poor little despairing thing could not help crying: “Oh my 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.