What Hugo ignores in Valjean's long speech to Parnasse is that the brains and ingenuity required to make such a thing as that big sou and tiny saw, to make an escape of that nature, are not asked for or respected in the honest life of a poor man. If Parnasse had no family that could set him to a trade, could not afford an apprenticeship for him, then he would have no choice but to be a common labourer, either in the fields or on the streets. There, the brain is nothing, just as in the daily grind of prison should the prisoner not bend his will to escape. And we know, as Valjean does not, that this is precisely the situation, that Parnasse is the gamin grown up, that he thus has never had a family to set him on the honest path. He had no honest path to deviate from.
What does Valjean want Parnasse to do? To do what he did, without the benefits of the education of prison? Can the boy read and write? Who will teach him? It is too late to turn to a trade – who will take him on at 19, having apprenticed to theft? He has brains and ingenuity, otherwise he would not have gotten a couple bodies behind him and not been traded over to the police. The honest work open to him is the hard physical labour that gets a man nowhere but the grave, as you know very well having been driven by the difficulties of seasonable labour into actual theft.
Valjean gives him a lecture, not an opening. He never identifies the way in which the path can deviate towards the right rather than towards his prediction of prison. If you know your choices are physical labour with nothing at the end of it, or a few pleasures before the hell begins, you'd be an idiot to give up the pleasures. It's no wonder Parnasse merely mutters an insult in response. And it's unfair of Valjean to give a lecture without a key, to say “it's not hard to be honest” without saying “Men before you have turned to honest work and lived by it”. Because having begun down the path of crime, who could possibly believe he could turn back? If it all ends in hard labour in prison or on the scaffold under the blade, Parnasse is probably already anticipating the quick death of the latter (he has bodies behind him, after all), so the harshness of the former wouldn't scare him. Without an example, how can he possibly conceive of an ending other than the guillotine? And why, Valjean, will you not risk just enough to say “I know it can be done because men have done it before”? It is no wonder he calls you a blockhead.
“It's not so hard to be an honest man.” Not for the strong, not for the unambitious, not for the honest, not for the rich. For the poor who have already descended to the criminal, who want anything more in life than unending toil for never enough bread, it is extremely difficult, and I find the whole speech becomes flippant, which is not in Valjean's character, or in Hugo's.
Of course, we also here have the change of Gavroche from a child whose heart “is absolutely dark and empty”, as described in III, 1, 13, to someone whitewashed enough for a bourgeois reader. He is hungry, he is planning a theft, and yet when confronted with equal misery, he is selfless. Is it the effect of Valjean's speech? He picks a pocket, committing the sort of act that has just been condemned, but throws the proceeds entirely to someone else, therefore not profiting by his illegal action. Parnasse is standing there still going “Dude, wtf just happened?”, and Gav acts as though he has something in his heart after all. We can follow Gav and be sympathetic to him now that he has reached beyond himself (and he will go further in picking up his little brothers), now that he has proved, despite the original description of him, that he is a true gamin because his heart is not dark and empty. The first description allies him to Thenardier/Jondrette, while this chapter pulls him away from his family and thus from evil, even though we have just seen him dexterously prove himself a pickpocket as well as a starving loafer. (if he's eleven or twelve, he'd be doing some fairly heavy work out in the country; here in the city, he does nothing, same as Parnasse. If he had an honest family, he might well be doing some fairly hard work here, too, assisting in whatever piecework was being done in the home, or sent to a friend or neighbour who needed some basic help that did not require much training.)
Gav and Parnasse are the same coming into this chapter; it is only in the final paragraphs that Gav is cleansed of his criminality just enough to be sympathetic though picaresque to a bourgeois audience. Because he steals from a dishonest man, and does not profit, we can continue to follow him. If Gavroche is affected by Valjean's speech where Parnasse is not, is that because of his youth? Because he has not undergone the additional steps that brought Parnasse a string of bodies in his wake? Because Hugo desperately needs to prove the young innocent even though they are far from it?
I find this chapter more unsettling the more I think about the implications. It seems to give childhood criminality a pass and condemns the outcome of giving it a pass without any suggestion of viable intervening action.
Ulkis, I don't think Gav is that cool with it. He's here planning a robbery because he's hungry, and he pauses only so as not to get busted. Remember, it was stealing apples that nearly got Champmathieu life in prison. I'm not sure it's a youthful folly that's being described but a criminal act. With Mabeuf there in the garden, Gav was never going to have a shot at those apples, anyway - he had to move on if he were to find something to eat. The whitewashing comes with the throwing of the purse to Mabeuf rather than keeping its contents himself. I'm not sure Gav has given up on eating tonight, just that he's given up on getting anything here.
What kind of literature and what kind of life is the same question. - Tom Stoppard