From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Jean Valjean (also referred to as "Monsieur Madeleine," "Ultime Fauchelevent," "Monsieur Leblanc," "Urbain Fabre," "24601" and "9430") is the protagonist of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables. The character's twenty year-long struggle with the law for stealing bread during a time of economic and social depression - along with police inspector Javert, who relentlessly pursues Valjean - has become archetypal in literary culture. While in prison, he was labeled 24601.
Part One: Fantine
Even though Jean Valjean is unarguably the novel's main protagonist, he is only introduced in the second book of Part One.
Valjean was born sometime in 1769 (most likely before October) in the small town of Faverolles, the son of Jean Valjean and Jeanne Valjean, née Mathieu. Both parents die when he is still a child; the father falls from a tree, the mother dies of a milk fever, and his older sister Jeanne raises him. He becomes a pruner, like his father before him. Jeanne is married to an unnamed man, who dies in 1794, with whom she has seven children, all born between 1786 and 1793.
In winter 1795, when resources become scarce, Valjean steals a loaf of bread from a local baker, Maubert Isabeau. He is caught and imprisoned for five years in the Bagne of Toulon, the Toulon prison, and assigned the number 24601. He attempts to escape four times, in 1800, 1802, 1806 and 1809, each time his sentence is lengthened by three years; he also receives an extra two years for once resisting recapture. Finally, after nineteen years in prison, he is released, but must, by law, carry a yellow passport that announces his imprisonment. Furthermore, he is ordered to report to Pontarlier, since ex-convicts were not allowed to choose their residence themselves.
Only once, during the fourth year of his captivity, he learns what has happened to his sister. At the time, she was living in Paris, working in at a printer's and had only her youngest child, a son, with her, who attended the school next door.
When Valjean is back in the world, he is turned away by every inn due to his yellow passport; if he manages to find work, he is paid only half the wages.
Up to this point, his story is told in a flashback. The novel introduces him as a strange man, arriving one October evening in Digne. Without explanations, the novel follows him as he searches a place to stay for the night and is turned away. At last, he is taken in by Bishop Myriel, a kind-hearted old clergyman, in the town of Digne. The bishop trusts Valjean, feeds him supper, and gives him a bed for the night.
During the night, he awakens and steals the bishop's silverware and silver plates, and runs off into the night. He is arrested and brought back to the bishop. However, the Bishop tells the policemen that the silver was a gift and sends them on their way, giving Valjean his silver candlesticks in addition. He reminds Valjean of his "promise" to use the silver to become an honest man and claims to have bought Valjean's soul with it, withdrawing it from evil and giving it to God.
Still bitter and not understanding what the bishop is talking about, that afternoon he steals a forty-sous piece from a chimney sweep, Petit Gervais. There are two views of this scene possible: either Valjean stole the coin more or less out of habit, or he accidentally put his foot on it and drove the boy away since he annoyed him with his pleas. After doing the deed, he is horror-struck at what he has done. He tries to find the boy, but is unsuccessful. This proves a turning point in his life; Valjean realises that he has fallen low enough to rob a defenseless child and that now, he has to become either a saint or a monster.
The novel now centers around Fantine, mentioning Valjean only in book five again.
In this, Valjean assumes a new identity as Monseiur Madeleine, and becomes a respectable citizen in the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. He entered the town one evening in late 1815 and saved two children from a fire. In the following gratitude, they forgot to ask him for his papers. Valjean revolutionizes the town's traditional black bead and jet production and gains a fortune, which he spends mostly for the town's good, paying hospitals, orphanages and schools. He is appointed mayor for his deeds twice, refusing the first time and also refusing the Croix d'honneur.
Valjean later saves an old man named Fauchelevent from death and gets him a job at a convent, but the event has dire consequences. A police inspector, Javert, notices him and is reminded of an incredibly strong man he once saw in the Toulon jail. Later, Javert arrests Fantine, who has now become a prostitute, for insulting a bourgeois named Bamatabois who had tried to take advantage of FantineTemplate:Dubious. As Madeleine, Valjean knew what had really happened, the bourgeois was in the wrong and should have been arrested. Hence, Madeleine frees Fantine, and lets her stay at the hospital, where he oversees her care. Javert is furious at Valjean for interfering with the police duties and denounces "Madeleine" to the prefect of police at Paris, saying that he suspects Madeleine is Valjean. They tell him that he is mad, because the "real" Jean Valjean (who is in reality Champmathieu) has been found. Javert apologizes to Madeleine, and tells him that the "real" Jean Valjean has been found and is to be tried the next day.
It is only here that the novel finally reveals Madeleine to be Valjean, a fact which was heavily foreshadowed before.
That night, Valjean has a terrific struggle within himself, but finally decides to go to the trial and reveal his identity in order to free Champmathieu. After giving his evidence he returns to Montreuil-sur-Mer. Javert comes to arrest him the next day while Valjean is in Fantine's room, and Fantine dies of fright (and tuberculosis) when she sees Javert and hears his accusations of the mayor. Valjean allows Javert to arrest him, but quickly escapes.
Part Two: Cosette
A short chapter, mainly consisting of two newspaper articles, informs the reader, that Jean Valjean has been re-arrested as he was on his way to get Fantine's eight-year-old daughter, Cosette, who he had promised to raise. In July 1823, he is condemned to death but pardoned by the King, therefore sent back to prison for life. He has obviously managed to hide his money before, a chapter tells of a worker in Montfermeil, a former Toulon convict, who claims having seen, according to a local fairy tale, the devil burying his treasure in the forest. No further explanations are given at this point.
Valjean changes his number to 9430, but escapes from a sailing vessel after only a few months' imprisonment, on the 16.11.1823, by apparently falling into the sea after a daring rescue of a sailor who had gotten stuck in a dangerous situation up in the ship's rigging. Thereafter he is officially presumed dead.
Valjean goes to Montfermeil, where he meets Cosette alone in the forest on Christmas Eve 1823. He accompanies her back to the inn; then watches one evening how the Thénardiers treat her, which is very badly. He also sees the Thénardiers' daughters Éponine and Azelma unkind to her as well, telling on her to their mother when she tries to play with their doll they left abandoned. After seeing this, Valjean briefly leaves the inn and returns with a beautiful new doll to give to Cosette, which she happily accepts. This leaves Mme. Thénardier to become furious at Valjean, thinking him to be causing a disturbance, while M. Thénardier tells her that Valjean can do as he wishes as long as he pays them.
The next morning, Christmas Day, Valjean offers to take Cosette with him. M. Thénardier haggles for a compensation and gets 1500 francs in the end. Valjean takes Cosette with him. Only now does the reader learn that the mysterious man Cosette met is actually Jean Valjean.
Valjean takes Cosette to Paris, where they live in No. 50/52 Boulevard de l'Hôpital, in the so-called "Gorbeau House." They cannot live calmly for long: Already in Spring 1824, Javert finds the house.
Valjean leaves during the night, and barely escapes from Javert, who traps him in an alley. He manages to climb a wall, ending unknowingly in the convent where Fauchelevent is, who helps him become a gardener in the convent, claiming Valjean as his brother, Ultime Fauchelevent. Cosette is admitted to the school.
Part Three: Marius
During the whole part, Valjean's and Cosette's appearance is unnamed. They are only a father and daughter, whom Marius Pontmercy remarks on his daily walks in the Jardin du Luxembourg. He ignores them at first, but later he and Cosette fall in love. Marius stalks the two until Valjean remarks him and moves from his house in Rue de l'Ouest (today Rue d'Assas).
They meet again by pure luck: Valjean is known for his generosity. As "the generous man from the St-Étienne-church", Thénardier, Marius' neighbour, asks his charity. He recognises Valjean and decides to build a trap for him. Marius, overhearing the plans, denounces the plot to the police, unfortunately meeting Javert. Valjean, however, manages to escape after Javert entered the room, before the latter recognises him.
Part Four: Saint-Denis
Only now we learn about Valjean's and Cosette's life during the last years: They lived in the convent until Fauchelevent's death. and left in 1829; Cosette is fourteen years old. Valjean buys three houses in Rue de l'Ouest (today Rue D'Assas), Rue Plumet (today Rue Oudinot) and No. 7 Rue de l'Homme-Armé (today 40, rue des Archives), mostly living in Rue Plumet.
Valjean does not know that Cosette returns Marius' love and does not understand why Cosette seems less attached to him than before. Marius, with the help of Éponine, finds Cosette and the two meet every evening. But it is also Éponine, jealous, who throws Valjean an anonymous note, telling him to move. Valjean, feeling persecuted since the incident with Thénardier and since he believes having seen a man hiding in his garden, decides to move to England. He takes Cosette to the house in the Rue de l'Homme-Armé. This takes places during the first days of June 1832.
It is only there that he learns of the love of Cosette for Marius. He discovers the text of a letter from Cosette to Marius, left on a blotter. Shortly afterwards, he intercepts a letter from Marius to Cosette, brought by Gavroche, in which Marius tells Cosette that he has gone to the barricade to die there. Valjean has another long inward struggle, at first feeling relief about Marius' certain death, then guilt about his former feeling. He joins the rebellion without an actual decision about his following actions.
Part Five: Jean Valjean
Valjean does his part in the insurrection and proves to be an excellent shot. Enjolras, the barricade's leader, wishes to thank Valjean and offers him anything he wants. He asks for the life of Javert, who has been captured as a spy, which he receives. Instead of executing him, Valjean sets Javert free, and tells him to leave immediately. Javert does not believe Valjean and warns him that should he be set free, he will still chase Valjean to the end of his days. Sometime after Valjean releases Javert, the fighters on the barricades are all killed with the exception of Marius, whom Valjean reluctantly carries through a mile of Parisian sewers to safety. After climbing out of the sewers on the shore, which faces the Grand-Caillou, Valjean meets Javert again and convinces him to allow Marius to be taken to his grandfather. Javert also allows Valjean to return home to the Rue de L'Homme-Armé for a short time, but disappears while Valjean is inside. It is later revealed that Javert has committed suicide after debating on following the law and prosecuting Valjean, or letting Valjean go because he spared Javert's life. The contradiction between the two options causes Javert to kill himself to not contradict both options.
After recovering from his severe injuries, Marius asks to marry Cosette and they wed on 16 February, 1833. The day after the wedding, Valjean reveals to Marius that he is, in fact, Jean Valjean and an ex-convict from Toulon. After this, Valjean's previously habitual visits to Cosette at Marius' grandfather's house (No. 6, rue des filles-du-calvaire) become shorter and shorter, until he suddenly ceases to visit. M. Thénardier, who claims that Marius’ father-in-law is a murderer and shows him several Moniteur articles “proving” this, pays Marius a visit. Marius realizes that Valjean was the man who carried him through the sewers on 6 June, and hurries with Cosette to Valjean's flat on the Rue de L'Homme Armé. Unfortunately, they are too late and see that Valjean is dying. Before he dies, though, Valjean makes peace with Marius, whom he had had uneasy relations with, and tells Cosette the name of her mother, Fantine. Happy, he finally dies.
Several parts of Valjean's life are based on real events:
The 22nd of February, 1846, Victor Hugo witnessed the arrest of a bread thief. A Duchess and her child were also watching the scene pitilessly from their coach. While this cannot be considered as the inspiration for Les Misérables (Hugo had started the novel years previously), the note in his diary makes clear that the scene impressed him nevertheless. Both the contrast between rich and poor and rich people watching the poor struggle are often used in the novel.<ref name="cv">Choses vues 1830-1848</ref>
In 1841, Hugo saved a prostitute from arrest for assault. He would let Valjean perform the same deed, even using a short part of the dialogue between himself and the constables.<ref name="cv"/>
Another event that has a historical model is the accident of the cart. It is based on an event in Vidocq's life: In 1828, Eugène François Vidocq saved one of the workers in his paper factory by lifting a heavy cart on his shoulders. Hugo only added the fact that Valjean betrayed his real identity with the act (Vidocq had already been pardoned at the time). Valjean's incredible strength in general is based on Vidocq's, who helped Hugo with his research for Claude Gueux and Le Dernier jour d'un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man).
Valjean saving the sailor on the "Orion" is also based on a real event, though not witnessed by Hugo himself. A friend wrote Hugo a letter, detailing what had happened. Hugo reproduced the letter nearly word by word, only letting Valjean escape afterwards (which had not happened in reality).
The numbers: Popular myth states that 24601 stands for the date Hugo was conceived (24th of June 1801). On the other hand, the 24th of June is St. John's Day (Jean is the French form of John).
9430 was most likely chosen because of the death of Hugo's daughter in September 1843.<ref name="cv2">Les Misérables 1, ed. Le livre de poche, p. 505</ref>
Valjean's behavior on the barricades is again based on Hugo himself, who "fought" on the barricades against Napoleon III in December 1851. There he refused any weapons and just made himself useful tending to the wounded.
A small note in Hugo's diary tells us that he was just as unhappy as Valjean to marry his daughter: "The saddening joy of marrying one's daughter."<ref name="cv"/>
Valjean in the musical
Valjean is essentially the same in the musical. Unlike in the novel, he is only called Monsieur le maire (Mr. Mayor) rather than Father Madeleine; the assumed name is never mentioned in the english version. There are a few more differences:
In Act 2, The First Attack, Valjean shoots a sniper who is attempting to kill Enjolras. This directly contradicts the story of the novel, which explicitly states that Valjean is the only person at the barricades who does not directly fight. He only shoots at soldiers's helmets, making clear to them that he could have shot them easily.
Also, the musical version of Valjean does not despise Marius as much as the novel version does. In fact, musical Valjean sings a song, Bring Him Home, about how he wants God to save Marius' life in the final battle.
Valjean and Cosette do not take refuge from Javert in a convent like they do in the novel, and Valjean never stays at the Gorbeau house. Instead, Thenardier attacks him in the streets with his street gang.
Songs in the musical
- Overture/Work Song
- In the musical's first song, Valjean is called from a chain gang of prisoners to be released. Javert hands him his yellow passport and when Valjean says that he only stole a loaf of bread and spent nineteen years in prison for this, Javert reminds him that fourteen years were for having "tried to run." Javert calls Valjean only by his number, 24601, Valjean insists on being called by his real name.
- On Parole
- After leaving the prison, Valjean dreams of a bright future, but swears not to forget those nineteen years in prison. He finds work at a farm, but gets paid only half the wages. An inn also refuses to take him in. Valjean has to realise that he will remain an outcast. Only the bishop of Digne takes him in, but Valjean repays his kindness by stealing his silver.
- Valjean Arrested, Valjean Forgiven
- He does not get far after the theft. Two constables bring him back to the bishop, who claims having given Valjean the silver as a gift, and then gives him two silver candlesticks, After the constables leave, the bishop tells Valjean that he has now bought Valjean's soul and given it to God.
- What Have I Done? (Valjean's Soliloquy)
- Valjean's first large solo. Valjean is confused by the bishop's actions, claiming that there was only one way for Valjean to go ever since he was first condemned for stealing a loaf of bread. Nevertheless, the bishop's trust in him makes him decide to find another way. At the end of the song, he rips up his yellow passport.
- At The End Of The Day
- Eight years later. In a factory in Montreuil-sur-Mer, a fight breaks loose and the owner of the factory and mayor of the city comes to stop it. It is up to the spectator to recognise that Valjean is the mayor.
- Fantine's Arrest
- After Javert has arrested Fantine for assaulting a man, the mayor orders him to let Fantine go. Fantine does not believe in the mayor's sudden kindness, claiming that it was him who allowed the foreman to send her away from the factory and causing her misery. Valjean realises what has happened and decides to care for Fantine. She is taken to a hospital.
- The Runaway Cart
- Directly afterwards, a runaway cart crashes and traps a man underneath. As the people around hesitate to help, Valjean slips under the cart and lifts it on his back. Javert, who witnesses the scene, feels reminded of a man he knew years ago, a convict who had the same strength as the mayor. However, this man has just been arrested and awaits his trial.
- Who Am I?
- After Javert has left, Valjean soliloquizes about the course of action he should take. He first rejoices at the thought of not having to worry about being arrested, but then realises that he cannot have an innocent man being condemned in his place, reasoning that God has once given him strength and will do so again. At the trial, he reveals his true identity at the trial, and proves it by showing the convict brand on his chest.
- Come To Me (Fantine's Death)
- Fantine is very ill and hallucinating. Valjean returns from the trial and promises to take care for her child, just before she dies.
- The Confrontation
- Javert arrives to arrest Valjean, triumphing. Valjean begs him to grant him three days' time to fetch Fantine's child, promising to return, at which Javert scoffs. As Javert makes his beliefs about criminals clear, that a man who has fallen once can never redeem himself, Valjean reminds Javert of his strength, claiming that he would not hesitate to kill Javert. After renewing his promise to Fantine, he knocks Javert out and flees.
- The Bargain/The Waltz of Treachery
- In the forest at a well, Valjean has met the badly-treated Cosette, Fantine's child. He follows her to the Thénardiers' inn, where he announces that he promised to Fantine to take care of her child. The Thénardiers' start to haggle for a price, claiming that Cosette cost them so much money and even faking worry about Valjean probably having bad intentions with the child. Valjean ends up giving them 1500 francs and takes Cosette with him.
- The Robbery/Javert's Intervention
- Nine years later in Paris. Valjean arrives to fall into a trap set up by Thénardier, who in the following brawl gets a look at the convict brand on Valjean's chest. As Javert arrives, Valjean manages to escape with Cosette, before Javert recognises him.
- In My Life
- At their house in the Rue Plumet, Cosette sings about Marius. Valjean enters and Cosette starts to ask him questions about the past which he refuses to answer.
- Attack On Rue Plumet
- Valjean arrives after the departure of Marius and Thénardier's gang, since he heard Éponine scream. Cosette claims that is had been her since she saw shadows moving in the street. Valjean believes that Javert has found him again and decides that it is no longer safe to stay in France. He announces to Cosette that they shall go to England.
- One Day More
- Valjean gets the first few lines in the song, singing about his hopes to live in peace at last, once he is in England. During the rest of the song, he and Cosette pack a suitcase.
- At The Barricade (Upon These Stones)
- At the barricade, Marius has given Éponine a letter, which she delivers to Valjean, who promises to pass it to Cosette. He reads it however and so discovers Cosette's love for Marius.
- Night Of Anguish (Sometimes known as Valjean At The Barricades)
- Valjean arrives in an army uniform. The students point out to him that he seems to old to fight, but Valjean insists on staying. The students show him Javert, bound to a chair, and warn him that if he should be another spy, he too will not live.
- The First Attack
- During the first attack, Valjean shows his superior shooting skills by shooting a sniper who had just missed Enjolras. This is a direct contradiction of the book, where it is emphasised that he did not kill anybody. As Enjolras thanks him, Valjean asks Javert's life as a reward, so Enjolras allows him to shoot Javert. However, Valjean cuts Javert's bonds and tells him to go. Javert encourages him to go through with it, telling him that he believes that Valjean will forever stay a thief and that he, Javert, will continue to hunt him. Valjean tells him that he is wrong and finishes by giving his address in case that he should get out alive. He unloads his rifle into the air after Javert leaves.
- Drink With Me (silent)
- Though Valjean does not sing in this song, it is important, because it allows him to find out who Marius is as the latter sings about his love for Cosette.
- Bring Him Home
- During the night, Valjean prays to God and asks him to save Marius, even if that would mean his, Valjean's, death. This is probably the most famous of Valjean's solos, but it contradicts the book most strongly. In the book, Valjean came to the barricades without a real decision what to do if he should find Marius and actually harbours such hate against him that he seems to wish for his death.
- The Second Attack (Death Of Gavroche)
- During the second attack, the rebels run out of ammunition. Marius proposes to get some from the dead bodies on the other side of the barricade, but Enjolras holds him back. Valjean offers to go, but Gavroche is faster. He climbs over the barricade where he gets shot and killed.
- The Final Battle (silent)
- After the shooting dies down, Valjean wakes from unconsciousness to find Marius badly wounded and barely alive. He searches for an escape route and finds a manhole down to the sewers where he takes Marius just before Javert arrives.
- The Sewers/Dog Eats Dog
- Valjean arrives with an unconscious Marius just as Thénardier is about to rob a corpse. Valjean loses consciousness and Thénardier proceeds to rob Marius, taking a ring and his watch. Just as he turns to Valjean, he wakes. Thénardier recognises him and runs. Valjean takes Marius again and carries him through the sewers until they arrive at an outlet by the Seine. But Javert is already waiting. Valjean begs again for an hour to bring Marius to a hospital, promising to come quietly afterwards. This time Javert agrees and Valjean leaves.
- Every Day/A Heart Full Of Love (Reprise)
- Valjean arrives in the middle of a love scene between Cosette and Marius and decides not to stand in the way of their happiness.
- Valjean's Confession
- A very happy Marius asks Valjean to come and live with them, but Valjean decides that first, there is something Marius needs to know. He tells his life story in short (only about being an ex-convict and a parole violator) and says that he has to leave. Marius asks him to stay, saying that Cosette will not believe any reason for her father's disappearance. Valjean makes Marius promise never to tell Cosette about this, a word which Marius gives only reluctantly.
- Valjean's Death/Finale/Do You Hear The People Sing? (Reprise)
- At the time of the wedding, a strongly aged Valjean prays for Cosette and Marius. The arrival of Fantine's ghost marks his near death, which gets postponed by the arrival of Cosette and Marius, who has just learned the identity of his saviour. Valjean hands Cosette his written confession and dies in her arms. Éponine's ghost then joins him and Fantine, then all the students and rebels who died at the barricade return as ghosts for the finale.
|Maurice Costello||1909 Adaptation|
|Henry Krauss||1913 Adaptation|
|William Farnum||1917 Adaptation|
|Gabriel Gabrio||1925 Adaptation|
|Nobuo Asaoka|| 1929 Adaptation|
|Harry Baur||1934 Adaptation|
|Fredric March||1935 Adaptation|
|Gino Cervi||1948 Adaptaion|
|Michael Rennie||1952 Adaptation|
|Sohrab Modi||1955 Adaptation|
|Jean Gabin||1958 Adaptation|
|Jean Chevrier||1961-1963 "Théatre de la jeunesse" Adaptations|
|Gastone Moschin||1964 Adaptation|
|Georges Géret||1972 Adaptation|
|Richard Jordan||1978 Adaptation|
|Lino Ventura||1982 Adaptation|
|Colm Wilkinson|| 1985 London Musical|
1987 Broadway Musical
|Jean-Paul Belmondo||1995 Adaptation|
|Liam Neeson||1998 Adaptation|
|Gérard Depardieu||2000 Adaptation|
|Gino Quilico||2008 Québec City Production|