Before we move on,we must note that the convent of Petit-Picpus was a huge defining moment in Jean Valjean’s life. Victor Hugo writes so eloquently concerning this, that it is best to just let him tell you all about it in his own words.
Remember how you were annoyed at Victor Hugo for breaking off and doing that whole long thing about the Petit-Picpus convent and about convents in general? Well, there was a method to his madness. He spent so much time on the convent because it would play a huge role in Valjean’s life; as you read this selection you will see just how huge the convent was for him:
God has his own ways. The convent contributed, like Cosette, to confirm and complete in Jean Valjean the bishop’s work. It cannot be denied that one of virtue’s phases ends in pride. That way lies a bridge built by the Devil. Perhaps Jean Valjean was, without knowing it, near that very phase of virtue and that very bridge, when Providence flung him into the convent of the Petit-Picpus. So long as he compared himself only with the bishop, he had found himself unworthy and remained humble; but, for some time now, he had been comparing himself with the rest of men, and pride was springing up in him. Who knows? He might have finished by gradually going back to hatred.
The convent stopped him in this descent.
It was the second place of captivity he had seen. In his youth, in what had been for him the beginning of life, and later, quite recently too, he had seen another, a frightful place, a terrible place, whose severities had always seemed to him the iniquity of public justice and the crime of the law. Now, after having seen prison, he saw the cloister, and reflecting that he had been a convict, and that he now was, so to speak, a spectator of the cloister, he anxiously compared them in thought.
…He thought of his former companions, and how miserable they were. They rose at dawn and toiled till nightfall. Scarcely allowed to sleep, they lay on cots and were allowed only mattresses two inchec thick in halls that were warmed only during the harshest months. They were dressed in hideous red shirts and were favored with a pair of canvas pants in the heat of midsummer, and a wool jacket on their backs during the bitterest cold. They had no wine to drink, no meat except when sent on “extra hard labor.” They lived without names, identified solely by numbers, and reduced, as it were, to ciphers, lowering their eyes, lowering their voices, with their hair cropped short, under the rod, in shame.
Then his thoughts reverted to the beings before his eyes.
These beings, too, lived with their hair close cut, their eyes bent down, their voices hushed, not in shame, but amid the world’s scoffing; not with their backs bruised by the jailers stick, but with shoulders lacerated by self-inflicted penance. Their worldly names had perished, too, and they now existed under austere designations alone. They never ate meat and never drank wine; they often went until evening without food. They were not dressed in red shirts, but in black wool habits heavy in summer, light in winter, unable to increase or diminish them, without even the privilege, according to the season, of substituting a linen dress or a wool cloak, and then, for six months of the year, they wore underclothing of serge which gave them fevers. They lived not in dormitories warmed only during the bitterest frost of winter, but in cells where fire was never kindled. They slept not on mattresses two inches thick, but on straw. Finally, they were not even allowed to sleep, since every night after a day of labor, when first surrendering to rest, at the moment when they were just falling asleep, and barely feeling a little warmth, they were required to waken, get up and assemble for prayers in a freezing gloomy chapel, kneeling on the cold stone pavement.
…The others were men, these were women. What had these men done? They had robbed, ravished, plundered, killed, assassinated. They were highwaymen, forgers, poisoners. incendiaries, murderers, parricides. What had these women done? They had done nothing.
On one side, robbery, fraud, violence, lust, homicide, every sort of sacrilege, every variety of offense; on the other, one thing only–innocence.
…On the one hand, the mutual admission of crimes detailed with bated breath; on the other, faults confessed aloud. And oh, what crimes! And oh, what faults!
On one side, foul miasma, on the other, ineffable perfection. On the one side, a moral pestilence, watched day and night, held in subjection by the cannon, and slowly consuming its infected victims; on the other, chaste kindling of every soul near the same hearth. There, utter gloom; here, the shadow, but a shadow full of light, and the light full of glowing radiations.
Two seats of slavery; but, in the former, rescue possible, a legal limit always in view, and also escape. In the second, perpetuity, the only hope at the furthest reaches of the future, that gleam of liberty which men call death.
In the first, the captives were chained by chains alone; in the other, chained by faith.
What resulted from the first? One vast curse, the gnashing of teeth, hatred, desperate depravity, a cry of rage against human society, sarcasm against heaven. What issued from the second? Benediction and love. And, in these two places, so alike, so different, these two species of beings so dissimilar were performing the same work, expiation.
Jean Valjean thoroughly understood the expiation of the first; personal expiation, expiation for oneself. But, he did not understand the other, of these blameless, spotless creatures, and he wondered tremulously: “Expiation of what? What expiation?”
A voice replied within his conscience: the most divine of all human generosity, expiation for others.
…Before him, he had the sublime summit of self-denial, the peak of virtue; innocence forgiving men their sins and expiating them in their stead; servitude endured, torture accepted, chastisement and misery sought by souls that had not sinned to save souls that had; the love of humanity losing itself in the love of God, but remaining there, distinct and supplicating; sweet, frail beings bearing the torments of those who are punished and the smile of those who are rewarded. And then he remembered he had dared to complain.
Often, in the middle of the night, he would get out of bed to listen to the grateful anthem of these innocent beings overwhelmed with austerities, and he felt the blood run cold in his veins as he reflected that those who were justly punished never raised their voices toward heaven except to blaspheme, and that he, wretch that he was, had lifted his clenched fist against God.
Another strange thing that made him meditate profoundly seemed like an intimation whispered in his ear by Providence itself: the scaling of walls, the climbing over enclosures, the risk taken in defiance of danger or death, the difficult and painful ascent–those very efforts he had made to escape from the other place of expiation, he had made to enter this one. Was this a symbol of his destiny?
This house, also, was a prison, and dismally similar to the other from which he had fled, and yet he had never conceived anything like it.
Once more he was seeing grates, bolts, and bars of iron–to shut in whom? Angels. Those lofty walls he had seen surrounding lions were now encircling lambs.
It was a place of expiation, not of punishment; and yet it was still more austere, more somber, and more pitiless than the other. These virgins were more harshly bent than the convicts. The harsh, cold wind that had frozen his youth careened across that grated moat and manacled the vultures; but a blast still more biting and cruel beat upon the dove cote.
When he thought of these things, everything in him gave way before this mystery of sublimity. In these meditations, pride vanished. Again and again he reverted to himself; he felt his own pitiful unworthiness, and often wept. Everything that had occurred in his life during the last six months led him back to the holy injunctions of the bishop–Cosette through love, the convent through humility.
Victor Hugo notes one more thing in closing:
And then he reflected that two houses of God had received him in succession at the two critical moments of his life, the first when every door was closed and human society rejected him; the second, when human society was once more howling on his track, and prison once more gaped for him; and that, had it not been for the first, he would have fallen back into crime, and had it not been for the second, into punishment.
And that is where Hugo leaves things with respect to Valjean and Cosette. We will not see Cosette again until she is an adolescent. In this place she ultimately develops into a very fair and beautiful young woman; Victor Hugo sees this development as automatic and thus does not feel the need to walk us through it.