Les Miserables 12: Petit-Gervais

Okay, last time I left you with another cliffhanger.  The bishop had awakened to discover that his silver was missing and that Jean Valjean had slipped away during the night, much to the chagrin of Madame Magliore.  And then there was a knock at the door.

Now you know what happens here.  The door opens and it is the police, with Jean Valjean and the bishop’s missing silverware in tow.  The bishop tells the police that this is all a huge mistake, that in fact he gave the silver to Jean Valjean.  And then he proceeds to fetch two silver candlesticks which Jean Valjean had neglected to take.  And the police leave.

Before we move on, let me hit upon the bishop’s parting words to Jean Valjean:

The bishop approached him and said, in a low voice, “Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.”

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of any such promise, stood dumbfounded.  The bishop had stressed these words as he spoke them.  He continued, solemnly, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  It is your soul I am buying for you.  I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

This stunning act of mercy by the bishop has completely rocked Jean Valjean’s world.  As he leaves the city and heads out into the countryside, his spirit is in utter turmoil.  It is the old, evil part of him which had grown up during the course of his nineteen years in prison, struggling with something new which has been birthed inside of him by the bishop’s unexpected act of mercy.  And as he passes through the countryside, the old, evil part of him lashes out one last time in its dying throes.

A Savoyard boy passed by him.  Now the Savoyards were an itinerant race who made their living as chimneysweeps.  This particular boy, named Petit-Gervais, was playfully tossing a few coins up in the air and catching them as he went along.  One of the coins, a forty-sou piece, got away from him and rolled over to Jean Valjean.  Jean Valjean put his foot down on the coin and would not move it to give it back to Petit-Gervais, no matter how much he pleaded with him.  Finally Jean Valjean threatened him and he ran away.

Jean Valjean stood there for several minutes.  Then he moved his foot and saw the boy’s forty-sou piece.  Seized with remorse, he followed the boy, calling after him.  But by that time the boy was nowhere to be found.  He even flagged down a priest on horseback who was traveling in the opposite direction, but the priest had seen nothing of Petit-Gervais.  He continued in the same direction, calling after Petit-Gervais, but to no avail.

Again he murmured, “Petit Gervais!” but with a feeble, almost inaudible voice.  That was his last effort; his knees suddenly bent under him, as if an invisible power suddenly overwhelmed him with the weight of his bad conscience; he fell exhausted onto a large rock, his hands clenched in his hair, and his face on his knees, and cried out, “I’m such a miserable man!”

Then his heart swelled, and he burst into tears.  It was the first time he had wept in nineteen years.

 At this point there was a titanic struggle taking place in Jean Valjean’s conscience.  Victor Hugo relates it as follows:

When Jean Valjean left the bishop’s house, as we saw, his thoughts were unlike any he had ever known before.  He could understand nothing of what was going on inside him.  He stubbornly resisted the angelic deeds and the gentle words of the old man, “You have promised me to become an honest man.  I am purchasing your soul.  I withdraw it from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”  This kept coming back to him.  In opposition to this celestial tenderness, he summoned up pride, the fortress of evil in man.  He dimly felt that this priest’s pardon was the hardest assault, the most formidable attack he had ever sustained; that his hardness of heart would be complete, if it resisted this kindness; that if he yielded he would have to renounce the hatred with which the acts of other men had for so many years filled his soul, and in which he found satisfaction; that, this time, he must conquer or be conquered, and that the struggle, a gigantic and decisive struggle, had begun between his own wrongs and the goodness of this man.

Faced with all these things, he reeled like a drunk.  While he kept on walking this way with a haggard look, did he have any distinct perception of what might be the result of his adventure at Digne?  Did he hear those mysterious murmurs that alert or entice the spirit at certain moments of life?  Did a voice whisper in his ear that he had just passed through the decisive hour of his destiny, that there was no longer a middle course for him, that if, thereafter, he were not the best of men, he would be the worst, that he must now, so to speak, climb higher than the bishop or fall lower than the convict; that, if he wanted to become good, he must become an angel; that, if he wanted to remain evil, he must become a monster?

…He saw himself then, so to speak, face to face, and at the same time through that hallucination he saw, at a mysterious distance, a sort of light, which he took at first to be a torch.  Looking more closely at this light dawning on his conscience, he recognized it had a human form, that it was the bishop.

His conscience considered in turn these two men placed before it, the bishop and Jean Valjean.  Anything less than the first would have failed to soften the second.  By one of those singular effects peculiar to this kind of ecstasy, as his reverie continued, the bishop grew larger and more resplendent in his eyes; Jean Valjean shrank and faded away.  For one instant he was no more than a shadow.  Suddenly he disappeared.  The bishop alone remained.

A couple of things before we move on:

First of all, Victor Hugo makes note of the fact that only someone as virtuous as the bishop could have reached Jean Valjean and affected such a profound change in him.  But also note that all it took was this one kind act by the bishop to transform Jean Valjean.  This is a strong critique of the French penal system and its dehumanizing influence–Jean Valjean was basically a good man when he went in, when he came out he was a hardened criminal, but with one act of kindness by the bishop all his hardening was gone.  Thus the hardening of Jean Valjean’s soul came from outside of him–from the prison system.

The other thing which I wish to note is that here we have an instance of the passing on of a legacy of virtue.  We saw the same thing in The Brothers Karamazov with Father Zossima passing on his influence to Alyosha.  But there was a difference.  In The Brothers Karamazov it was a process which took place gradually over an extended period of time; Alyosha lived closely with Father Zossima, sat under his teaching, and breathed in his influence for over a year.  But here it was an instantaneous act; Jean Valjean was irrevocably changed by the bishop’s single act of kindness, and then never saw him again.

But he still has the two silver candlesticks.  Watch for these throughout the remainder of the story; these will serve as a concrete connection between Jean Valjean and the bishop, and a symbol of the legacy of goodness which the bishop has passed on to Jean Valjean.

Victor Hugo leaves us with this image to close out this part of the story:

Where did he go?  Nobody ever knew.  It was simply established that, that very night, the stage driver who at that hour rode the Grenoble route and arrived at Digne about three in the morning, on his way through the bishop’s street saw a man kneeling in prayer, on the pavement in the dark, before the door of Monseigneur Bienvenu.

Where does Jean Valjean go from here?  We will find out in due course.  But first, it’s off to Paris to meet some friends who will play a major role in the remainder of the story.

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2 thoughts on “Les Miserables 12: Petit-Gervais

  1. Petite Gervais is the absolute best character in Victor Hugo’s novel. I wish he was shown in the broadway.

  2. With all intention Valjean put his foot over the valuable coin. It was not by chance. Some minutes later he is ashamed of himself: robbing a boy’s money, after being pardoned and saved from prison by the bishop! Looking desperately for Petit Gervais, he only encounters an anonymous priest that passes in his donkey, and he tells him: “Sir, tell them to arrest me. I am a thief”.

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