[Valjean] 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.