Les Miserables: Novel Summary: Section 1 – Book 2

 Section 1 – Fantine
Book 2 – The Fall
One evening in early October of 1815 a bedraggled man who looked to be in his late forties entered Digne on foot. He was hairy and dirty and carried a large knobbed walking stick and a stuffed backpack. After stopping at the mayors office the man went to an inn where he ordered lodging and food and sat down to wait by the fire. The suspicious innkeeper scribbled a note and gave it to an errand boy. The traveler, who was noticeably hungry, asked several times when dinner would be ready and was angry to learn that the innkeeper would not lodge him nor give him a meal. The innkeeper showed him the note from the mayor that proved that the traveler was a recently freed convict named Jean Valjean who was not welcome at the inn. Jean Valjean took up his knapsack and left. He walked to a tavern but was refused service there as well. He asked for lodging at the prison but was refused. Finally, he knocked at a familys door to purchase a meal but was chased off at gunpoint. Night came and the air became very cold. Jean Valjean worked his way into a small hut in the back of a garden but soon realized that the rude shelter was meant for a bulldog that chased him off the property. He returned to the towns square and lay down upon a stone bench. An old woman, assuming him to be a poor soldier, gave him a little money and advised him to knock on the bishops door and ask for charity.
Inside the bishops house, Madame Magloire has just finished reporting that a rough looking vagabond has been seen in the town when Jean Valjean knocks and the bishop calls out for the visitor to enter. To Madame Magloires horror Jean Valjean steps into the house and explains who he is and what has happened to him since he arrived in the town. He shows the bishop his yellow passport, which marked him as a convict, and explains that he can read and proves it by reading his passport. The passport reveals that he served nineteen years in the galleys, five for burglary and an additional fourteen years for multiple attempts to escape. The bishop informs Jean Valjean that he will be fed and given a bed for the night. Jean Valjean assumes that the man addressing him is simply the cure of the church. While Jean Valjean warms himself by the fire the bishop explains that he is welcome in the house because it is the house of Christ and the traveler has more right to its contents than the priest. He indicates for Madame Magloire to bring out the silver candlesticks and light the candles. While they eat, the bishop tells Madam Magloire to set out the additional silver plates, a display of finery normally reserved for important visitors. Jean Valjean is impressed by the clerics courtesy.
The narrative briefly switches to an excerpt from a letter written by Mademoiselle Baptistine that describes the conversation that evening. She relates that the convict ate voraciously as though he were starved. Afterward the bishop inquired where Valjean was heading and upon learning that it was to Pontarlier launched into a detailed description of the industry there in particular the cheese making industry. By his description he wanted the convict to know that he would find sanctuary and employment there. Mademoiselle Baptistine notes that at no point during the conversation did the bishop use language to remind the convict of his condition.
The ladies retire upstairs for the night and the bishop shows Jean Valjean to his bed in an alcove of the oratory. As they pass through the bishops bedroom, Jean Valjean sees Madame Magloire putting the silver away in the cupboard. The convict asks his host why he is willing to lodge a dangerous criminal so close to his own bedroom. The bishop responds that God will take care of all that and blesses Jean Valjean before he leaves. Jean Valjean falls into a deep sleep.
The narrator describes the personal history of Jean Valjean. He was born to a peasant family in Brie and when he grew up he became a pruner at Faverolles. His parents died when he was young and he was raised by his only surviving relative an older sister and her husband. When his sisters husband died she had seven children under the age of eight to raise and Jean, who was twenty-five at the time, took on the burden of supporting her family. Even with Jeans selfless hard work the children were hungry. Finally, one cold winter the family had no money and no bread and Jean could not find work. He tried to steal a loaf of bread, was caught and sentenced to five years of hard labor in the galleys. His attempts to escape the work gangs elongated his sentence and he became a hardened, sullen man. Prison made him physically strong and supple. He learned to read and he condemned society for his excessive punishment and resolved always to hate it. Thanks to prison he was equally capable of spontaneous acts of crime borne of his resolve against society and also premeditated crimes free of conscience. Since leaving prison Jean had been paid for his work in the galleys but the prison had retained some of that pay as “rent”. After leaving prison he had spent a day working to unload a wagon but had been paid only half wages because he was a prisoner. In both instances he felt himself robbed and his sensibility was further hardened.
Jean Valjean came awake at two a.m. and was unable to fall asleep. His mind would not let go of the image of the silver being placed in the cupboard and he calculated that it was worth twice what he had earned in nineteen years of hard labor. At 3:15 a.m. he crept into the bishops bedroom. He paused to look at the serene visage of the sleeping priest and then quickly took the silver from the cupboard, stuffed it in his sack, jumped out the window near the alcove, scaled the garden wall and was gone. The next morning the bishop was in his flower garden when the theft was discovered. Much to Madame Magloires chagrin he took the news calmly and reasoned that he had no right to the silver and that it was best that the poor man should have it and that in the future he would use wooden implements. While they were breakfasting several guards arrived with Jean Valjean restrained by a collar. When the guards address the priest as Monseigneur Jean, Valjean learns for the first time that his host is a bishop. The bishop immediately accosts Jean Valjean for not taking the candlesticks that he offered as well. The guards are amazed to learn that the bishop claims to have given the silver, including the candlesticks, to Valjean the previous evening. The guards leave and the bishop approaches Valjean, who seems about to faint, and says in a low voice:
“Dont forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man . . . Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and I give it to God!”
Jean Valjean was bewildered and his thoughts were in an uproar. He fled into the countryside as though pursued and finally came to sit and ponder. A small boy who worked as a Savoyard came down the lane playing a game with his coins by throwing them in the air and catching them with the back of his hand. A large forty-sous piece eluded him, however, and came to rest near Jean Valjean who unconsciously put his foot over it. The boy approached Valjean and asked for his coin but Valjean only asked the boys name and learned that it was Petit Gervais. He told the boy to get away and after chasing him with a stick saw the coin and realized what he had done. He called for the boy but to no avail. He stopped a passing priest and gave the man money for his poor but could learn nothing of the small boy. He asked to be arrested and the priest fled in fear. Jean Valjean sank to the ground and burst into tears. It was the first time he had cried in nineteen years. His soul came awake within him and he perceived the goodness that had been given to him by the bishop. That night a stage driver noticed a man knelt in prayer in front of the bishops house and soon afterward Jean Valjean disappeared from the region.
In book two, the reader is introduced to Valjean, who is prevented by society to overcome his past. The fact that he is an ex-prisoners haunts him wherever he goes and he is rejected everywhere. When he tries to buy a meal for himself, the innkeeper throws him out and treats him like a criminal. No one seems to be interested that he had been imprisoned for a very minor offense in the first place and was now trying to be an honest individual.
In contrast to Myriel and his ability to change his personality, in this character we see how futile it is for Valjean to even try to change and be an honest man as nobody wants to give him a second chance. It is almost inevitable that he will steal the silver from the priest.
Hugo uses Valjean to show the injustice of Frances penal system as he had been imprisoned for nineteen years for simply stealing some bread for his hungry family. Additionally, instead of coming out of prison as a rehabilitated person, he came out as an angry and bitter man feeling that he had been cheated and treated unfairly.
It is Myriels act of kindness that first arouses within him a feeling that what he had done with the coin that belonged to the boy, was wrong.