Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
BOOK SEVENTH: A Parenthesis
The narrator explains and condemns the concept of the Spanish cloister as an institution that was valuable at the dawn of civilization but has, in the 19 th century, outlived its usefulness. It has become an albatross of the community and a center for a state of existence somewhere between life and death. Yet, while he condemns the institution, he seems sympathetic toward the women who subject themselves to the sacrificial rituals and punishing rituals of the convent.
BOOK EIGHTH: Cemeteries Take What is Given Them
The Convent of the Rue de Picpus is at once the safest and most dangerous place Valjean could have landed. The nuns eschew all contact with men, and for a man to enter uninvited is a crime. At the same time, if he can find a way to stay, there will be no danger of Javert catching up to him. In order to accomplish this, they have to find a way to get him out of the convent and then to bring him and Cosette back in through the front gate.
The problem appears to be solved by the death of one of the nuns. She wants to be buried under the altar in the chapel- something forbidden by law. Fauchelevant agrees to take care of the burial, including leaving the dead nun in a coffin which she has been using as a bed for 20 years. Thus the coffin provided by the undertaker will be extra. The nuns think Fauchelevant (who works for them as their gardener) will be taking out a coffin loaded with dirt to fool the city undertaker. Instead, Valjean will hide in the coffin while it is carried to the cemetery that is used by the nuns. Fauchelevant has a grave-digger colleague whom he can confuse and bribe with some liquor, and will then release Valjean from the casket. He plans also to take Cosette out in a basket on his back and leave her temporarily with a close friend. Valjean will gain re-entrance to the convent as Fauchelevant’s brother and fellow gardener who will share the burden of Fauchelevant’s work and also have his little “granddaughter” educated at the convent school.
The plan nearly comes to disaster when a younger and more down-to-business grave digger shows up at the cemetery to help Fauchelevant with the burial of the casket containing Valjean. Unfortunately, the colleague has died, and a man named Gribier has taken his place. Gribier refuses the usual round of drinks, insisting on getting on with the burial. However, in a stroke of genius, Fauchelevant spots Gribier’s “grave digger’s card in his back pocket. He takes it, then asks Gribier if he has his card, reminding him that it will cost him 15 francs to get out of the cemetery without it unless he gets out before the gate closes. Thus Gribier leaves to go look for his card, giving Fauchelevant the needed opportunity to extract Valjean from the grave.
The two men fetch Cosette from the friend’s house and return to the convent where Valjean passes the examination and is accepted as Fauchelevant’s brother. Cosette is accepted as a student in the convent school. There the two spend many happy years as Cosette grows to a teenager.
Both Valjean and Fauchelevant tell convincing stories to the nuns, but the real tool is Cosette herself. The prioress sees that Cosette is “ugly,” a characteristic in her favor as she is less likely to want to leave the convent and find someone to marry. Valjean is able to find work in the garden where he can gaze upon Cosette’s window. Gradually the old fear drops away from her and she begins to laugh. The narrator credits the convent for a third phase of redemption in Valjean’s life, saying that as long as Valjean compared himself to the old Bishop, he remained humble. Supposedly he had been getting a bit arrogant, regarding his opinions of himself. The convent put an efficient halt to such notions. The convent is yet another kind of prison, one where the inmates are guilty of nothing. Valjean often finds himself puzzling over how the life of such utter deprivation, however willing, can lead to the issuing of benediction and love. Valjean is exposed to the loftiest height of self-denial. We can speculate that the supreme sacrifices made by the nuns contribute to Valjean’s ultimate determination to sacrifice himself.