| Towards the middle of the
night Jean Valjean woke.
Valjean came from a poor peasant
family of Brie. He had not learned to
read in his childhood. When he
reached man's estate, be became a tree
pruner at Faverolles.
His mother was named Jeanne Mathieu; his father
was called Jean Valjean or Vlajean, probably a sobriquet, and a contraction of
viola Jean, "here's Jean."
Jean Valjean was of that thoughtful but not
gloomy disposition which constitutes the peculiarity of
natures. On the
whole, however, there was
something decidedly sluggish and insignificant about Jean Valjean in
appearance, at least.
Jean Valjean had lost his father and mother at a
very early age. His mother had died of a milk fever, which had not been
properly attended to.
His father, a tree pruner, like himself, had been
killed by a fall from a tree. All that
remained to Jean Valjean was a sister older than himself, a
widow with seven children,
boys and girls.
This sister had brought up Jean Valjean, and so long as
she had a husband she lodged and fed her young brother.
The eldest of the seven children was eight years old. The
Jean Valjean had just attained his twenty-fifth year. He
took the father's place, and, in his turn, supported the sister who had brought
him up. This was done simply as a
duty and even a little
churlishly on the part of Jean Valjean. Thus his youth had been spent in rude
and ill-paid toil.
Jean Valjean had never known a "compassionate woman friend" in his
Jean Valjean had not had the time to fall in
returned at night weary, and ate his
broth without uttering a word. His sister, Jeanne, often took the best part of
his repast from his bowl while he was eating, a bit of meat, a slice of bacon,
the heart of the cabbage, to give to one of her children. As he went on eating,
with his head bent over the table and almost into his soup, his long hair
falling about his bowl and concealing his eyes, he had the air of perceiving
nothing and allowing it.
There was at Faverolles, not far from the
Valjean thatched cottage, on the
other side of the lane, a farmer's cow named Marie-Claude; the Valjean
children, habitually famished, sometimes went to borrow from Marie-Claude a
pint of milk, in their mother's name, which they drank behind a hedge or in
some alley corner, snatching the jug from each other so hastily that the little
girls spilled it on their aprons and down their necks. If their mother had
known of this marauding, she would have punished the delinquents severely.
Jean Valjean gruffly and grumblingly paid Marie-Claude for the pint of
milk behind their mother's back, and the children were not punished.
pruning season Jean Valjean earned eighteen sous a day; then he hired out as a
hay maker, as laborer, as neat herd on a farm, as a drudge.
Valjean did whatever he could. His sister worked also but what could she do
with seven little children? It was a sad group enveloped in misery, which was
being gradually annihilated.
A very hard winter
came. Jean Valjean had no work. The
family had no bread. No bread
literally. Seven children!
One Sunday evening, Maubert Isabeau, the baker on
the Church Square at Faverolles, was preparing to go to bed, when he heard a
violent blow on the grated front of his shop. He arrived in time to see an arm
passed through a hole made by a blow from a fist, through the grating and the
The arm seized a
loaf of bread and carried it off. Isabeau ran out in haste; the robber fled
at the full speed of his legs. Isabeau ran after him and stopped him.
The thief had flung away the loaf, but his arm was still bleeding. It
was Jean Valjean. This took place in 1795.
Jean Valjean was taken before the
tribunals of the time for theft and breaking and
entering an inhabited house at night.
He had a gun which he used better than any one else on Earth, he was a bit of a
poacher, and this injured his case.
There exists a legitimate
prejudice against poachers. The
poacher, like the smuggler, smacks too strongly of the brigand. Nevertheless,
we will remark cursorily, there is still an
abyss between these races of men
and the hideous assassin of the towns. The poacher lives in the
forest, the smuggler lives in the
mountains or on the sea. The cities make ferocious men because they make
corrupt men. The mountain, the sea, the
forest, make savage men; they
develop the fierce side, but
often without destroying the humane side.
Valjean was pronounced guilty. The
terms of the Code were explicit. There occur formidable hours in our
civilization; there are moments when
the penal laws decree a shipwreck. What an ominous minute is that in which
society draws back and consummates the irreparable abandonment of a
was condemned to five years in the galleys. On the 22d of April, 1796, the
victory of Montenotte, won by the general-in-chief of the army of Italy, whom
the message of the Directory to the Five Hundred, of the 2d of Floreal, year
IV., calls Buona-Parte, was announced in Paris; on that same day a great gang
of galley-slaves was put in chains
Jean Valjean formed a part of that gang. An old turnkey of
the prison, who is now nearly eighty years old, still recalls perfectly that
unfortunate wretch who was chained to the end of the fourth line, in the north
angle of the courtyard. He was seated on the ground like the others.
Jean Valjean did not seem to
comprehend his position,
except that it was horrible. It is probable that he, also, was disentangling
from amid the vague ideas of a
poor man, ignorant of everything,
something excessive. While the bolt of his iron collar was being riveted behind
his head with heavy blows from the hammer, he wept, his
tears stifled him, they impeded
his speech; he only managed to say from time to time, "I was a
tree pruner at Faverolles."
Then still sobbing, he raised his right hand and lowered it gradually
seven times, as though he were touching in succession seven heads of unequal
heights, and from this gesture it was divined that the thing which he had done,
whatever it was, he had done for the sake of clothing and nourishing seven
Victor Hugo, Les
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