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CHAPTER VII—THE INTERIOR OF DESPAIR
Let us try to say it.
It is necessary that society should look at these things, because it is
itself which creates them.
He was, as we have said, an ignorant man, but he was not a fool. The light
of nature was ignited in him. Unhappiness, which also possesses a
clearness of vision of its own, augmented the small amount of daylight
which existed in this mind. Beneath the cudgel, beneath the chain, in the
cell, in hardship, beneath the burning sun of the galleys, upon the plank
bed of the convict, he withdrew into his own consciousness and meditated.
He constituted himself the tribunal.
He began by putting himself on trial.
He recognized the fact that he was not an innocent man unjustly punished.
He admitted that he had committed an extreme and blameworthy act; that
that loaf of bread would probably not have been refused to him had he
asked for it; that, in any case, it would have been better to wait until
he could get it through compassion or through work; that it is not an
unanswerable argument to say, "Can one wait when one is hungry?" That, in
the first place, it is very rare for any one to die of hunger, literally;
and next, that, fortunately or unfortunately, man is so constituted that
he can suffer long and much, both morally and physically, without dying;
that it is therefore necessary to have patience; that that would even have
been better for those poor little children; that it had been an act of
madness for him, a miserable, unfortunate wretch, to take society at large
violently by the collar, and to imagine that one can escape from misery
through theft; that that is in any case a poor door through which to
escape from misery through which infamy enters; in short, that he was in
Then he asked himself—
Whether he had been the only one in fault in his fatal history. Whether it
was not a serious thing, that he, a laborer, out of work, that he, an
industrious man, should have lacked bread. And whether, the fault once
committed and confessed, the chastisement had not been ferocious and
disproportioned. Whether there had not been more abuse on the part of the
law, in respect to the penalty, than there had been on the part of the
culprit in respect to his fault. Whether there had not been an excess of
weights in one balance of the scale, in the one which contains expiation.
Whether the over-weight of the penalty was not equivalent to the
annihilation of the crime, and did not result in reversing the situation,
of replacing the fault of the delinquent by the fault of the repression,
of converting the guilty man into the victim, and the debtor into the
creditor, and of ranging the law definitely on the side of the man who had
Whether this penalty, complicated by successive aggravations for attempts
at escape, had not ended in becoming a sort of outrage perpetrated by the
stronger upon the feebler, a crime of society against the individual, a
crime which was being committed afresh every day, a crime which had lasted
He asked himself whether human society could have the right to force its
members to suffer equally in one case for its own unreasonable lack of
foresight, and in the other case for its pitiless foresight; and to seize
a poor man forever between a defect and an excess, a default of work and
an excess of punishment.
Whether it was not outrageous for society to treat thus precisely those of
its members who were the least well endowed in the division of goods made
by chance, and consequently the most deserving of consideration.
These questions put and answered, he judged society and condemned it.
He condemned it to his hatred.
He made it responsible for the fate which he was suffering, and he said to
himself that it might be that one day he should not hesitate to call it to
account. He declared to himself that there was no equilibrium between the
harm which he had caused and the harm which was being done to him; he
finally arrived at the conclusion that his punishment was not, in truth,
unjust, but that it most assuredly was iniquitous.
Anger may be both foolish and absurd; one can be irritated wrongfully; one
is exasperated only when there is some show of right on one's side at
bottom. Jean Valjean felt himself exasperated.
And besides, human society had done him nothing but harm; he had never
seen anything of it save that angry face which it calls Justice, and which
it shows to those whom it strikes. Men had only touched him to bruise him.
Every contact with them had been a blow. Never, since his infancy, since
the days of his mother, of his sister, had he ever encountered a friendly
word and a kindly glance. From suffering to suffering, he had gradually
arrived at the conviction that life is a war; and that in this war he was
the conquered. He had no other weapon than his hate. He resolved to whet
it in the galleys and to bear it away with him when he departed.
There was at Toulon a school for the convicts, kept by the Ignorantin
friars, where the most necessary branches were taught to those of the
unfortunate men who had a mind for them. He was of the number who had a
mind. He went to school at the age of forty, and learned to read, to
write, to cipher. He felt that to fortify his intelligence was to fortify
his hate. In certain cases, education and enlightenment can serve to eke
This is a sad thing to say; after having judged society, which had caused
his unhappiness, he judged Providence, which had made society, and he
condemned it also.
Thus during nineteen years of torture and slavery, this soul mounted and
at the same time fell. Light entered it on one side, and darkness on the
Jean Valjean had not, as we have seen, an evil nature. He was still good
when he arrived at the galleys. He there condemned society, and felt that
he was becoming wicked; he there condemned Providence, and was conscious
that he was becoming impious.
It is difficult not to indulge in meditation at this point.
Does human nature thus change utterly and from top to bottom? Can the man
created good by God be rendered wicked by man? Can the soul be completely
made over by fate, and become evil, fate being evil? Can the heart become
misshapen and contract incurable deformities and infirmities under the
oppression of a disproportionate unhappiness, as the vertebral column
beneath too low a vault? Is there not in every human soul, was there not
in the soul of Jean Valjean in particular, a first spark, a divine
element, incorruptible in this world, immortal in the other, which good
can develop, fan, ignite, and make to glow with splendor, and which evil
can never wholly extinguish?
Grave and obscure questions, to the last of which every physiologist would
probably have responded no, and that without hesitation, had he beheld at
Toulon, during the hours of repose, which were for Jean Valjean hours of
revery, this gloomy galley-slave, seated with folded arms upon the bar of
some capstan, with the end of his chain thrust into his pocket to prevent
its dragging, serious, silent, and thoughtful, a pariah of the laws which
regarded the man with wrath, condemned by civilization, and regarding
heaven with severity.
Certainly,—and we make no attempt to dissimulate the fact,—the
observing physiologist would have beheld an irremediable misery; he would,
perchance, have pitied this sick man, of the law's making; but he would
not have even essayed any treatment; he would have turned aside his gaze
from the caverns of which he would have caught a glimpse within this soul,
and, like Dante at the portals of hell, he would have effaced from this
existence the word which the finger of God has, nevertheless, inscribed
upon the brow of every man,—hope.
Was this state of his soul, which we have attempted to analyze, as
perfectly clear to Jean Valjean as we have tried to render it for those
who read us? Did Jean Valjean distinctly perceive, after their formation,
and had he seen distinctly during the process of their formation, all the
elements of which his moral misery was composed? Had this rough and
unlettered man gathered a perfectly clear perception of the succession of
ideas through which he had, by degrees, mounted and descended to the
lugubrious aspects which had, for so many years, formed the inner horizon
of his spirit? Was he conscious of all that passed within him, and of all
that was working there? That is something which we do not presume to
state; it is something which we do not even believe. There was too much
ignorance in Jean Valjean, even after his misfortune, to prevent much
vagueness from still lingering there. At times he did not rightly know
himself what he felt. Jean Valjean was in the shadows; he suffered in the
shadows; he hated in the shadows; one might have said that he hated in
advance of himself. He dwelt habitually in this shadow, feeling his way
like a blind man and a dreamer. Only, at intervals, there suddenly came to
him, from without and from within, an access of wrath, a surcharge of
suffering, a livid and rapid flash which illuminated his whole soul, and
caused to appear abruptly all around him, in front, behind, amid the
gleams of a frightful light, the hideous precipices and the sombre
perspective of his destiny.
The flash passed, the night closed in again; and where was he? He no
longer knew. The peculiarity of pains of this nature, in which that which
is pitiless—that is to say, that which is brutalizing—predominates,
is to transform a man, little by little, by a sort of stupid
transfiguration, into a wild beast; sometimes into a ferocious beast.
Jean Valjean's successive and obstinate attempts at escape would alone
suffice to prove this strange working of the law upon the human soul. Jean
Valjean would have renewed these attempts, utterly useless and foolish as
they were, as often as the opportunity had presented itself, without
reflecting for an instant on the result, nor on the experiences which he
had already gone through. He escaped impetuously, like the wolf who finds
his cage open. Instinct said to him, "Flee!" Reason would have said,
"Remain!" But in the presence of so violent a temptation, reason vanished;
nothing remained but instinct. The beast alone acted. When he was
recaptured, the fresh severities inflicted on him only served to render
him still more wild.
One detail, which we must not omit, is that he possessed a physical
strength which was not approached by a single one of the denizens of the
galleys. At work, at paying out a cable or winding up a capstan, Jean
Valjean was worth four men. He sometimes lifted and sustained enormous
weights on his back; and when the occasion demanded it, he replaced that
implement which is called a jack-screw, and was formerly called orgueil
[pride], whence, we may remark in passing, is derived the name of the Rue
Montorgueil, near the Halles [Fishmarket] in Paris. His comrades had
nicknamed him Jean the Jack-screw. Once, when they were repairing the
balcony of the town-hall at Toulon, one of those admirable caryatids of
Puget, which support the balcony, became loosened, and was on the point of
falling. Jean Valjean, who was present, supported the caryatid with his
shoulder, and gave the workmen time to arrive.
His suppleness even exceeded his strength. Certain convicts who were
forever dreaming of escape, ended by making a veritable science of force
and skill combined. It is the science of muscles. An entire system of
mysterious statics is daily practised by prisoners, men who are forever
envious of the flies and birds. To climb a vertical surface, and to find
points of support where hardly a projection was visible, was play to Jean
Valjean. An angle of the wall being given, with the tension of his back
and legs, with his elbows and his heels fitted into the unevenness of the
stone, he raised himself as if by magic to the third story. He sometimes
mounted thus even to the roof of the galley prison.
He spoke but little. He laughed not at all. An excessive emotion was
required to wring from him, once or twice a year, that lugubrious laugh of
the convict, which is like the echo of the laugh of a demon. To all
appearance, he seemed to be occupied in the constant contemplation of
He was absorbed, in fact.
Athwart the unhealthy perceptions of an incomplete nature and a crushed
intelligence, he was confusedly conscious that some monstrous thing was
resting on him. In that obscure and wan shadow within which he crawled,
each time that he turned his neck and essayed to raise his glance, he
perceived with terror, mingled with rage, a sort of frightful accumulation
of things, collecting and mounting above him, beyond the range of his
vision,—laws, prejudices, men, and deeds,—whose outlines
escaped him, whose mass terrified him, and which was nothing else than
that prodigious pyramid which we call civilization. He distinguished, here
and there in that swarming and formless mass, now near him, now afar off
and on inaccessible table-lands, some group, some detail, vividly
illuminated; here the galley-sergeant and his cudgel; there the gendarme
and his sword; yonder the mitred archbishop; away at the top, like a sort
of sun, the Emperor, crowned and dazzling. It seemed to him that these
distant splendors, far from dissipating his night, rendered it more
funereal and more black. All this—laws, prejudices, deeds, men,
things—went and came above him, over his head, in accordance with
the complicated and mysterious movement which God imparts to civilization,
walking over him and crushing him with I know not what peacefulness in its
cruelty and inexorability in its indifference. Souls which have fallen to
the bottom of all possible misfortune, unhappy men lost in the lowest of
those limbos at which no one any longer looks, the reproved of the law,
feel the whole weight of this human society, so formidable for him who is
without, so frightful for him who is beneath, resting upon their heads.
In this situation Jean Valjean meditated; and what could be the nature of
If the grain of millet beneath the millstone had thoughts, it would,
doubtless, think that same thing which Jean Valjean thought.
All these things, realities full of spectres, phantasmagories full of
realities, had eventually created for him a sort of interior state which
is almost indescribable.
At times, amid his convict toil, he paused. He fell to thinking. His
reason, at one and the same time riper and more troubled than of yore,
rose in revolt. Everything which had happened to him seemed to him absurd;
everything that surrounded him seemed to him impossible. He said to
himself, "It is a dream." He gazed at the galley-sergeant standing a few
paces from him; the galley-sergeant seemed a phantom to him. All of a
sudden the phantom dealt him a blow with his cudgel.
Visible nature hardly existed for him. It would almost be true to say that
there existed for Jean Valjean neither sun, nor fine summer days, nor
radiant sky, nor fresh April dawns. I know not what vent-hole daylight
habitually illumined his soul.
To sum up, in conclusion, that which can be summed up and translated into
positive results in all that we have just pointed out, we will confine
ourselves to the statement that, in the course of nineteen years, Jean
Valjean, the inoffensive tree-pruner of Faverolles, the formidable convict
of Toulon, had become capable, thanks to the manner in which the galleys
had moulded him, of two sorts of evil action: firstly, of evil action
which was rapid, unpremeditated, dashing, entirely instinctive, in the
nature of reprisals for the evil which he had undergone; secondly, of evil
action which was serious, grave, consciously argued out and premeditated,
with the false ideas which such a misfortune can furnish. His deliberate
deeds passed through three successive phases, which natures of a certain
stamp can alone traverse,—reasoning, will, perseverance. He had for
moving causes his habitual wrath, bitterness of soul, a profound sense of
indignities suffered, the reaction even against the good, the innocent,
and the just, if there are any such. The point of departure, like the
point of arrival, for all his thoughts, was hatred of human law; that
hatred which, if it be not arrested in its development by some
providential incident, becomes, within a given time, the hatred of
society, then the hatred of the human race, then the hatred of creation,
and which manifests itself by a vague, incessant, and brutal desire to do
harm to some living being, no matter whom. It will be perceived that it
was not without reason that Jean Valjean's passport described him as a
very dangerous man.
From year to year this soul had dried away slowly, but with fatal
sureness. When the heart is dry, the eye is dry. On his departure from the
galleys it had been nineteen years since he had shed a tear.