At the beginning of October 1815, a disreputable-looking traveler enters Digne on foot. In spite of his money, he is repeatedly refused food and shelter for the night with harsh words and threats. A fierce hound routs him from a doghouse when he mistakes it for a worker's hut. Despairingly he sums up his plight with the pathetic cry, "I am not even a dog!"
On the advice of a kind passerby, he tries the door of Monseigneur Myriel. He bluntly introduces himself as Jean Valjean, an ex-convict recently released from prison. To his surprise, the bishop welcomes him warmly, inviting him to share his supper, giving him advice, and finally offering him a bed for the night. Even more remarkable, he treats Valjean with unfailing courtesy and ignores the stigma of his past.
Valjean's past is a tragic story. Originally a primitive but uncorrupted creature, when he was twenty-six years old he was condemned to a five-year jail term for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his widowed sister and her large family. Repeated attempts to escape lengthened his sentence to nineteen years. In jail, the merciless treatment he endured corrupted his fundamental potentialities for good into an implacable hatred for society. The continuous hostility he has encountered since his release has only confirmed this hatred.
The bishop's kindness moves Valjean profoundly but does not regenerate him. Rising stealthily in the middle of the night, the ex-convict steals his host's silver from a cupboard above the sleeping man's
head — indeed, he is prepared to kill the bishop if he wakes. The police, however, catch him when he is making his escape and bring him back to the bishop. This time his crime will bring him life imprisonment. However, Monseigneur Myriel pretends that the silverware is a legitimate gift and in a gesture of supreme kindness even adds his candlesticks to it — the only objects of value he has left. As Jean Valjean is leaving, he exacts his reward: "Don't forget," he tells the astonished man, "that you promised me to use this silver to become an honest man."
Still Jean Valjean's conversion is not complete. On a deserted road, he steals a coin from an itinerant chimney sweep, Little Gervais. But this last contemptible act sickens him of himself, and in a paroxysm of remorse he resolves to amend his life.
When we first meet Jean Valjean, he is in fact less than a dog. A dog may be a useful animal; Jean Valjean is a dangerous one. Even before he went to the galleys, he was more animal than man, moved only by an instinctive loyalty to those of his own litter, as brutishly ignorant of evil as of good. For Hugo, the fact that Valjean has educated himself in prison is promising; at the moment, however, education has only served to make him vicious.
The penal laws of the nineteenth century seem absurd to us, but they stem from the primitive mores of tribal society when most property is held in common and theft is a crime often punishable by death. Under the influence of utilitarian philosophy, which considered environment rather than original sin to be the most important element in character formation, thinking men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to take a new look at the legal system and to call for milder laws and a prison system that would rehabilitate rather than degrade the offender. Hugo shares these enlightened views, and in fact his desire for reform of the penal system was the original inspiration for Les Misérables.
Impressive is the skill with which Hugo uses an external visual impression to evoke an internal conflict. Hugo was artist as well as writer, and in the scene in the bishop's room he gives us no sound, almost no motion. What we see, what we remember, is a darkness in which a threatening weapon bangs, the gleaming oval of the bishop's face, and between the two, the glimmer on the arms of the crucifix — an unforgettable pattern of black and white that symbolizes the unending conflict between good and evil, within and without, in man and in history.
The episode of the bishop's candlesticks is justly famous. The situation is dramatic, the psychology profound, and the artistry superb. Giving us only glimpses into the chaos in Jean Valjean's mind, Hugo deliberately awakens empathy by forcing us to provide our own explanations for Valjean's previous urge to murder, his theft, and his headlong flight.
Jean Valjean's conversion is completely convincing. He believes a totally hostile world surrounds him; the bishop has shown him good in it, but before he can change, he must see the evil in himself. Confronted by Little Gervais, he reacts with automatic cruelty — and then realizes that what the world has done to him he has done to someone even more defenseless. If he continues as he is, he will become one of those he hates; he has no choice but to change.