| 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,
Jean Valjean was of that thoughtful but not gloomy
disposition which constitutes the peculiarity of affectionate natures. On the
whole, however, there was
something decidedly sluggish and insignificant about Jean Valjean in
appearance, at least.
Jean Valjean had lost his
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.
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 youngest, one.
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 native
Jean Valjean had not had the time to fall in love.
Jean Valjean returned at
night weary, and ate his broth without
uttering a word. His
sister, mother 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
wife 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
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
In 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.
Jean 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 glass. 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
savage men; they
develop the fierce side, but
often without destroying the humane
Jean 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 at
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 little
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
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