So Jean Valjean has been a slave at hard labor in the French Prison system for 19 years. Outside the walls of the prison system, the social safety net is pretty much non-existent, and whole families are permitted to starve to death, if that’s the luck of their draw.
Did early 19th century France feed their prisoner/slaves well enough for one of them to become the strongest man Inspector Javert has ever seen?
It’s important to remember that Les Miserables, especially the musical adaptation, is an extremely romantic melodrama, full of archetypes and villains and people who display the absolute extreme of every human characteristic. There are no average people in the story. If you’re strong, you’re the strongest man ever. If you’re pious, you’re a saint holier than Jesus himself. If you’re a lawman, you are dedicated to earthly Justice with every fiber of your being. And so on.
Hugo’s other point about Jean Valjean is that his strength is not just physical - his spirit is unquenched, and he will not allow himself to fail. That is the point of the flag scene in the movie - he does not just recover the flag (a simple task), he makes a point to Javert by picking up the mast.
The same applies at the end of the story - Valjean is an old man when he rescues Marius, but he carries him to safety through the sewer by force of will as much as by his remaining strength - in fact, he breaks his physical strength, and his will fails later as he is separated from Cosette (Marius forces the separation when he finds that Valjean is an ex-convict, not knowing that Valjean saved him).
I’ve been reading the book, and it talks about him working on a galley. There is also a wonderfully moving chapter about what it’s like to be lost overboard at sea. Those sections plus the opening scene in the movie made me think that Valjean worked on a ship, not in a jail. Have I been misunderstanding?
I don’t remember that, but I’m pretty sure in the book Valjean is sent back to prison a second time after Fantine dies, but before he saves Cosette and he has to take a ship to get there. While on the ship he saves a guard’s (or crewman’s) life, and jumps/falls overboard and is presumed dead.
I haven’t even gotten to Fantine yet; I’m still at the point where Valjean is thinking about stealing the Bishop’s silver. It’s a very slow-moving book.
But in the chapter I refer to Hugo describes someone falling off a ship in a storm. One minute you’re walking along the deck with everyone else, the next minute you’re in the turbulent sea with nothing solid to stand on and the sky dark and the waves crashing over your head, and all your shouting just disappearing into the wind as you watch your former colleagues sail on without you, most of them completely unaware that you’ve fallen behind. And you tread for hours and hours with every last ounce of strenth while the ship gets smaller and smaller in the distance, until finally its gone and you have to decide to give up and embrace death for relief. Hugo finally says that people fall overboard in our society every day, and are left behind to die alone as the rest of us move on.
Working on a ship threw me for a loop too. I’ve seen the play a couple of times and always got the impression he’s in a chain gang, building a railroad or simply pounding rocks with a pickaxe all day. That’s how it’s portrayed on stage anyway.
Jean Valjean was imprisioned in the Bagne of Toulon - he may have worked the galleys as a slave, and been imprisoned on the moored ships as galleys became less popular. He could have laboured both at sea and on the shore - both were common.
Floating prisons were common at the time - Magwich, the convict in Great Expectations (set in a similar time period), was imprisoned on the Hulks - moored ships off the coast of Kent - while awaiting Transportation.
The “New & Improved” version of the stage musical has him working on a ship. I guess they decided to set it to rights and coordinate it with the cinematic version.
As I recall, this was another Amazing Feat of Strength because he goes off the side, swims under the ship (I want to say in chains, at that) and comes up on the other side with everyone peering over the wrong rail and assuming he drowned.
My mother has a letter from one of our ancestors in 1834 while he was imprisoned in the Hulks at Chatham Yard. He was convicted of stealing two handkerchiefs at the age of 14, and was sentenced to death. Apparently his sentence was reduced to imprisonment, and eventual release, as he lived to the age of 49.