Character Summary- Valjean

Jean Valjean is a man that made a mistake at a young age; he resorted to stealing a loaf of bread to feed him and his sister’s family. This mistake led Valjean to nineteen years of prison and hard labor. The prison time turned Valjean into an animal, struggling to be the strongest, struggling for survival. His resentment and anger towards authority, mankind, and God fueled him. When he was finally released from prison, he found himself still trapped by the stigma of being a convict, his yellow passport warned all that he met to stay away and not to help him. After giving up hope on finding anyone to share their food or shelter with him, Valjean was directed to knock at the Bishop’s door.

As we talked about last week, the Bishop greets him with unconditional kindness. He is greeted as a “brother”, given a meal and a warm bed for the night. Not quite believing that this type of kindness can be real, Valjean repays all that the Bishop has done by stealing the silver. When the Bishop lies for him, telling the police that have caught Valjean that he had actually given away the silver and adds the silver candlesticks to his sack, Valjean is dumbfounded. He had not imagined that the Bishop would vouch for him, or that this kindness could exist. The Bishop astounded him further by telling Valjean that he had promised to “use this money in becoming an honest man.” Valjean, of course, had no recollection of making this promise. The Bishop continued by stating that he had ransomed Valjean’s soul from evil with the silver. As God ransomed mankind with the life of his only son, his most valuable work, so the Bishop ransomed Valjean with his most valued processions.

Valjean was rather dumbstruck by all this, and is dazed for quite some time. He had trouble believing that the Bishop was as good and kind as he had seemed. When he does finally come out of the daze Valjean did just as he had been told to. He started a new life, in a new town, with the money from the Bishop’s silver. However, he kept the silver candlesticks as a reminder of the Bishop. It was not always easy for him to live as he should he battled often with his anger, pride, and bitterness. He worked hard to lead a good and honest life. He gave all that he could to those that needed it; he helped out others when he could. He came to own his own factory, and tried to endure that everyone was treated fairly. He became so well known in the town for his fairness and good deeds that, even though he resisted, he was elected mayor of his new town.

Everything was going well, until Javert gets involved. Inspector Javert had worked in the galleys that Valjean had been forced to work as a prisoner. Slowly Javert becomes suspicious of Valjean and makes life much more uncertain for Valjean, who comes to recognize Javert as well. While the game of cat and mouse ensues between Javert and Valjean more complications arise. Fantine, a woman who had worked in Valjean’s factory but had been fired, is forced into prostitution and becomes very ill. Valjean uses his authority as mayor to keep he from being put in jail, and attempts to nurse her back to health. In her final days, Fantine has Valjean promise to take care of her daughter, Cosette, who was staying with an innkeeper and his wife in a different town.

As Valjean was preparing to get Cosette Javert pays him a visit, apologizing for thinking that a mayor could be a convict. He tells Valjean that another man had been captured and is on trial, with the assumption that the man in custody is Valjean. Instead of taking the easy way out, and letting another man go to prison for his crimes, Valjean goes to the court and announces whom he is, saving the other man’s life. He then retreats to Fantine’s bedside where Javert confronts him; the shock is the last for frail Fantine who then dies. Here the book, musical and movies differ. In the book Valjean is captured and goes to jail one more time, and escapes after a daring rescue of a sailor, then goes for Cosette. In the musical and the movie he goes directly to get Cosette.

Valjean takes Cosette and brings her to Paris. They scale the city wall and take refuge in a convent, where Valjean becomes a gardener and Cosette receives her education. When Cosette is grown they leave the convent and move to a secluded home in the city. In all this Valjean has put Cosette and her safety above all else. As Cosette’s romance with Marius grows, and Valjean discovers it, he is terrified that he will lose her. Once again he puts Cosette before himself, and saves Marius’s life at the battle at the barricades, and when Marius is well, does everything he can to make everything easy and perfect for Cosette. This includes giving as a dowry the remaining money from the Bishop’s silver, and bequeathing her the silver candlesticks on his deathbed. He was even willing to remove himself from Cosette’s life, if that would give her a better future.

Valjean had been given an opportunity to change his life. We have all been given the same chance, it is not an easy ride, but it is an opportunity. Like Valjean, we can struggle along working towards virtue with both success and failure. As Valjean was strengthened by the love her shared with Cosette, our love for others, and the love that others feel towards us can strengthen us.


Character Quotes: Jean Valjean



“Can man, created by God, be made wicked by man? Can the soul be changed to keep pace with its destiny, and become evil when its destiny is evil? Can the heart become distorted and contract deformities and infirmities that are incurable, under the pressure of disproportionate woe, like the vertebral column under a too heavy brain? Is there not in every human soul; was there not in the particular soul of Jean Valjean, a primitive spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world, immortal in the next, which can be developed by good, kindled, lit up, and made resplendently radiant, and which evil can never entirely extinguish.” (P.76-77)


“Love came and he again grew strong. Alas, he was no less feeble than Cosette. He protected her, and she gave strength to him. Thanks to him, she could walk upright in life; thanks to her he could persist in virtuous deeds. He was the support of the child, and this child was his prop and staff.” (P.372)


“Jean Valjean shuddered with the continual tremor of the outcast. To them everything is hostile and suspicious. They distrust the day because it helps to discover them, and the night because it helps to surprise them. Just now he was shuddering because the garden was empty, now he shuddered because there was some one in it.” (P.393)


“The book…from one end to the other, in its whole and in its details, whatever may be the intermissions, the exceptions, or the defaults, the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end.” (P.1042)


“To Cosette…I bequeath the two candlesticks which are on the mantel. They are silver; but to me they are gold, they are diamond; they change the candles which are put into them, into consecrated tapers. I do not know whether he who gave them to me is satisfied with me in heaven. I have done what I could.” (P.1220)
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