Victor Hugo’s ‘Eye’ in the Dirt

Most people who’ve read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, will list the famous ‘Candlestick’ scene as one of their favorites, I’m sure (Fantine: Book 2: ch. 12). Rightfully so; everything about it is just so powerful and moving and memorable. The movies have all captured it well enough, I suppose; but if you haven’t done the reading yet, you’ve really missed out. Go get a copy, start at the beginning, settle in and when you get to that scene you’ll see why everyone likes it so. Then just take your time and enjoy the rest. Yes, 1200 pages, but what else are you going to do? Watch TV? Listen to more COVID updates?

I’m not going to spoil it for you. I hope you can experience it yourself. Besides, my favorite scene is the one right after that, in the very next chapter. And that I will share a bit with you.

Let’s just say that our tough-as-nails, embittered ex-con, Jean Valjean, has just had the most staggering encounter with grace, forgiveness and mercy, that a person could ever experience! He should have been going back to his chains, back to his “wooden mattress”;1 never to be free again! Apprehended by gendarmes on the street in the middle of the night, Jean Valjean has six silver dishes tucked away in his knapsack; and the gendarmes know exactly where they came from too! Everyone in town knows where this man spent the night, because everyone in town had turned him away. Something about his attire, or his demeanor had stigmatized him as ‘trouble’, as a ‘felon’.

But one kindly woman finally meets him in the street: “Have you knocked at that door yet?” she asks, and she is pointing to the home of the wonderful Bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, who never turns anyone away.

At the Bishop’s home, Jean Valjean receives a kinsman’s welcome, an excellent meal, a room, a soft bed and nothing but encouragement from this wonderful man…only to rise up in the middle of the night and make off with the Bishop’s dinnerware. He had even prepared himself with a weapon to kill the good Bishop if he should awaken in the midst of the deed!

The next day, the man is hauled back by the gendarmes to confront the Bishop with his crime. And that’s when…well…like I said…incredible, life-changing mercy and grace!

But it’s in the very next chapter that a more wonderful thing yet happens…

Jean Valjean has left the city. He wanders now in a daze: trying to sort out what has just happened to him. He finds a quiet place, sits down and wrestles with a veritable storm of conflicting feelings that are raging now within him: elation, gratitude, unworthiness, shame, remorse. He’s been absolved of his crime, given his freedom and even a small fortune that will surely bring a new opportunity in life. The Bishop has sent him away with his blessing: “Go! Go in peace” and “never forget…that your soul has now been given to God…that you no longer belong to evil, but to good.” 2

But–hold on!–life, unfortunately, is not quite that simple!

Toward evening, as Valjean sits by the road reflecting on all this, a little 12-year old boy from Savoy passes by. He’s a street entertainer; he has a hurdygurdy hanging on a strap over his shoulder, and a marmot in a box on his back. He’s a happy boy; he’s made some good money today. He’s singing as he walks, and flipping some of his coins in the air and cleverly catching them on the back of his hand.

The Modern Library Edition is an old classic. It would be nice to find an annotated version, but I haven’t located one I like.

One of his coins however–the largest, as a matter of fact: a forty-sous piece–bounces off the back of the boy’s hand, falls to the road and rolls over toward Jean Valjean…

…and Jean Valjean stands up…and puts his boot on it!

The little boy races over and politely asks: “Monsieur! Please! My piece!”

But Jean Valjean doesn’t move. In fact, he seems not to hear. “My piece, monsieur!”

Jean Valjean asks him: “What is your name?”

“Petit Gervais, monsieur,” says the boy.

“Get out!” says Jean Valjean.

“But my piece!” exclaims the boy. “My silver!” And now the boy is getting desperate. He grabs Jean Valjean by the collar and shakes him. “Take away your foot! I want my piece! Move your foot monsieur! My forty sous.” But Jean Valjean is never going to lift that boot! He lifts up his cane instead, and makes a threatening gesture: “You’d better take care of yourself!” And now the poor boy is terrified. He starts to tremble; starts to cry and, after a few seconds, he runs for his life. Jean Valjean is left alone, listening to the boy’s sobbing as it recedes into the distance.

The night has arrived; darkness has settled over the earth. Jean Valjean seems to be in some kind of trance; seems not even to know what he has just done, until…

…until he stoops over to gather up his things and moves his boot in the process.

And there it is: that coin, half buried in the dirt! At first it doesn’t quite register with him; but later, when it catches the light and glistens back up at him, the effect is like an electric shock. Aghast, he draws back a step or two, but then stops, unable to look away: “as if now the thing that glistened there in the obscurity had been an open eye fixed upon him.” 3

It’s a marvelous scene! He lunges toward the piece, picks it up, and then races after the boy: “Petit Gervais! Petit Gervais!” But the boy is gone. He passes a priest on the road: “Monsieur Curè have you seen a child go by?”

No, the priest has not seen him.. “Petit Gervais was his name. A little fellow about ten years old with a marmot I think and a hurdygurdy. One of those Savoyards, you know?”

The priest has not seen him. And those Savoyards, why!–they’re all strangers here. Nobody knows them or even notices them at all.

Desperate, the poor man pulls out twenty francs. “Monsieur Abbé, give this to your poor! Monsieur Abbé, have me arrested, I am a robber!”

But those words simply terrify the priest. He puts spurs to his horse and flees the scene.

Frantically, Jean Valjean continues his search, desperate to undo what is already done. He wanders the streets, first shouting, then calling, and finally just murmuring the name “Petit Gervais”, until at last, under the sheer weight of his conscience, his knees just buckle beneath him. He collapses on the cobblestone and, for the very first time in nineteen years, he weeps.

That “eye” in the dirt! Such a marvelous touch! With it, our man was face-to-face with his sin nature: from which no bishop will ever deliver, and no amount of “do-goodery” can ever overthrow! Oh, no! The sin nature is more pernicious than that! Hugo’s marvelous scene just proved it!

And that’s why we have a Savior, of course.

I love how the scene ends:

“How long did he weep? What did he do after weeping? Where did he go? Nobody ever knew. It is known simply that, on that very night, the stage-driver who drove at that time on the Grenoble route and arrived at Digne about three o’clock in the morning, saw as he passed through the bishop’s street, a man in the attitude of prayer, kneeling upon the pavement in the shadows, before the door of Moseigneur Bienvenu.” 4

I love it! And there’s so much more where that came from. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is such a worthwhile investment.

  1. Victor Hugo Les Misérables, complete and unabridged, Modern Library (Random House Inc.), New York (undated) p. 59
  2. ibid. p. 90
  3. ibid. p. 92
  4. ibid. p. 96

Categories: Books and Literature, Fiction, Literary Treasures

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3 replies

  1. So beautifully expressed. Thank you. I cried even though I’ve read the book and cried over this scene before. Sin is so heavy, more oppressive than any prison or punishment Valjean has experienced. Oh, the longing for the true freedom and forgiveness only Christ can bring. There are many Valjeans in the world. It’s time to read this beautiful classic again because it’s good to cry over sin and feel the depth of mercy that offers second chances to the hardest heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true Cheri. I didn’t point out even half of that amazing chapter. I thought it was remarkable that Hugo didn’t just let Valjean’s transformation rest with the bishop’s wonderful works. He could so easily have done that. It was so profound of him. And true to Scripture.


      • The eye in the dirt reminds me of Luke 22, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” There may still be a struggle, but that look, that eye, will haunt. For Valjean, there was no turning back until he understood, “Greater love has no man than this…” I see analogies to Scripture all through this book. I think that’s why it’s ageless.

        Liked by 1 person

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