that he needs, but it doesn’t mean that he is unintelligent. His mind is always turning in contemplation and deep thoughts that cannot be expressed in words, but the people do not know this. All that those around him know is that he is quiet, reserved, shy, perhaps, but above all, very strange. He has an air of mystery that entrances and turns away people who come into contact with him. Jean Valjean commands an authoritative presence, but at the same time, a gentle, humble spirit. He has been nicknamed ‘the beggar who gives alms.’ But when men meddle with him, Jean Valjean becomes a menacing, powerful man and can throw a good punch and disappear like a phantom. Men and women alike either come to him with their troubles or cower and sneer at his coming.
Jean Valjean appears to be a very poor man. He is dressed in rags and old torn clothes, and he has no carriage or permanent establishment. He carries everything he owns in a small valise wherever he goes; the little case earned the name ‘his inseparables’ because they are never to be parted from his side. He is famous for an old yellow coat, which most dismiss him as a shabby scamp, but on further inspection, to the astonishment of one nosy old woman, a vast sum of money and disguises are hidden in the lining of his coat, adding further to his aura of mystery. He is neither an attractive nor an ugly man, and his eyes are drawn in thought and alluded sorrow. Jean Valjean has brilliantly white hair from an early age and it is often used to identify him. He has a pensive face and rarely smiles, but there is a strength in his eyes that is not easily missed.
The more acquaintances Jean Valjean acquires, the more they come to depend on him in some way or another. He is recognized as a generous man that gives money away easily, and without much question. Those who love him come to him in their need, but make an effort to repay him for his kindness. Those who despise him come with open palms, waiting to take what the old man will offer them with no thought for the giver himself. People see his actions as generous, albeit strange, and there is no doubt that though Jean Valjean is quiet and aloof, he has a loud heart. His actions speak far louder than his words and even the poorest men can recognize this about Jean Valjean.
After his father died when he was a boy, Jean Valjean was left orphaned and in the care of his older sister. He helped to provide for his sister and her children as he grew older, but despite his hard work, the children continued to starve. One night, Jean Valjean was arrested for stealing bread for his nieces and nephews. What would have been five years in prison for the felony became nineteen after four attempted escapes and additional sentences. When Jean Valjean was finally released from prison, he was required to carry a yellow passport informing anyone who wanted to see his papers that he was an ex-convict.
It is at this point that Jean Valjean is introduced into the story of Les Miserables. After being turned away from every inn on the road, Valjean is finally offered shelter by a bishop named Myriel, a highly devout and kind man. Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware in the night and runs away, but he is caught by the police and returned to the bishop’s house. Bishop Myriel admonishes Valjean in front of the police for forgetting the silver candlesticks on the mantle, which he claimed to have given Valjean as a gift. To Jean Valjean’s utter astonishment, he is released and posses not only the silver, but also the entreaty to use the gift for good and not for evil. Bishop Myriel pleads Valjean to turn from darkness into light and claims he now belongs to God.
Three years pass and Jean Valjean, who has taken up the alias of Monsieur Madeleine, is a wealthy and influential businessman that has just been elected for mayor. He has followed the Bishop’s wishes and seeks to make up for what he has done. When an impoverished young woman named Fantine is hurled into Valjean’s life, he tends her and tries to comfort the forlorn woman. In her anguish and sickness, Fantine tells Valjean about her young daughter whom she had to give up. She entreats Valjean to bring the girl to her so that she can care for her daughter. But before he can do so, an astonishing event occurs. Monsieur Madeleine is informed that Jean Valjean has been arrested, tried, and found guilty and sentenced to death. The real Valjean rushes to court and gives himself up for the wrongly accused man, but everyone finds his story so crazy he is not arrested at that moment. An officer named Javert, a man who has been hunting Valjean for his entire career, arrests him upon his return to his city. Fantine dies from shock when the man who had saved her is pronounced a criminal.
After faking his death in an accident aboard a prison ship, Valjean makes good on his promise to Fantine to take care of her daughter, Cosette. He takes her away from the Thenardiers, the cruel family Cosette has been forced to live with, and he tends to her like his own daughter. They live in sundry different places throughout the city of Paris, because Javert is unwilling to believe that the notorious Jean Valjean is dead and continues to hunt him. For many years, Valjean and Cosette hide in a convent until Javert loses his trail completely. Cosette grows up completely unaware of her true parentage and any history of her father, because she was too young to remember a time without Valjean.
When they finally move to a tenement house in Paris, Cosette is a lovely and attractive young woman. Hardly any time passes before she has caught the eye of a gentleman named Marius, and he hers. Valjean is unaware that Cosette and Marius are madly in love and that Marius sneaks into his garden to talk with Cosette until several suspicious incidents compel him to move. As the Revolution swells and rallies the French to action, he moves to another part of Paris, only to discover how much the two love each other. When he receives a letter intended for Cosette, Valjean discovers that Marius plans to go to the blockade and die in glory and in heartbreak because of their sundered love. Valjean also goes to fight at the blockade, but it is uncertain if he planned to save Marius, or let him die, for he is jealous of the affection that Cosette has for Marius; it used to all belong to him.
At the blockade, two important events shape the rest of Valjean’s history. The first is that Javert, the police officer, has been caught as a spy and Valjean is given permission to kill him upon his own request. But when he takes Javert out to shoot him, he releases the man and gives him his life and freedom, knowing full well that he might be arrested later. The second important moment is that Marius, wounded and unconscious, is rescued by Valjean and taken through the sewers to freedom. But before Valjean can make it to safety, Javert finds him again and demands his arrest. Valjean asks to take Marius back to his family first, and then return to tell Cosette goodbye, and afterwards allow himself to be arrested. Javert honors his request and lets Valjean go up to his apartment to speak to Cosette, but when Valjean returns, Javert is gone. Troubled by the conflict of conscience and law, Javert lets Valjean go free, but finds himself so disgraced as a man of the law that he commits suicide by jumping into the Seine.
Valjean permits Cosette to marry Marius, who lives despite his injuries. But after the wedding he tells Marius of his history, his life as a convict, and Marius is appalled. He tries to limit the amount of time Valjean spends with Cosette, until Jean Valjean stops coming entirely. At this time, Marius realizes that he had made a grave misunderstanding about what crimes Jean Valjean had actually committed and discovered that Valjean had in reality saved his own life. Hurrying to his apartment, Marius and Cosette find Valjean sick and dying; they are too late to save him. In his final hour, Valjean and Marius are reconciled and Valjean tells Cosette her mother’s name. He dies in their embrace, under the light of the Bishop’s candlesticks.
Valjean is constantly haunted by his guilt. After repenting and reshaping his life because of Bishop Myriel’s mercy, Valjean strives earnestly to do good. However, he is hounded by his past life; he cannot escape his past even if he can escape the law. Valjean’s two faults are a lack of self-esteem and a guilty motive for some of his generosity. He lacks the freedom to accept his forgiveness and pardon so that he can be separated from the chains of his past. Instead, he is a slave to what he witnessed in prison and how he got there. In addition, he is motivated to do better than he had in the past, but his motive is one of coercion more than out of love.
However, because of his guilt Jean Valjean has a powerful moral compass. His conscience refused to let him be silent when another man was accused of his crimes. It would have been very easy for Valjean to let the man be punished for his own actions, but he chose to give himself up and not make him pay the price for his own sins. Another result of this is when Valjean told Marius about his life. He could have hidden his secrets, no one would have known him as he truly was, but he was so haunted by his guilt and conscience that he chose to tell Marius. Another merit of Valjean’s was his heart. It’s uncertain if he gave away money, sacrificed time and resources, and made good on his word because of his guilty conscience and he felt that it would redeem him, or if after the bishop’s commission he honestly sought to help others. Knowing the character of Valjean, it is likely that both factors played into the actions of Jean Valjean.
And then there is the power of Valjean’s love. He so earnestly loved Cosette as his own that to be separated from her was to die. Having never known the embrace of a woman, or the love of a mother, or the friendliness of a sister, Cosette was to him all those things. It physically pained him to be removed from her and he physically diminished. His death was hurried by his separation from Cosette. It is certain that no guilty conscience was the cause of his great love for her. In his compassion for her mother, Jean Valjean took in a tiny waif that would prove to be the best thing that had ever happened to him. His jealousy may be understood when Marius began stealing parts of Cosette’s affection away from him.
Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables, paints a gripping picture of the hardships of the 19th century in the slums of Paris. Jean Valjean’s troubled past is rippled into a troubled future, where poverty and political overthrow take the freedom and privilege of every man, woman, and child. Written for the people, Hugo left them a memoir of prestigious influence that still affects the world as we know it. From the orphan Cosette, abused and mistreated, to the wicked Thenardier and his greed, Hugo captures a picture of days gone by, but certainly not days we can not relapse into. With his main character, Jean Valjean at the heart of this story, Hugo does not leave his troubled characters in despair; he gives them the chance of redemption. Like Jean Valjean, we must learn from our past and let it inspire our future, because in a world such as this, what have we but life? In the words of Jean Valjean, “It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.” (1197)