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Thread: Valjean's strength

  1. #1
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Valjean's strength

    I've always wondered what Hugo meant to symbolize by giving Valjean his incredible Herculean strength. Having studied some medieval romances, I remembered another convention involving great physical strength. In some stories (I'm thinking of some Arthurian ones), some knights believe that one cannot be strong/defeat their enemies without being pure (i.e. chaste). Once they lose their virginity, they supposedly lose their strength and prowess in battle. This belief is rooted in their Christian faith...that somehow if they sully their bodies, God disapproves, and punishes them by removing their strength.

    Seems to me the case in Les Miserables is working in reverse. Jean Valjean (although not a virgin) experiences a religious epiphany in the hands of Bishop Myriel and is blessed with great strength. Then, he uses his strength wisely...to save people like Fauchelevant, instead of abusing it.

    Of course, my theory doesn't work if Jean Valjean was always strong. Am I wrong in believing he showed great strength while in prison working amongst the chain gang?

    What do you think? Is Hugo borrowing from the medieval chivalric tradition?

  2. #2
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Ok, here goes for a third time. I tried to submit twice and each time it lost my data, so, now I won't be fooled and I'll copy it. Evil computer .

    I think you could have a point, Wilde Woman. There is something in it.

    Jean Valjean's strength (the origin of it anyway) is only touched upon once when Javert witnesses the problem with Fauchelevant:

    The man is being crushed under his cart and can only be saved by one who possesses such great strength in his shoulders and upper arms that he can push the cart up, with its charge, while sinking in the mud under it. No support can be given to the knees or feet. The only people who (supposedly) possessed such strength were ex-chain gang prisoners who rowed for the galleys. As such Jean Valjean has a choice: either he helps Fauchelevant and does a good dead, but doing that declares his identity which is already being suspected by Javert (his police commissar). Revealing that would mean he would loose his post as mayor and the position of honour he has. Or he does not help him and lets the man die, thus still conceiling his yellow passport. In a sense his strength is his yellow passport.

    It is a popular point in academic circles to see Jean Valjean's epiphany as a reverse-Faust. Faust sold his soul to the devil in order to acquire everything to seduce Gretchen (if that is right...). Jean Valjea does not sell his soul to the devil, but his soul is bought with the candlesticks by bishop Myriel. For the rest of his life Jean Valjean will not be able to do anything bad, not even when it is in his own interest. At Arras, as Monfermeil's mayor, he cannot face the Champmatthieu to go to prison for life, for a crime he himself committed. Even when they do not let him in, he still fights to get in there and ironically uses his privileges as mayor to claim his place. When Cosette turns out to be in love with Marius, he goes to save him from the barricades. He could easily have left him... When Javert needs to be executed, he lets him walk free. He gives up Cosette to Marius, although he knows it will mean his death. He even tells him that he is an old-convict...

    As to the virginity of Jean Valjean... I can't recall any passage where it was explicitely implied that he had a girldfriend, wife, or children. The children he stole the bread for in the beginning of his tale, were the children of his sister (his nieces and nephews), not his own. What was up with the husband I forgot.

    Maybe the 'virginity' in chivalry is not addressed in its literal sense, but rather in its figurative sense. In the sense of 'innocence', of not intending any evil. As such it can be paired up with the Jean Valjean-Christ idea, which is equaly popular in academic circles. In any case, knights that swore an oath laboured for the good and the Truth, so for God (no matter how strange it may seem to kill people for it...) and in that Jean Valjean, although not out of his own conviction, complies with that oath. But on the other hand chastity can also be sworn after one has lost maidenhood.

    There is no doubt that Jean Valjean, like all chain-gang prisoners, acquired great strength during his sentence, but on the other hand it seems an interesting point that 'the strong man who uses his strength for the weak and miserables' could be down to medieval tradition. He was certainly chaste as well.

    But what with his death? He becomes weak after he has given up Cosette to Marius, but moe importantly after he has declared his status as ex-convict... Jean Valjean's 'passion' for Cosette has long been linked with the conflicting feelings Hugo himself had when having to give his daugther away in marriage. All-consuming love so to say, but from a father to a daughter. The jealousy he feels could be an 'unchaste' feeling, after which his strength is denied him. But maybe it rather lies in the declaration he makes to Marius as to his real status, without mentioning his endeavours to save him. He, voluntarily, puts himself in the section of normal men again, thus having to trust normal men and not God in battle, something that will inevitably lead to downfall. His strength indeed withers and by the time Marius realises how much his view was clouded by convention (how unchristian and biased his view is), Jean Valjean is dying. Nevertheless he is still accompanied by his angel (the bishop is implied) who will take him up to heaven.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'âme ne se vide à ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scène VII)

  3. #3
    Ataraxia bazarov's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman View Post
    Seems to me the case in Les Miserables is working in reverse. Jean Valjean (although not a virgin) experiences a religious epiphany in the hands of Bishop Myriel and is blessed with great strength. Then, he uses his strength wisely...to save people like Fauchelevant, instead of abusing it.

    Of course, my theory doesn't work if Jean Valjean was always strong. Am I wrong in believing he showed great strength while in prison working amongst the chain gang?
    No, no, no!
    He wasn't always that strong. He became that strong in prison; remember situation with ship, injured prisoner and escaping with climbing over impossible walls.



    Quote Originally Posted by kiki1982 View Post
    But what with his death? He becomes weak after he has given up Cosette to Marius, but moe importantly after he has declared his status as ex-convict... Jean Valjean's 'passion' for Cosette has long been linked with the conflicting feelings Hugo himself had when having to give his daugther away in marriage.
    He didn't need to be that strong any more. Marius could save her and his job was done. Also, remember epitaph on his tomb stone; it clears away everything.
    I don't think in last days he was that strong, but his nerves and way of life couldn't let him rest any moment while Cosette way jeopardized.

    I've read somewhere some quote, don't know where. It goes ''...they have underestimated strength of a mother fighting for her kids life....''. His strength wasn't in his arms any more; it was in his great love toward Cosette.
    At thunder and tempest, At the world's coldheartedness,
    During times of heavy loss And when you're sad
    The greatest art on earth Is to seem uncomplicatedly gay.

    To get things clear, they have to firstly be very unclear. But if you get them too quickly, you probably got them wrong.
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  4. #4
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Kiki, thanks for your persistence. I hate when I lose my post after I've taken the time to type it out.

    Quote Originally Posted by kiki1982
    It is a popular point in academic circles to see Jean Valjean's epiphany as a reverse-Faust. Faust sold his soul to the devil in order to acquire everything to seduce Gretchen (if that is right...). Jean Valjea does not sell his soul to the devil, but his soul is bought with the candlesticks by bishop Myriel. For the rest of his life Jean Valjean will not be able to do anything bad, not even when it is in his own interest.
    Really? A reverse Faust? So first Valjean lives in sin because he steals bread? And then after he gets his parole, Bishop Myriel buys his soul with the silver candlesticks (silver, like Judas' silver pieces...nice) for God. As you said, if we take Valjean to be a Christian figure (which pretty much everyone does), there may be room for my theory.

    Quote Originally Posted by kiki1982
    As to the virginity of Jean Valjean... I can't recall any passage where it was explicitely implied that he had a girldfriend, wife, or children. The children he stole the bread for in the beginning of his tale, were the children of his sister (his nieces and nephews), not his own.
    AH! I thought he stole the bread for his own children. (I think that's how it's depicted in the musical...and then, after he meets Fantine, we always get the question if Fantine is somehow related to Valjean.) So there's a possibility that Valjean might indeed be virgin. Interesting...

    Quote Originally Posted by bazarov
    He wasn't always that strong. He became that strong in prison; remember situation with ship, injured prisoner and escaping with climbing over impossible walls.
    Yes, but even then there's room for my theory. If you interpret Valjean as a reverse-Faust figure, you could read his time in jail as his period of penance, where he pays for his sin, and where he begins to accept God. That could explain why he gains strength in jail (physically as well as spiritually).

    Quote Originally Posted by kiki1982
    But what with his death? He becomes weak after he has given up Cosette to Marius, but moe importantly after he has declared his status as ex-convict... Jean Valjean's 'passion' for Cosette has long been linked with the conflicting feelings Hugo himself had when having to give his daugther away in marriage. All-consuming love so to say, but from a father to a daughter. The jealousy he feels could be an 'unchaste' feeling, after which his strength is denied him.
    Hmmm, I don't remember this at all, but it's been years since I read the book. I think you're onto something here. Perhaps he loses his strength because of his jealousy of Marius. If, as you say, Valjean's jealousy had tinges of Hugo's potentially sexual love for his daughter, then it could very well be a sinful jealousy.

    Quote Originally Posted by kiki1982
    But maybe it rather lies in the declaration he makes to Marius as to his real status, without mentioning his endeavours to save him. He, voluntarily, puts himself in the section of normal men again, thus having to trust normal men and not God in battle, something that will inevitably lead to downfall.
    I like this idea as well, that Valjean doesn't lose his strength because of sin (that would defeat the message of the book, yes?) but because he voluntarily gives it up; he sacrifices it. I don't quite follow your line of reasoning though. Are you saying Valjean loses his strength because he doesn't tell Marius that he rescued him from the barricades? How would that diminish his strength? Do you consider that a lie (thus a sin) that would then strip Valjean of his God-given strength?

    I think it can be read a slightly different way. Valjean sacrifices his strength to save Marius' life, pushing aside his feelings of jealousy, and giving himself selflessly to make Cosette happy. And after he has made this ultimate sacrifice to no longer keep Cosette for himself, he has no more reason to live, i.e. there is nothing greater he could've done with his life, so he dies with God's blessing.

    Thoughts?

  5. #5
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    First I have to say that Bazarov was right about Jean's strength. He was a Herculean man from the start, but had a lot to thank to the galleys for it.

    The husband of his sister had died (read on Wikipedia French in an article dedicated to Jean Valjean).

    In the French version I read with notes, it puts an explanation on the sentence 'I have come to tell you that I am an old convict'.

    There is a theme going on in the book (and that is why it is called Les Misérables in the plural and that it is not only about Jean Valjean in particular) that there is a class of people anonymous to society and thus they do not have names, or are not recognised: the misérables (Jean Valjean, Marius, Cosette, the Thénardiers, Gavroche, Petit Gervais, Fantine). The frequent name changes of Jean Valjean and number bearing in prison are an illustration of that: Jean Valjean is nothing, his name is of no consequence, the book is eventually nothing being Les Misérables, faded and eventually erased with the space of time (as indicated in the last verses). When Jean Valjean comes to tell Marius that he is an old convict, he takes up his identity again and thus condemns himself, as misérable, to become faded and erased (to die). When he does the same at Arras for example, he only declares his name and will enter into oblivion. In book VII of part V The last draught of the chalice, chapter I The seventh Circle and the eighth Heaven (seventh circle of hell and the eighth heaven: we should ask who is where? Marius in heaven and Jean Valjean in hell or vice versa? At any rate both places are very close to darkness), however he will take up his whole identity, not merely his name.

    The reason why he does not tell Marius he rescued him is because he wants recognition of his identity, of course impossible for a misérable, and not gratitude for what he did.

    In a sense, I can reconcile those ideas with a knight swearing to do the work of God and then laying that off, thus reducing himself back to his original state. Of course for a misérable that means anonymity or in this case death. A misérable cannot have life and an identity. It is one of the two.

    I don't think it is as easily definable as sin and no sin. Hugo worked on it for about 40 years in all, and he had a very sigular perception he put in that work. Other than that, your theory is interesting!
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'âme ne se vide à ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scène VII)

  6. #6
    No, his prison nickname was actually "Jean the jack" because he was so strong he once functioned as a jack, holding up a heavy load with his shoulder until a real jack could hold it up. He was also described as the strongest man in the prison.

    As to the whole chastity thing, it is a very interesting theory. I do not think that is relevant to his strength. He basically has no sex-drive (nor does Javert, in fact), and is described as "never having been ... somebody's lover." He is definitely a virgin. Additionally, Hugo obviously has no issue with sex, as he implies its, for lack of a better word, /holiness/ in relation to Marius and Cosette, so it wouldn't make sense for Jean to possibly be punished for having sex, though he never really seems to think about it anyway - it doesn't even seem to be part of his character, which is one of the reasons Jean is less realistic than, say, Atticus Finch. (But don't get me started on him. My hypothetical children are going to be named Jean and Atticus respectively.)

    However, my conjectures fall short in that I have no alternative to offer. My first thought is that Hugo gave Jean enormous strength for the sole purpose of making him even more badass, which, while possible, seems unlikely. I believe that part of Hugo's purpose in writing Les Mis was to create an example of behavior and morality through Jean Valjean. Therefore, maybe Jean was given great power to demonstrate the proper use of it: rather than abusing it, which would have been way easier, he uses it to help people. You know, "With great power, comes great responsibility." (Man, I love it when modern pop culture can tie into classical stuff. Oh! *smacks forehead* I should have put /that/ in my essay.)
    Maybe both.

    (Also, I love your username.)

  7. #7
    A thought just brushes me while reading this thread. Jean Valjeans strength makes his gentleness more pronounced.
    He obviously was strong from the beginning on, maybe even when he was still pruning the trees and he was known in prison for his strength, that's how Javert knows him afterwards.
    And a strong man like him who chooses to be bad would be very bad, indeed. He'd be a human bullet.,
    After the bishop takes him in (to his house and his love for God) Valjean isn't transformed immediately. He is able to rob the little Gervasius although half in trance and without really noticing, But he estimates this deed as sinful afterwards and tries to repay any Savoyard he meets for what he did to little Gervasius. He becomes a good man, he works on it, he chooses this path with all the inner strength he has that matches his outer one.
    Imagine a man of herculean strength softly picking up a robin from a frozen sill. Wouldn't it look much more out of the expected picture than an artistic type with fine features doing that?
    I think Hugo works out the contrast of things in this. Like Thénardier who seems to be a hero to Marius and contradicts this picture blatantly. or like Gavroche the street urchin who#s a poet in disguise. Things are never what they seem to be at the first glance and neither are people.

    I wouldn't connect the medieval image of strength and virginity to this, it's too simple for our - and Hugo's - times. But even Sir Lancelot was able to see the grail after falling into sin (with Guinevere) by the grace of God and that's certainly a concept Hugo holds on to.

  8. #8
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    Yes. How did Scott say it through the words of King Richard the Lionhearted to Robin Hood?

    '[...] and I hold [my hand] honoured by being clasped with yours. For he that does good, having the unlimited power to do evil, deserves praise not only for the good which he performs, but for the evil which he forbears.' (from Ivanhoe)
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'âme ne se vide à ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scène VII)

  9. #9
    I totally agree with Kemathenga. And I was very excited to finally find a good explanation for Jean's strength. It makes so much sense. I had simply settled with assuming Jean's strength simply makes him cooler. But Hugo was in fact a master of contrast. Just look at Jean and Javert.
    Additionally, there is even a point in the novel when Jean is called a "gentle bear," and the imagery and concept of his huge rough hand gently taking Cosette's tiny one is far more effective because of it. (Most likely my favorite part of the novel.)
    I also love the quote kiki1982 used. It kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier. Save for Ivanhoe being rather higher-brow than Spiderman. (I stand by it nonetheless.)

  10. #10
    Jethro BienvenuJDC's Avatar
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    In the study of the types and anti-types (as is used in the Bible), a type is a physical model of that which is also spiritual. Valjean's physical strength is just a model to the spiritual strength that he possesses. Although I am not making any reference to the religious spirit, it is ironic that his 'spirit' is born in the house of the bishop of Digne, M. Myriel. The single act by this one that the people call Bienvenu turned the spiritual strength that had been seen in his immense hatred toward man into love and compassion. This is the first time that we see Jean Valjean go through a MAJOR emotional/spiritual struggle...a struggle even greater than any of his physical feats. After his confrontation with Petit Gervais (the real confrontation is with himself), Jean Valjean makes an intense change in his life. Changing oneself takes an immense amount of strength. Valjean's second episode with strength occurred in the court when he exposed his true identity. Another example of his great spiritual strength.
    Les Miserables,
    Volume 1, Fifth Book, Chapter 3
    Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.

  11. #11
    I agree with you, Bienvenu, and isn't it another example of this use of contrast Hugo excells in that the great spiritual strength Valjean possesses does not derive naturally from his upbringing? The medieval saints mostly were depicted with their saintity sort of being foreshadowed at birth or at least early childhood. They were meant to be holy and to this day when the catholic church investigates a person's life in order to proclaim him, or her a saint officially the upbringing and, so to speak, preparation of holiness is of importance. TRue to what St. Thomas Aquinas called "gratia supponit naturam".
    It is like this in Valjean - but only at second glance. What Javert takes to be his nature is openly opposed to holiness. His youth is totally deprived of opportunities to reveal a character at all, fate makes him the caregiver for his sister's children, and even after the meeting with the bishop his spiritual strength grows and develops very slowly, almost softly from the great physical strength already obvious for the eyes of the world.
    Hugo and Valjean himself describe the final struggle, whether to give up Cosette and reveal himself to Marius, as the topmost test. Everything before was nothing. The greatest strength revealed at the very end in the person of an already frail and aging man whose physical strength is waning at the same time as his spiritual is reaching its peek. Amazing.

  12. #12
    Tralfamadorian Big Dante's Avatar
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    As stated before his strength emphasises how gentle his character has become. He could easily avenge himself and continue down the path of crime like he was open his release from prison. This also relates to the stereotype of a frightening criminal who has size and strength. When looking for a place to stay upon his release his size along with the yellow form put people off sheltering him. It also symbolises the great strength he shows in character and spirit throughout Les Miserables as the feats he performs would not be realistic by a person of small stature. Climbing the wall to escape Javert and carrying Marius through the sewers are some examples. Jean Valjean's strength of character and physical presence goes with Javert's strength in his cunning ways and persistance.

  13. #13
    Hello.

    First of all, Valjean is definitely a virgin. Indeed, it is mentioned in the book, but also I have read that in some comments from the French edition that I have.

    Another thing: Valjean has always been strong, he did'nt get that strenght in prison.

    And finally, as I have read, some aspects of his character are based on Vidocq, the famous criminal and police chief. Vidocq was very strong himself, and the incident where Valjean saves Champmathieu from under the cart is a real fact that Vidocq lived. So maybe it is just that Valjean is strong because Vidocq was.

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