Chapter 1 The narrator cautions the reader not to blame Marius, who has done what he thought just. He decides not to spend any of the 600,000 francs before learning their origin. Cosette, meanwhile, remains at heart attached to Valjean. She sometimes exclaims at his long absence to Marius, but she loves her husband even more, and allows him to draw her away from Valjean, as is normal for youth against old age.
Even after describing Valjean’s misery, the narrator suggests that it is difficult to know exactly what justice entails, so Marius, just like Valjean himself, should not be condemned. It’s once again suggested that love can actually, in many cases, lead to a kind of thoughtlessness.
Chapter 2 One day, Valjean returns from his short walk, and doesn’t leave his apartment the next day. Then he doesn’t leave his bed. The porter asks him to eat something, but he fails to. She tells her husband that it’s a shame; he’s a kind old man. She calls a doctor and sends him to Valjean. When he departs, he tells the porter that the man seems to have lost someone dear to him. People may die of that; as well as the porter’s visits, someone else must come.
Here, amid a general lack of care or compassion for a forgotten old man, the porter does show some of these qualities by attempting to check up on Valjean. As often happens in the novel, moral or emotional ailments get mapped onto and reflected by physical ailments, and vice versa, as is shown by Valjean’s illness.
Chapter 3 One evening, Valjean gains the strength to sit up in bed, fetch the valise, and spread Cosette’s small outfit out on the bed. He catches sight of himself in the mirror and doesn’t recognize his reflection. He’s 80, and looks it; he would have looked 50 several months before. He has a fainting fit, and when he regains consciousness he begins painfully to compose a letter. He writes to Cosette that her husband was right to make him understand that he ought to go away, but that Marius had committed a slight error. He explains his invention of making wax cheaply so as to imitate expensive jet—the source of his fortune. He puts down his pen and exclaims how frightful it would be to die without seeing her. At that moment there’s a knock at the door.
Just as he’d done before in making his confession to Marius, Valjean reminds himself of the path he’s tread with Cosette—a path that had brought him the only happiness he’s known, but also one that seemed to suggest progress towards a redemption which now has proved illusory. Still, before dying, Valjean’s main thoughts have to deal with how to ensure that Marius doesn’t throw away the money that Valjean has safely stashed away for Cosette, even if it means he has to reveal one more element of his past.
Chapter 4 That evening, Marius is leaving the table when Basque hands him a letter from someone in the antechamber. The letter smells of tobacco and the handwriting recalls the Jondrette garret to Marius. Struck by the fateful coincidence, he breaks the seal and reads that the writer has a secret about an individual that concerns him, and he will tell Marius why he must drive out a criminal individual from his household. The letter is signed “Thenard.” Marius tells Basque to bring him in, but the man is a stranger, and wears a coat that had not been made for him.
The letter might recall to us the various letters written by Thenardier and dispatched to Eponine and Azelma, asking in sanctimonious tones for donations from any wealthy man in Paris whom he could find. By now, we can probably suspect that even if the man looks like a stranger, this is probably one more disguise out of many, as Thenardier is adept at such ruses.
The narrator makes a slight digression: at this time, there is a man who lives near the Arsenal who specializes in changing villains into honest men (for a brief period), through a costume that renders the wearer respectable-looking. It’s one of these suits that the visitor is wearing. Marius asks what the man wants, and he says he believes he saw the Baron at several fashionable dinner parties. He says he’d like to go and establish himself in America. He’ll begin his secret for free: there is a thief and assassin living in his home, whose name is Jean Valjean—an ex-convict. Marius says coldly that he knows it.
Not only does Thenardier (we assume) adopt a “respectable-looking” costume, but he also takes on the disguise of another character, suggesting that he and Marius come from the same social circle. However, the man pretty quickly abandons this ruse to reveal the real reason he’s come to see Marius, tempting him with a “free” part of his secret so as to wrangle more money out of him.
The stranger grows incensed, and finally says he will sell the secret about Valjean’s fortune. But Marius says he knows this as well. He calls the man “Thenardier.” He says the man is also known under a number of names, and once kept an inn at Montfermeil. Thenardier denies it, and Marius says he is a rascal. He flings a 500-franc note at Thenardier, who, surprised, finally takes off his coat, adjusts his accent, and looks at Marius for the first time—without recognizing him, as he’d never seen him before.
It’s easy to forget that while Marius is familiar with Thenardier by name and face (initially by gazing through the peephole that separated their garrets), the latter has never really met Marius. In the sewers he was mainly concerned with getting money out of Valjean, and not paying attention to the supposedly dead Marius.
Thenardier had slowly grasped a good deal of information, guessing who the man in the sewers had been, finding out his name and that Madame Pontmercy was really Cosette. Marius says that he’ll reveal the other “secrets.” In 1822, a man named M. Madeleine made the fortune of a whole city and had founded hospitals, opened schools, and done good throughout the town. After being elected mayor, a secret from his past was revealed by a liberated convict, who denounced him and had him arrested. This convict, Valjean, slipped away to Paris and, through a false signature, robbed Madeleine of over half a million francs. In addition, Valjean killed the police inspector Javert — Marius witnessed it.
Marius’s story is somewhat confusing to the reader, who knows that some of it is true, some exaggerated, and some wholly fabricated, so we are forced to sort out which is which. The ways in which such rumors travel seems to mimic the way riots and revolt spread around Paris, according to the narrator. Marius’s version of the story helps to explain why he continues to condemn Valjean even while assuming that he’s learned all about the man, having made his own investigations into Valjean’s past.
Thenardier glares at Marius as though a conquered man, but then smiles. He says that they’re on the wrong track. First, Valjean didn’t rob Madeleine—they are the same person. Second, Javert himself killed Javert. He draws several newspapers, yellow and faded, from his pockets. One, from 1823, establishes the identity of Madeleine and Valjean; another, from June 1832, announces the suicide o Javert. Suddenly, Valjean grows grand in Marius’s eyes, and he cries out with joy, saying he’s a hero.
Between Marius’s and Thenardier’s partial truths, Marius begins to be able to piece together what really happened. Thenardier’s true claim that Madeleine is Valjean clears him of that crime in Marius’s eyes, and the suicide of Javert, in turn, clears Valjean of another crime—one which Marius, of course, didn’t actually “witness.”
But Thenardier exclaims that Valjean is, in fact, an assassin and thief. Marius grows distraught once again, as Thenardier makes himself comfortable. On June 6, 1832, he says, a man was in the Grand Sewer of Paris to conceal himself, possessing a key to the entrance. The man heard a noise in the sewer, and saw another man, an ex-convict, dragging a corpse on his shoulder. The ex-convict, a strong, burly man, had demanded the key, and the first man found himself forced to open the entrance for him. However, this man tore off some of the assassinated man’s coat so that he could trace him later on. Thenardier now takes out a strip of cloth from his pocket. Marius springs to his feet, staring at the fragment. He fumbles through a cupboard by his side, takes out an old black coat covered with blood, and places the strip perfectly to complete the coat. Thenardier is petrified.
Finally, the mystery that Marius has been attempting to solve is illuminated—and through the words of the man whom Marius has been hunting down for months. Thenardier’s partial knowledge fills in the gaps of what Marius already knows. With the ripped-off piece of cloth serving as Marius’s evidence (shocking Thenardier, who had thought it was evidence for himself), Marius has enacted a kind of citizen’s trial, and now fully understands his error in condemning Valjean, and the injustice of Valjean’s status in his family as well as in society.
Marius begins to shout that Thenardier is a liar and villain—he wanted to ruin Valjean but only glorified him. Marius flings 1,000 francs at Thenardier and tells him to get out of there. Two days later, the narrator notes, Thenardier leaves for America under a false name with his daughter Azelma. There he changes little, and becomes a slave-dealer.
By flinging money at Thenardier, Marius fulfills his vow to his father even while acknowledging Thenardier’s despicable morals. That Thenardier becomes a slave-dealer underlines his status in the novel as the only unequivocally evil character.
Marius rushes out to the garden and cries to Cosette that they must call a carriage. She thinks he’s gone mad, but follows him, joyful once he utters Valjean’s address. Marius tells Cosette that Valjean went to the barricade to save him, and that he saved Cosette too; Marius has been monstrously ungrateful. Gavroche must have delivered his letter to Valjean, not to Cosette. Cosette doesn’t understand a word of this.
Once again, Cosette is portrayed as joyful and good, but also somewhat simple-minded, unable to grasp the complexities of the relationships between her, Marius, and Valjean. Marius continues to discover his mistakes in condemning Valjean.
Chapter 5 Valjean feebly calls out that the knocker may enter. Cosette and Marius rush into the room. Valjean is overwhelmed, stammering that he thought he’d never see her again. He says that she must forgive him, then, and Marius as well. Marius cries that Valjean is asking his forgiveness, after having saved him, the ingrate, at the barricade and in the sewers. Valjean tells him to be quiet, not to tell all that. Marius says that Valjean did not tell the whole truth, but Valjean replies that Marius was in the right for sending him away. Tomorrow, Marius says, Valjean will come home; Cosette exclaims that she could not be happier for “father” to live with them.
After a flashback to explain why someone is knocking at Valjean’s door, we now return to his bedside. Marius had struggled to forgive Valjean for his identity as an ex-convict, but now Marius understands that it is he who must ask for forgiveness. Valjean, however, is still unable to fully forgive himself, believing that he deserves the condemnation of others, and that he can never be fully redeemed for his past wrongs—even though he is quick to forgive others.
Valjean says that it would certainly be charming to live together, but it is a pity. He is going to die shortly, he says, but that is nothing—God knows what is needed better than humans do. He blesses Cosette and Marius. At that moment, the doctor enters and feels Valjean’s pulse. He murmurs that it must have been Cosette and Marius that Valjean wanted, but he whispers to Marius that it is too late.
Although Marius now knows just how mistaken he was, it is as if he is still being punished for choosing judgment over mercy, and earthly justice over divine justice. However, he has at least arrived in time to accompany Valjean in his last moments, and to ask Valjean to forgive him.
Valjean rises to his feet, detaches a small crucifix from the wall, and lays it next to his bed. Cosette sobs, and cries that they have found him too soon only to lose him again. Valjean kisses Cosette’s sleeve and says that what has caused him pain is that they have not touched the money that really belongs to them, and he again explains the industrial process he invented. The porter slips upstairs and asks if Valjean would like a priest, but Valjean says he’s had one. He points above his head, and the narrator notes that the Bishop may well have been present.
At the moments before his death, all Valjean can think about is how to ensure that Cosette will live comfortably after he’s gone. This leads him to try to convince Marius that the funds are unblemished. By naming the Bishop, the narrator suggests that Valjean has come full circle from his initial moment of transformation and redemption.
Valjean’s breath grows intermittent, and he beckons to Cosette and to Marius, exclaiming how good it is to die like this, surrounding by love and family. He points to the candlesticks on the chimney, hoping that the person who gave them to him is pleased with what he could do. He asks Cosette if she remembers Montfermeil, the first time he touched her hand, and the doll that he gave her. He asks her to forgive the Thenardiers, who were wicked, and he tells her the name of her mother, Fantine, and asks her to remember that name. He tells her to come nearer, and that he is about to die happy. Cosette grasps his hand. Valjean looks skyward, and dies.
For Valjean, the Bishop’s candlesticks have remained a symbol of his former life, but also of his commitment to changing himself and his life. Together with his love for Cosette, they are some of the last things he thinks about before dying. In this dramatic final scene, Valjean’s claim that he is dying happy suggests that it is only at the moment of his death that he feels truly redeemed for all he has done in his past, or at least hopes he can be forgiven.
Chapter 6 The narrator takes us to the Père-Lachaise cemetery, where, in a deserted corner, where few people travel, lies a plain stone. No name is to be read there, but someone long ago had written a few lines of French verse in pencil, beginning “He sleeps. Although his fate was very strange, he lived” and ending, “as the night comes when day is gone.”
By placing Valjean’s grave in an unknown corner of the cemetery, Hugo suggests that greatness is found not in historical glory but also in the small lives and experiences of ordinary people, even if they are to be forgotten by society at large.