Chapter 1 On February 17th, Basque opens the door to see Fauchelevent, who asks for the Baron (Marius’s new title, the title of his father). He asks that Basque not mention his name—he wants it to be a surprise. Valjean waits in the drawing room, which is still in disorder from the wedding party. Marius is delighted to see Fauchelevent, and tells him to stay in his chamber here. They’ll all live together, he says.
Following Valjean’s excruciating internal conflict between his desires and his conscience, we’re now thrust back into an entirely different atmosphere, in which Marius is still almost giddy at his newfound happiness and love for his new wife.
Valjean interrupts Marius and says he must tell him something: he is an ex-convict. There is nothing the matter with his hand, he says, untying the bandage: he did not want to commit forgery by signing the wrong name to the marriage document. Marius stammers a response, and Valjean calmly states that he was in the galleys for 19 years for theft, then condemned to life for a second offense. Marius retreats in horror, and Valjean, speaking slowly, tells him to believe he is not Cosette’s father but a peasant of Faverolles, whose name is Jean Valjean. Marius looks at him and recognizes his icy sincerity. He says he believes him.
Valjean makes no attempt to soften the blow—once he has decided to reveal his past and undo his disguise, he sees no way of easing the pain of this revelation. And yet Valjean does not reveal the entire truth at this moment either. He doesn’t talk about his status as benevolent mayor of M.-sur-M., or his reputation as the poor man who gives alms, but instead he focuses solely on his guilt and responsibility as a twice-sentenced ex-convict.
Valjean tells Marius that Cosette was an orphan, and she needed him. He fulfilled this duty while he could, but now she is “Madame Pontmercy,” and he has only to make the 600,000-franc restitution and acquaint Marius with who he really is. Marius is stupefied and asks Valjean why he hasn’t kept this secret, since he apparently is not being pursued—there must be another motive. Valjean slowly answers that it’s a strange motive, one of honesty. It was tempting to embrace this new family and live with the married couple, but he belongs to no family, not even this one. He is left outside, and when he gave Cosette in marriage, all inklings of family ended. He could lie when it was for her, but now that it would be for himself, he cannot. Everything would have been arranged, and no one hurt, if he’d kept the name Fauchelevent (one given to him by Fauchelevent himself out of gratitude)—except his own soul.
It’s interesting that one of Marius’s first reactions is one of surprise—surprise that Valjean hasn’t taken the opportunity to conceal his past for as long as he could. Doing this would mean a morality system according to which what is unknown cannot be judged. But a system of justice that includes God’s will has to take into account the existence of an all-knowing being, one from whom nothing can be concealed. Having accepted this worldview, Valjean can only choose honesty as the morally justifiable option. Valjean also explains how he’s justified his various concealments and lies over the past few years as benefiting Cosette, not only himself.
Valjean says that there is a silence that lies, a kind of cowardice and treason that would have made their entire existence a lie. He is pursued and denounced, he says—by himself. And now that Marius despises him, he can respect himself as an honest man. He pauses, then says that it is dishonest to take another’s name. While he once stole a loaf of bread to live, today, in order to live, he will not steal a name. Both men are silent. Valjean then asks Marius to imagine if he might continue to conceal his identity, and then one day at the theater a policeman might shout “Jean Valjean,” and his mask would be torn off.
Valjean develops an interesting perspective on the justifiability of lies and silence, distinguishing lies that are in the service of others (think of Sister Simplice’s lie to Javert) and ones that are allied instead to selfishness and cowardice. Subsequently, Valjean adds a pragmatic element to his desire to explain himself, suggesting that Cosette and Marius will never truly be free with the threat of Valjean’s discovery still alive.
Marius says he will ask his grandfather’s friends to attain Valjean’s pardon, but Valjean says he is supposed to be dead. The only pardon he needs is that of conscience. At that moment, Cosette enters, saying that they must be talking of politics. She prattles on happily, and Marius asks her to leave, as they’re discussing business, but she says she won’t be bored. She asks her father to kiss her, and he does so, looking pale. She sits down and announces that she’ll stay. Marius gravely says that it’s impossible, and finally she marches out of the room.
Valjean distinguishes official forgiveness, “pardon,” from what he considers to be true forgiveness, or freedom from the burden of conscience. As Cosette enters, her carefree, cheerful attitude contrasts with the grave, somber discussion between Marius and Valjean, and also constitutes a reminder of the blissful happiness that Valjean is hoping to maintain for Cosette by sacrificing himself.
When the door is shut, Marius shakes his head, saying “Poor Cosette, when she finds out…” Valjean trembles and says he hadn’t thought that he would tell Cosette. He begins to sob. Marius reassures him that he’ll keep his secret. Valjean asks if Marius thinks he should see Cosette any more. Marius answers that it would be better not to. Valjean murmurs agreement, and turns to go. Suddenly, he turns around, livid, and says all he wants is to go to see her—this is why he’s confessed all. If Marius permits it, he’ll come every so often, as rarely as Marius pleases, at night, perhaps, to be safer. Marius says he may come every evening.
This back-and-forth shows how both Marius and Valjean struggle between their own desires and wanting to sacrifice something for the greater good. Marius is thunderstruck by Valjean’s confession, but at the last moment seems to take pity on him by allowing Valjean to continue to visit Cosette, while Valjean can’t help but cling to this, the last piece of happiness left in his life.
Chapter 2 Marius struggles to accept this new knowledge, and wonders if he hasn’t been imprudent. He admits to himself that he never even mentioned the Gorbeau hovel affair to Cosette, nor made any inquiries about the family: he’d only had time for love. He wonders if it would have changed anything had he discovered Valjean was a convict, and he realizes he wouldn’t have loved her any less. Still, Valjean revealed his situation to him, which nothing forced him to do, so his conscience may well be awakening. As Fauchelevent, Marius had distrusted him, but as Valjean, he now seems sincere.
As Marius mentally traverses the mysteries that he’d pushed aside, he has to acknowledge that a number of elements about Cosette’s family life never added up, and that love, in this case, ended up being an accomplice to Valjean’s concealment. Marius begins to contemplate Valjean’s decisions, attempting to judge him with as much fairness as he can muster, as he decides whether or not Valjean deserves forgiveness.
Then Marius asks himself why Valjean came to the barricade, and he recalls Valjean dragging Javert down the street, as well as the pistol shot. Marius asks himself how it was that crime and innocence, in the form of Valjean and Cosette, could have coexisted for so long—the monster shadowing the angel. Marius realizes how little man can know of God’s tools and means. But he continues to return to what he knows: Valjean is a convict, the lowest rung of the social ladder. Marius has not yet questioned this ladder, and so Valjean appears repulsive to him. Marius had not dared to ask him further, probing questions, because he was afraid that this darkness would cast a shadow onto his life with Cosette. So now he shuts his eyes to Valjean. Meanwhile, though, he begins to ask Cosette more about her childhood, and learns that by all accounts, Valjean was nothing but good to her.
We’re asked to recall the scene at the barricades, where the narration allows a gulf of dramatic irony to open up between what Marius assumes (that Valjean killed Javert) and what the reader knows. Marius is not entirely convinced that he should condemn Valjean, especially given other signs of the man’s goodness to Cosette and others. But he—like Cosette when she shuddered at the sight of the convicts marching to the galleys—is a “regular” member of society in that he assumes convicts are in prison for a reason, are there justly, and should be socially condemned as a result.