Les Miserables

Les Miserables Summary and Analysis of Part Two: Cosette (Chapters V - VIII)

Chapter V:

With Cosette in hand, Valjean flees through the winding alleys of Paris. He is pursued by four men, one of whom he has recognized for certain as Javert. Valjean and Cosette find themselves in a narrow street, with the far end guarded by a sentry.

Hearing Javert, now with a military guard behind him, Valjean scales a sheer wall and uses a rope to pull Cosette up with him. Valjean and Cosette are now in a lonely, empty garden, and they take shelter in a shed as Javert and his patrol storm by.

The patrol heads off into the distance, and the two fugitives hear an unearthly singing but cannot identify the source. They crouch in the freezing shed, until Valjean sees a man wearing a bell. He is desperate to get Cosette inside, fearing that she might die from exposure. This fear proves greater than his terror of capture, and he asks the man with the bell for help, offering him a hundred francs if he will offer them a bed. The man recognizes him with a start, crying out a greeting to Monsieur Madeleine.

It is Fauchelevent, the man Valjean saved from being crushed by his overturned horse cart. He wears a bell because he works in a convent; because he is a man, he is not allowed to meet the women who live here. He is grateful toward Valjean for saving his life and offering him gainful employment as a gardener in the convent, and offers him and Cosette shelter. Valjean makes Fauchelevent swear that he will not tell anyone about Valjean's presence, nor will he ask about Valjean's experiences; Fauchelevent promises that he will keep quiet. They head to Fauchelevent's little cottage.

Javert is frustrated at losing Valjean's trail. He first came to suspect Valjean was not actually dead when he heard of the "abduction" of a child named Cosette, whose mother had been named Fantine. Javert recalls that Valjean asked for a respite to save this exact child. Javert interviews the Thénardiers, who give him only vague information so that their own criminal activity will not be detected. Javert dismissed them from his mind until he heard a story about a "beggar who gives alms," a man of independent means living with a young girl from Monfermeil. Javert decided to pose as a beggar to see this man for himself, and instantly recognized Valjean. He decided to apprehend and arrest him shortly after, but Valjean fled just as Javert's men were arriving at the tenement; Javert was unable to catch Valjean when he fled over the wall. Shame-faced, Javert returns to police headquarters.

Chapter VI: Le Petit-Picpus

A grill screens visitors from the sight of the nuns of the Bernardine Convent of the Perpetual Adoration. The author offers us a detailed history of the order: their establishment by Martin Verga, their relation to other existent orders, their manner of dressing, and the practice of the perpetual adoration, which consists in meditating over the consecrated host. The nuns observe strict rules; they rise early and wear thick, heavy clothes, and they undertake strict physical penance. The only man who appears in the convent in the archbishop.

A girl's boarding school forms part of the convent; the children share in the religious observances of the nuns, but bring light to their lives through their playfulness. Another part shelters elderly nuns who were displaced by the French Revolution. The public is only allowed into part of the convent, for services, but many noble guests are boarded there.

The convent is destined to exist for only a short time longer: like every other institution in France, particularly the religious ones, it is being changed by the rising tide of democracy.

Chapter VIII: Cemeteries Take What They Are Given

Jean Valjean found himself in this singular institution; this is an unexpected safe haven for him, because no man is allowed to enter and no one would expect to find him here...if he is allowed to stay. Fauchelevent is uncertain why the man he knows as Monsieur Madeleine wants to hide out in a convent, but he recognizes his debt to the other man and resolves to help him any way that he can. Because guests are expected to come to the front door of the convent, they need to find a way to sneak Valjean out, no easy task with the children of the convent school everywhere.

One of the elderly nuns has recently died, and the prioress (the head of the convent) asks Fauchelevaunt to perform a special favor: he will bury this elderly nun beneath the altar, so that she may still on holy ground. They will need to conceal this from the authorities who will carry the nun's empty coffin to the cemetery. Taking advantage of this favor, Fauchelevent explains to the prioress (head of the convent) that he is getting too old for his duties, and that his brother should come to assist him. His brother (by whom he means Valjean) has a little granddaughter who can be educated at the convent. The prioress accepts this. Valjean now has a place to stay and work, but he must be able to sneak out of the convent and back in.

Hearing of the favor that the prioress asked Fauchevelent to perform for her, Valjean has an idea. Fauchelevent will put Valjean in the coffin, which will hide the absence of the nun's body and get Valjean out of the convent, and when they're in the cemetery at dusk, Fauchelevent will break open the coffin and Valjean will get out. Fauchelevent is horrified, but Valjean insists this is the only way. Fauchelevent notes that he knows the grave-digger quite well, and can bribe him with alcohol to leave them sooner. They will sneak Cosette out of the convent in a fruit basket.

Everything goes according to plan until they get to the graveyard. Fauchelevent's friend, the grave-digger who is fond of drink, has instead been replaced by an uptight man named Gribier who refuses to drink. To Fauchelevent's horror, Gribier begins to bury the coffin with Valjean still alive in it.

Thinking quickly, Fauchelevent sneakily removes Gribier's identity card from his pocket, and then casually asks the man if he knows where is papers are. Gribier is shocked to discover them missing, and Fauchelevent reminds him that there is a fifteen-franc fine if he is found without his identification after dark. Gribier panics and runs back to his house to find his identification. Fauchelevent unburies Valjean and frees him from the coffin. They fetch Cosette from her hiding place and return the identification card to a very relieved Gribier.

Valjean and Cosette happily establish themselves in the life of the convent. Cosette is a pupil at the convent school, and Valjean becomes a gardener. For Valjean, the convent is an oasis of peace and protection from the police, but it is also a place that encourages his moral growth. His faith in humanity (so shaken after his second imprisonment) is restored. Cosette grows into a young woman in this happy place.


(Chapter Seven is omitted from the Denney translation of Les Misérables as well as many others; it does little to advance the plot of the story, instead lingering on the history of the convent.)

Just as Valjean's goodness was the source of his liberation from his second imprisonment, it is also one of the qualities that allows Javert to find him again - Javert is deeply suspicious of the reports he hears about the "beggar who gives alms," a man whose age matches Valjean's, and who has in his custody a little girl matching the description of Cosette.

Valjean's false burial (which is necessary in order to sneak him out and then into the convent of Petit-Picpus) mirrors part of the initiation of new nuns - they are placed in coffins and their fellow nuns mourn their social death before celebrating their symbolic rebirth into monastic life. Valjean undergoes a male version of this rite. In many ways, this also marks Valjean's symbolic death: after his first imprisonment he became a successful and well-known business, but now he is an unknown gardener toiling away in a little corner of the city. However, he is not unhappy here, and finds a great deal of peace. Through the love of Cosette and the religious environment created by the nuns, Valjean continues his moral and spiritual journey.

The convent of Petit-Picpus is the inverse of the prison. Just as he was in prison, Vlajean is confined there and made to work. However, he is also treated well, and his spiritual aspirations are enhanced rather than diminished.

The description of the convent of Petit-Picpus are based on the convent in which Victor Hugo's mistress, Juliette Drouet, lived for much of her childhood.