The book Les Miserables shows the evolution of Valjean’s morality. Valjean transforms from a self-loathing convict into a caring man that seeks interpersonal balance and fulfills a duty to the community and family. Valjean also finds peace with himself by accepting that he was once a bitter galley slave. Through all of Valjean’s travels, escapes, and conflicts; his morality grows into a shining beacon for readers of the book.

quick summary

The inhabitants of Digne discriminate against Jean Valjean for being an ex-convict. Only seeking a place to sleep and eat, Valjean enters an inn for room and board. The innkeeper eventually figures out who Valjean is, and the innkeeper demands that Valjean leaves. Valjean protests because he can pay for room and board. No matter what Valjean offers, the inn keeper kicks Valjean out of the inn.

“Monsieur,” [the innkeeper] said, “I cannot receive you.”

The traveler half rose from his seat.

“Why? Are you afraid I won’t pay you, or do you want me to pay you in advance? I have money, I tell you.”

Valjean leaves the inn sullenly. He wanders the streets in a terrible mood; he doesn’t look at anyone because Valjean would see them looking at himself. Victor Hugo says in the book, “People weighed down with troubles do not look back; they know too well that misfortune stalks them.”

Valjean stalks all around town. He knocks on every door that he can find, even the prison doors, to see if anyone would spare food or a bed. Although liberated from being a bitter galley slave, Valjean quickly becomes bitter towards the world. While sleeping on a bench, a citizen of Digne wakes Valjean and points him to knock on the bishop’s house for room and board.

When the door of the Bishop’s house opens, Valjean immediately comes clean so that the bishop can reject Valjean faster. The bishop does not reject Valjean, and the bishop invites Valjean in for dinner and he treats Valjean as an honored guest. A skeptical Valjean accepts the bishop’s generosity. It is almost too good to be true. What Valjean doesn’t know is that the good bishop has had his morality tested previously. The bishop came out of the test more convinced to do good in the world.

After eating delicious food and sleeping in a wonderful bed, Valjean wakes up in the middle of the night not convinced of the Bishop’s charity. So Valjean covertly steals silver from the bishop and runs away. The police later apprehends Valjean, and the police return to the bishop’s house with Valjean and the stolen silver.

The policemen mock Valjean for saying that the bishop gave the silver to Valjean. The bishop affirms that he did indeed gave the silver to Valjean, and the bishop berates Valjean for rushing off without two silver candlesticks. Shocked, the police release Valjean and leave the bishop’s house. In a solemn private conversation, the bishop admonishes Valjean that his soul has been bought for God and Valjean must become a better man.

the morality of Jean Valjean

I don’t think that the bishop’s kindness immediately instigates Valjean’s change of heart, but it was something that happened after the encounter with the bishop. By accident, Valjean stole little money from a chimney sweep boy. Albeit a mistake, Valjean was horrified, because he thought it atrocious that he would steal little money when he had received a generous gift from the bishop. Valjean becomes miserable, and he becomes afraid to return to his old hardened prisoner self.

The incident emotionally scars Valjean. He remembers the accident for the rest of his live, and he keeps the stolen money just in case he might see the little chimney sweep boy again so the money can be returned.

[M]oral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine.

C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity

In order to stay away from his former self, Valjean sets rules in order to turn his life around. The rules would hopeful help Valjean “to prevent a breakdown” and therefore preventing a return to a bitter cold galley slave. Throughout Valjean’s life, he consistently demonstrates abhorrence towards his former self as a convict.

Soon after leaving Digne, Valjean sacrifices his own safety to rescue the mayor’s son of a different town. That starts Valjean down the path of service. The mayor even rewards Valjean without asking who Valjean was, and this aids Valjean to start a new path for himself.

two points about morality

There are two points about morality that can be viewed from the life of Jean Valjean. C.S. Lewis states what those two points are in the following quote.

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individiuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each indivdiual. […].

C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity

A man should be in harmony with one another in order to have peace with one another. Additionally, a man should be in harmony with himself, so that a man is comfortable in his own shell in essence. Valjean’s morality travels through both of these points.

Valjean knows that he must be in harmony with everyone, even when his emotional and intellectual stance is at an impasse. For example, Valjean can not stand the thought of a man accused of being Valjean and a convict that has broken parole. That innocent man would be a galley slave for the rest of his life. But Valjean, mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a successful businessman, reasons that he single-handedly brought the town out of poverty with an ingenious manufacturing technique. So Valjean could help the town’s prosperity more, or sacrifice everything he built in that town in order to free a man accused of being him.

Valjean knows what he must do, so he sets in motion to go to the courthouse to confess who he is. While traveling to the court house, Valjean is trapped in an internal struggle to free the man or return home, but Valjean does follow through with going to the courthouse. Valjean interrupts the court trial and proclaims that he is Jean Valjean. By proclaiming and acknowledging his former self, he is at harmony with he man that would have been falsely accused of being Valjean.

But is Valjean at harmony with himself through out the book? Not really. 19 years as a bitter galley slave haunts Valjean, and he is depressingly afraid of who he once was. “This world that always hated me”, sings a bitter and cold Valjean early in the musical adaptation. This line demonstrates briefly Valjean’s bitter attitude towards people that discriminated him.

It probably wasn’t until the very end of the book that Valjean is at peace with himself. Valjean adopts Cosette as a daughter after Fontine asks Valjean to take care of Cosette. During the whole period of raising Cosette, Valjean never tells Cosette who her mother was and he was. Valjean does not want Cosette to reject him. So Valjean omits telling Cosette all the revealing details.

This does cause some frustration between Cosette and Valjean, but they do resolve their conflicts because Cosette knows Valjean as a caring father. Eventually when Valjean is dying, he does come to terms with himself and he confesses everything to Cosette. Cosette does not reject Valjean and Valjean dies in peace. Valjean accepts who he once was, so he forgives himself; Valjean comes to harmony with himself.

la fin

For me, Valjean is an incredibly relatable character. I think the evolution of Valjean’s morality speaks to the hearts of so many people, because those people feel like they are going through similar shared struggles that Valjean also went through. And because Valjean comes out still humble and charitable after his struggles, people love him. Valjean does not turn away from his morality. The actions Valjean took to always serve and be kind is very notable to every reader of the book.