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BOOK SECOND: The Fall
Jean Valjean arrives in the town of Digne after walking all day. We find out later that he has just been discharged from prison where he served a lengthy prison term for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s family. His identity seems to have arrived ahead of him, and although he is able to pay for his food and lodging, he is turned away from every door until finally an elderly woman directs him to the small, low-roofed house adjoining the former Bishop’s Palace. It is, of course, the home of Monseigneur Bienvenu.
As if tired of being turned away, Jean Valjean immediately blurts out that he is a convict, having served time for robbery and then more time for five attempts to escape. He carries a yellow passport that describes him as a “dangerous” man. He asks only for something to eat and a stable to sleep in.
Instead Bishop Myriel orders a bed made in the alcove and lights his silver candles. He gives a signal to Madame Magloire who resets the table. She had placed the three plates necessary before Valjean’s arrival, but whenever they have company, the Bishop always has her set all six plates around the table, as an “appearance of luxury” that has the effect of elevating poverty to dignity. The Bishop addresses Jean as “Monsieur” and gets out a bottle of good wine for him. In the “diaries of Pontarlier”- a subsection which is actually a letter from Mademoiselle Baptistine to a friend-Mademoiselle describes the graciousness with which her brother treated Valjean, noting how carefully he avoiding reminding the stranger of his past or treating him in any way like a convict.
Sections VI through IX of this chapter describe Jean Valjean’s background, the despair and hunger of his family that drove him to steal a loaf of bread. His years in prison are described, his attempts to escape, and his subsequent development of acid bitterness toward human law, a mistrust of even the upright and a “habitual indignation” for the injuries and injustices he suffered in the galleys.
We learn that after 19 years in the galleys, he was at first dazzled with his liberty, but that too becomes sour. His meager savings accumulated during that time was reduced by various and bogus charges. He found a job for a day, but was driven out without pay when a policeman asked him for his papers and saw the “yellow passport,” the mark of the ex-con. Valjean realized that “liberation is not deliverance” and that he can leave the galleys but that his condemnation will follow him forever. Sections X through XII related how Jean wakes up in the night and becomes obsessed with the silver plates which have been replaced in their unlocked cupboard. He steals the plates and sneaks out in the night, leaping over the garden wall.
In the morning, Madame Magloire finds the empty silver basket in the garden. Monseigneur B is not the least disturbed to find it stolen, insisting that the poor man had greater need of it than they did. While they are talking, three police lead Valjean into the garden. They explain that they caught Valjean running with the silver, whereupon the Bishop says that he gave him the plates. He reinforces the idea by having the candlesticks brought out and insisting that Valjean “forgot” to take them with the plates.
Once the police are gone, the Bishop continues to press the candlesticks on Valjean. He also tells him that he need not return by the garden but can enter through the front door by day or night. In exchange the Bishop claims to have purchased Valjean’s soul, redeeming him from perdition. He says that Valjean has promised to use the silver to become an honest man.
Later in the day, Valjean is resting on a county lane near a hedge-row when a 12 year old boy named “Petit Gervais” appears. The lad is singing and playing with a small handful of coins. Petit Gervais drops a 40 sous piece which rolls near Valjean who puts his foot on it and refuses to return it. The child becomes angry, demanding his money, then frightened at Valjean’s answer, and finally runs off. By evening Valjean is still standing there staring as if in a trance. The coolness of the evening brings him back to self-awareness and he stoops to pick up his walking stick. Then he sees the coin and realization of the day’s events comes to him. He runs in the direction Petit Gervais has gone, enquiring after him and calling for him. At length he gives up and returns to the Bishop’s door where he kneels and weeps bitterly. We are told that in stealing from the child, Valjean has done a thing that he is no longer capable of doing. He sees his past, his own anger and vengeance, and condemns himself, but he is seeing himself by the “light of heaven.” Valjean has become a changed man through a combination of the Bishop’s act of forgiveness and generosity and his own “one last deed of perfidy.”
The reader cannot help but feel a sense of frustration in realizing from the very start of the book that the “crime” of Valjean was so menial. He did nothing truly worthy of condemnation under any reasonable law, but the maltreatment in the prison turns him into a bitter, angry man who becomes capable of doing exactly the things he has been accused of. And since he can’t get a real job, his only means of survival seems to be to steal; such is the mark of the French prison even after release. The influence of the priest, however, is described almost in the tones of a “baptism.” In giving Valjean the silver, Myriel has purchased the man’s soul, although Valjean himself is too stunned to understand what is happening to him. It is obvious that Valjean is basically a good person to start with, and that once the crust developed through years of torment is broken, the saintly man himself is revealed. If Myriel is a “John the Baptist” image then, it stands to reason the Valjean is the Christ image. And since his own crime is really only the crime of trying to save and feed another person, the sacrifices and self condemnation that will permeate the entire story must symbolically become the sacrifice of one in the interest of saving France...ie, a Christ image.