[T]he poor little despairing thing could not help crying: “Oh my God! Oh God!”
At that moment she suddenly felt that the weight of the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily. . . .
. . . The child was not afraid.
This passage occurs in Book Three of “Cosette,” after Mme. Thénardier orders Cosette to fetch a pail of water from the forest. Hugo uses especially melodramatic language and imagery to underscore the nightmarish quality of Cosette’s life with the Thénardiers and the almost divine appearance of Valjean. In describing Cosette’s despair, Hugo foregoes realism in favor of prose that could have come from a ghost story. The forest is dark and frightening, and it never seems to end—a metaphor for Cosette’s life as a near-slave at the inn in Montfermeil. This haunted setting also sets the stage for Valjean’s entrance, since he first appears as a disembodied hand. However, the fact that Cosette is not afraid and that the hand appears immediately after she prays to God gives Valjean an unmistakably saintly quality. He has acted as a decent man since his conversion at Digne, but now he appears almost angelic. Hugo even gives Valjean a Christlike aspect by setting this scene on Christmas Eve, an evening in Christian tradition that is part of the celebration of Jesus’ birth. This scene represents the beginning of Valjean and Cosette’s life together and affirms Valjean’s role as Cosette’s savior from the wicked Thénardiers.