strained his eyes in the distance and called out . . . “Petit Gervais!
. . .” His cries died away into the mist, without even awaking an
echo. . . . [H]is knees suddenly bent under him, as if an invisible
power suddenly overwhelmed him with the weight of his bad conscience;
he fell exhausted . . . and cried out, “I’m such a miserable man!”
Valjean’s encounter with Petit Gervais
in Book Two of “Fantine” is the first interaction Valjean has after
he leaves Myriel’s house in Digne. Valjean’s inability to keep his
promise to become an honest man makes him realize how immoral he
has become. Hugo’s language in this passage emphasizes the gravity
of this realization and portrays Valjean as physically collapsing
under the weight of his conscience. The desolate setting in which
Valjean’s epiphany takes place reflects the extent to which he has
isolated himself from others. Valjean receives no response when
he pleads for forgiveness, not even his own echo. The desolation
also suggests that there is an emptiness in Valjean’s soul, which
he does not realize until his encounter with Myriel. This emptiness
is expressed by Valjean when he calls himself “miserable,” a word
that connotes both wretched behavior and unhappiness. For the first
time in nearly two decades, Valjean acknowledges his transgressions.
By doing so he is finally able to feel compassion for his victim
and recognize his own unhappiness. This scene marks the crucial
turning point in Valjean’s life, in which he begins to transform
from a thief into a philanthropist.