Personal change figures prominently in the first few chapters of Les Misérables, as Hugo uses Myriel and Valjean to demonstrate that change is a vital part of human nature. On the one hand, Hugo uses Myriel to show the positive effects of change. Myriel leaves for Italy as a spoiled aristocrat but returns as a clergyman who lives in simple piety. He is no longer preoccupied with material pleasures, and his new interest in the welfare of others makes him as happy as it makes those who receive his care. With the character of Myriel, Hugo expresses his optimism in an individual’s ability to improve, rejecting the fatalistic notion that individuals are born with character traits that cannot be altered.
In contrast, Hugo uses Valjean to make the point that preventing people from developing for the better can destroy them. Valjean does not come into the town as a thief, but his yellow passport immediately brands him as an undesirable character. Consequently, the townspeople are openly hostile toward him and refuse to believe that he is capable of anything other than theft. The townspeople have such an unyielding and rigid view of Valjean that he comes to believe it himself. Valjean does not need to steal Myriel’s silver, but he does so largely because the town expects such criminality of him.
Hugo makes the contrast between Myriel and Valjean clear through visual imagery, referring to the men in terms of light and dark. Myriel, who trusts in and hopes for other people, operates in light, whereas the mistrustful Valjean operates in darkness. The tension between light and dark reaches a peak when Valjean stops to look at Myriel before stealing his silver. As Valjean plans his theft, the clouds darken the sky; he then sees Myriel’s face in a beam of moonlight. Finally, we see Valjean standing in the shadows while he breaks into the cabinet of silver. In this description, Hugo uses a literary device called pathetic fallacy, a technique in which a nonhuman entity—in this case, nature—takes on human attitudes or traits to accentuate the tension between good and bad. As Valjean contemplates stealing the silver, the sky is dark, as if it were frowning upon the crime he is about to commit. Once Valjean approaches Myriel, however, everything becomes light, as if Myriel were radiating purity and goodness. By using this technique of pathetic fallacy, Hugo is able to pass judgment on his characters and their actions without ever breaking the narrative voice.
Hugo’s dissatisfaction with certain social institutions becomes apparent in these early chapters when he uses Valjean’s imprisonment to show the inadequacy and ineptitude of France’s prison systems. Valjean is arrested simply for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, only to emerge from prison nineteen years later tougher and more ruthless than he was when he entered. We cannot blame this failure on Valjean’s nature, since we see that just a single night at Myriel’s house is enough to change him. Therefore, the fault lies with the prison system. Indeed, Hugo’s brief descriptions of the prison in which he stayed are so brutal that we sympathize with Valjean’s frequent attempts to escape. Hugo advocates compassion rather than this harsh prison treatment. Myriel’s kindness does not have immediate results, but it activates Valjean’s conscience, causing him to cry over the evil that has overtaken his soul and to make his first steps to atone for his deeds.