The Underworld

Hugo's Jean Valjean: Man on the Run.


The System

Famous Crime






"'I am a galley-slave --a convict-- I am just from the galleys.' He
drew from his pocket a large sheet of yellow paper, which he
unfolded. 'There is my passport, yellow as you see. That is
enough to have me kicked out wherever I go. Will you read
it? is what they have put in the passport: 'Jean Valjean,
a liberated convict... has been nineteen years in the galleys;
five for burglary; fourteen years for having attempted four
times to escape. This man is very dangerous.' There you have

(Hugo, 64)

(Illustration from Les Miserables)

Jean Valjean, AKA: M. Madeleine, AKA M. Leblanc. Man of middle height, quite stout, in his late forties. Last seen wearing a grey blouse, yellow shirt and blue trousers, very ragged. Also has a bulky knapsack and leather cap. He is wanted for questioning concerning the robbery of a young chimney-sweep on the open road last week. Suspect has a prior record, 19 years in the galleys for theft and repeated escape. Valjean is brutal and dangerous, thought to be armed with a large, knotted stick. If you encounter a traveler fitting the above description please notify the local authorities immediately. (Characteristics from Hugo, p.52)

What began as a desperate attempt to steal a loaf of bread for his sister's children became a lifelong brand of guilt upon Jean Valjean's head. News of his coming often proceeds his arrival in a town, and he comes only to find closed -locked- doors. We cannot imagine the difficulty of reentering society after nineteen years of hard labor and deprivation, and in this context Valjean's ascent to mayor and millionaire is extraordinary.

Constant pursuit by the infamous Javert complicated the attempts of Valjean to lead a better life. In real life, a great criminal found a solution to this race against the law. After years of false identities, arrests and escapes, Vidocq turned himself in to the police, and persuaded them to let him work as an informer.

Vidocq also published memoirs that detailed fantastic (and often embellished) adventures of the "great detective" Vidocq's encounters with the underworld. Remnants of this type of literature made their way into Valjean's character in scenes like the wall scaling at the convent and Valjean's escape by live burial. (Valjean's brilliant courtroom speech is reminiscent of Lacenaire's famous trial.)