Chapter 1 Valjean had “fallen from the sky” into this convent. Failing to sleep, he thinks about his next steps: he cannot return to Paris at large. Meanwhile, Fauchelevent doesn’t sleep either, asking himself how Valjean scaled the walls, and who the child is. He’d heard nothing about Madeleine’s later fate, and he assumes he’s become bankrupt. He asks himself if he would still save him if Valjean was an assassin, and he decides he would.
The narrator finally returns to the main plot, even as the previous books are meant to provoke our comparison with Valjean’s own situation and history. Fauchelevent is forced to ask himself some difficult questions, and ultimately decides that since Madeleine saved his life, few things will challenge his loyalty.
Fauchelevent stays up all night thinking about how he’ll keep Madeleine in the convent. In the morning, he says the two must not leave the room. One of the nuns is dying, he says, so the community is in confusion. As he speaks, a bell tolls and Fauchelevent says that the nun is dead. He cautions Valjean that the girls in the school must not see him, or they’ll shriek at the presence of a man. In order to return here safely, he says, Valjean and Cosette must first leave—the nuns will not accepting him “falling from the sky.” Fauchelevent can easily go out with Cosette in his basket, who can stay with his friend for the night. Valjean’s case will be more complicated.
Here, the peculiar history and rules of the convent come to bear on the specific situation of Valjean and Cosette, but Fauchelevent is able to negotiate these requirements with greater familiarity. While Fauchelevent has “accepted” Valjean and Cosette apparently falling from the sky, he knows that in order to save them and return Valjean’s favor, he’ll need to construct some kind of subterfuge to make sure they’re allowed to stay.
Fauchelevent says that part of his duty is to nail up the coffin once a nun has died, before the undertakers fetch the coffin and bring it to the cemetery. A few peals of the bell mean that the prioress is calling for Fauchelevent, and he hurries out.
Fauchelevent leaves Valjean without either of them having settled upon a plan to sneak Valjean out of the convent (another kind of escape that recalls Valjean’s earlier ones).
Chapter 2 Fauchelevent, trembling, asks to make a request to the prioress. In his two years, he had learned much about the daily workings of the convent, but had largely kept quiet and didn’t abuse his knowledge. He begins to talk about his age and infirmities, finally saying that he has a brother, who might be permitted to come live with and help him, while his daughter might be able to attend school and become a nun someday. The prioress leaves him to speak with the other mothers.
Fauchelevent is clearly not as arrogant or as smooth a talker as Thenardier, for instance, and he struggles to ask for a favor from the head of the entire convent. But he’s committed to saving Valjean’s life just like Valjean did for him. He even goes so far as to suggest that Cosette might be folded into the convent’s activities and training herself.
Chapter 3 The prioress returns, and begins telling Fauchelevent about the holiness of the nun, Mother Crucifixion, who has just died. Her last wish was to be buried in the vault under the altar. This is a forbidden task, but the prioress says that it’s forbidden by men, not God, and she cites a number of cases in which this kind of burial was allowed. Finally, Fauchelevent, who has been uneasy at this speech, says he will obey. He must do it in absolute secrecy that night. The prioress asks what is to be done with the coffin, since the undertakers must not know that there is no one in it. He says he will pile earth into it. The prioress says she is pleased with him, and asks him to fetch his brother and his daughter the next day.
The prioress’ change of topic initially seems to be a non sequitur, but soon it becomes clear that she’s looking for a favor of her own in return. Just as Fauchelevent is wary of asking too much from the prioress, he is not eager to flout the standards that he’s spent two years learning, for he has accepted the convent’s regulations as holy and necessary. The narrator thus obliquely suggests the possible hypocrisy of the convent’s inhabitants, even while showing how Fauchelevent can benefit from it.
Chapter 4 As Fauchelevent enters his room, Valjean is explaining to Cosette how to hide and be silent in the basket. Fauchelevent frets about how to get Valjean out, and then, sitting down, mutters to himself about his other task: how putting earth in the coffin won’t do, since it will move around. He explains his task to Valjean, and Valjean says he should put another body in the coffin—his own. Fauchelevent springs up from his chair, stunned at the idea. Valjean asks for a few details about the coffin, determining how he could sneak into the “dead-room” that night until the hearse comes for the coffin tomorrow.
While kindhearted and well-intentioned, Fauchelevent lacks the plotter’s wit and scheming mind, which is something that also might be able to characterize the criminal. Valjean, though he’s attempted to rid himself of this mentality, hasn’t succeeded, and here he once again draws upon these remnants of his past in order to attempt to achieve a new life for himself and for Cosette.
Valjean is far more used to escapes like this than Fauchelevent. He’s only troubled by what will happen at the cemetery. But Fauchelevent says the grave-digger, Father Mestienne, is a drunkard. He’ll suggest Father Mestienne go drink, and Fauchelevent will dig Valjean out. All will go well, says Valjean. If it doesn’t, says Fauchelevent, it would be terrible.
The plan elaborated by Valjean and Fauchelevent is, as Hugo humorously has Fauchelevent suggest, far from air-tight. But having already feigned his own death and escaped from his hunters multiple times, Valjean feels himself to be up for the task.
Chapter 5 The next day a hearse travels down the Boulevard de Maine to the Vaugirard cemetery, which has a corner staked out for the nuns. At sundown, the gates swing shut; the only way to get out is through the grave-digger’s card, which he drops in the porter’s box (or else calls out his name, but pays a fine). After 1830, the Mont-Parnasse cemetery would replace this cemetery. At this point, it’s falling into disuse.
Again the narrator calls attention to how much Paris has changed since the time of the novel’s setting. One aspect of this past is the odd ritual of the grave-digger’s card and the porter (a tradition that nevertheless will be useful for the plot).
The burial of Mother Crucifixion, Cosette’s exit, and Valjean’s introduction into the dead-room have all gone off with no problem. At the cemetery, Fauchelevent watches a stranger arrive behind the hearse, who says he’s the grave-digger. Father Mestienne is dead, he says. Fauchelevent stammers feebly that it isn’t possible, but the man simply introduces himself as Gribier. Fauchelevent suggests they get a drink, but Gribier says he never drinks, since he must support his children. As Fauchelevent follows Gribier, he doesn’t think of offering to pay for the drink—Mestienne always did so.
It’s only at the cemetery itself that the plan painstakingly set out by Valjean and Fauchelevent begins to unravel. This part of the plan had hinged on Father Mestienne’s vice, and ironically, it is now the upstanding morality of Father Gribier that might signal the downfall of Valjean. With this the narrator implicitly suggests that some “vices” are far more harmful and nefarious than others—like drinking.
Chapter 6 Meanwhile, Valjean is following along silently in the coffin, until he feels hands seize it and lower it down into the hole. A voice pronounces Latin words above him, and then he hears something like retreating footsteps. Suddenly, he begins to hear shovelfuls of earth begin to fall. He passes out.
Suddenly the pretend burial—so carefully plotted out by Fauchelevent and Valjean—is replaced by an unnerving reality, seeming to fulfill in a terrifying way the death feigned by Valjean earlier.
Chapter 7 As Fauchelevent had seen the gravedigger grasp the shovel, he had finally offered to pay for a drink. The gravedigger cursed at him and began to shovel earth onto the coffin. Fauchelevent grabbed his arm and continued to beg him. Gribier finally said he’d do so but only after he finished. Suddenly, Fauchelevent caught a glimpse of the grave-digger’s card in Gribier’s pocket. He stealthily seized it without Gribier noticing, and then asked if Gribier had his card, as the sun was setting. Realizing he didn’t, Gribier turned green, especially as Fauchelevent noted there was a 15-franc fine. Fauchelevent suggested he rush home and get his card, then bury the corpse. Gribier had raced away.
The narrator rewinds temporally. He had described Valjean’s experience in a vivid, present-tense depiction, and now fills in the gaps to explain how Valjean had found himself in such a situation. Only after Valjean passes out does Fauchelevent, in desperation, concoct a new plan, taking advantage of Gribier’s clearly painstaking, penny-pinching character—and the archaic regulations of old Paris’s graveyards—to ensure that Valjean won’t be buried alive.
Now Fauchelevent quietly calls to Madeleine, but hears nothing. He seizes his handle and pries open the lid of the coffin, seeing Valjean’s pallid face. Believing him dead, Fauchelevent begins to sob, asking Madeleine to forgive him. He bends over the coffin: Valjean’s eyes open and look at him. Fauchelevent grows pale with fear and stares back, but then realizes he’s alive, and had merely fainted.
This scene depicts a disorienting amalgamation of life and death, acting and reality, as Valjean’s fake burial seems to become real, and then his apparent death is replaced by the realization that he is, in fact, alive. Fauchelevent has managed to repay his debt.
The two hurry out of the cemetery. Fauchelevent stops at Gribier’s home, a small, wretched garret, to give back his shovel, pick, and card. Gribier thanks him and says next time he’ll pay for the drinks.
The narrator moves from a description of terror and uncertainty to a lighthearted tone as the chapter and the scene come to a close.
Chapter 8 Valjean and Cosette arrive at No. 62 Rue Petit-Picpus that night. Cosette, who had been hidden with Fauchelevent’s friend, had been terrified all day, but upon seeing Valjean again she grows calm. The prioress waits for them, and Fauchelevent introduces the two as his brother, Ultime, and niece. The prioress says to another nun that Cosette will grow up ugly. She welcomes them inside: plain girls are more likely to want to stay in a convent. The convent is grateful to Fauchelevent, who is known even among the archbishops as an excellent gardener and holy man.
Finally, the complex and nearly failed scheme of Fauchelevent and Valjean yields its ultimate goal of reinserting Valjean and Cosette right back into the place they’d just left. As has happened before at the Thenardiers, Cosette isn’t treated by the nun as a full person whose feelings might be bruised, but instead as a possible new enlistment for the convent.
Chapter 9 Cosette begins to settle in happily. The nuns don’t notice how only the elder Fauchelevent ever goes outside on errands—not his supposed brother. Valjean lives and works in the old hut at the end of the garden. Cosette may pass one hour with him every day. She begins to laugh and smile for the first time. The convent prevents Valjean from descending back into darkness. It is another place of captivity, but this is imposed while the other voluntarily embraced. In prison, people are bound by chains and in the convent they are chained by faith. Valjean comes to ask himself what sins they are paying for, and concludes that it’s the sins of others.
The narrator elaborates on a deeply ambivalent perspective on the convent. By comparing it to a prison, he suggests that it is susceptible to the same kinds of misery and sorrow that a prison’s confinement promotes, but he also suggests that voluntary confinement might allow for redemption in a way that enforced confinement cannot. The apparent happiness of Valjean and Cosette underlines this redemptive possibility.
Thinking on the voluntary sequestration of the cloister, Valjean’s pride vanishes, and he grows grateful for the opportunity to again try to be good and kind. In this way many years pass.
Valjean himself comes to recognize what the narrator has already pointed out—that the convent might give him a chance to redeem himself.