“[W]hen Jean Valjean paused in front of the bed, this cloud parted, as though on purpose, and a ray of light, traversing the long window, suddenly illuminated the Bishop’s pale face…At the moment when the ray of moonlight superposed itself, so to speak, upon that inward radiance, the sleeping Bishop seemed as in a glory…Jean Valjean was in the shadow, and stood motionless, with his iron candlestick in his hand, frightened by this luminous old man.”

When Jean Valjean sneaks into the Bishop’s room at night to steal the silver, Victor Hugo makes use of a literary device called pathetic fallacy, a technique in which a nonhuman entity—in this case, nature—takes on human attributes. The clouds part, “as though on purpose,” illuminating the Bishop, while Valjean remains in shadow. By associating the Bishop with light imagery and Valjean with darkness, Hugo is able to juxtapose each man’s character—that is, Bishop Myriel embodies goodness and compassion, and Valjean the wickedness foisted upon him by an unjust world, creating a tension between light and dark.

“He loved and grew strong again. Alas! he walked with no less indecision than Cosette. He protected her, and she strengthened him. Thanks to him, she could walk through life; thanks to her, he could continue in virtue. He was that child’s stay, and she was his prop. Oh, unfathomable and divine mystery of the balances of destiny!”

This moment from “Cosette,” Book 4, Chapter 3, highlights Cosette’s significance to Valjean’s character development. In a way, they have saved each other; Valjean has given Cosette a father, a protector, someone to care for her in a way the Thénardiers never did, and Cosette in turn has given Valjean a reason to live beyond mere self-preservation.

“The pupil dilates in the dark, and the soul dilates in misfortune and ends by finding God there.”

Faced with the enormous difficulty of navigating the sewers with Maris, Valjean eventually begins to see better through the gloom. His pupils dilate, enabling them to take in more light, which, Hugo argues, is a lot like the way that a person’s soul opens up to God in the midst of misfortune. This describes, in essence, Valjean’s journey—where prison and poverty forced him into darkness, love and light have brought him to God. His experience with misfortune indicates he is well-versed in finding light in darkness, and so will surely survive this, too.