Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Valjean’s Depression Pretends to be his Conscience

Valjean’s steps to remove himself from Cosette and Marius’ new family are infuriating: he doesn’t need to do that! Why does he think he needs to do that?

But you can’t argue with depression.

It’s the beginning of a downward spiral: he’s come to believe that Cosette is better off without him.

His internal struggle, trying to decide whether he can accept the place offered in their household, is presented as the same type of struggle he fought at Digne before and after robbing the bishop, deciding whether to go to Arras to rescue Champmathieu, deciding whether to rescue Marius at the barricade…what kind of man will he be, and will he put others ahead of himself? It’s presented as the final test of his conscience, but I can’t read it that way.

All those cases involved significant harm to someone else balanced against his own wishes. That’s not the case here. While the law might still catch up to him, it’s a flimsy risk at best, and the danger to Cosette is no greater now that it has been for the past decade.

It’s no longer about sacrificing himself to help others. It’s about self-sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, because he feels deep down that he doesn’t deserve happiness. It’s the lingering impact of his 19 years in prison, how he was treated and the “dangerous man” he became as a result of it. He thinks his conscience wins out, but I disagree. It’s not his conscience. It’s the triumph of the prison system that condemned him to nineteen years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread for seven starving children. He’s free in body, but still there in spirit.

Despite everything he’s done, all the people he’s helped, the way he transformed other lives the way the bishop transformed his, deep down Valjean still believes he’s the scum of the earth, just like Javert did. So all the entreaties from Marius, Cosette and even Gillenormand that Valjean should stay can’t compete with the voice of his “conscience” - really his depression - telling him “they’re better off without you.” And he pushes them away.

Everyone is worse for it, himself included. But he simply sees it as proof that he was right: he doesn’t deserve to be happy with them.

I want to take Valjean by the shoulders, shake him, tell him he’s being an idiot, he doesn’t deserve to cut himself off, he’s loved here…

But depression doesn’t work that way.