Terror and Deliverance in Les Miserables

From page 389-390 of the unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s unparalleled epic (ht DJ): Forests […]

David Zahl / 11.15.10

From page 389-390 of the unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s unparalleled epic (ht DJ):

Forests are apocalypses; and a tiny soul’s beating wings make an agonizing sound beneath their monstrous vault.

Without being conscious of what she was experiencing, Cosette felt seized by this black enormity of nature. It was not merely terror that held her but something even more terrible. She shuddered. Words fail to express the peculiar strangeness of that shudder, which chilled her through and through. Her eyes had become wild. She felt that perhaps she would be compelled to return there at the same hour the next night.


Then, by some sort of instinct, to get out of this singular state, which she did not understand but which terrified her, she began to count aloud, one, two, three, four, up to ten, and when she had finished, she began again. This restored her to a real perception of things around her. Her hands, which were wet from drawing water, felt cold. She stood up. Her fear had returned, a natural and insurmountable fear. She had only one thought, to flee; to flee at top speed, across woods, across fields, to the houses and windows and lighted candles. Her eyes fell on the bucket there in front of her. Such was the dread [her guardians] the Thenardiess inspired in her she did not dare leave without the bucket of water. She grasped the handle with both hands. She could hardly lift it.

She went a dozen steps this way, but the bucket was full, it was heavy, she had to rest it on the ground. She caught her breath an instant, then grasped the handle again, and walked on, this time a little longer. But she had to stop again. After resting a few seconds, she started on. She walked bending forward, her head down, like an old woman; the weight of the bucket strained and stiffened her thin arms. The iron handle was numbing and freezing her little wet hands; from time to time she had to stop, and every time she stopped, the cold water that sloshed out of the bucket splashed onto her bare knees. This took place in the depth of the woods, at night, in the winter, far from all human sight; she was a child of eight. At that moment only the Eternal Father saw this sad thing

And undoubtably her mother, alas!

For there are things that open the eyes of the dead in their grave.


Her breath came as a kind of painful gasp; sobs choked her, but she did not dare weep, so great was her fear of the Thenardiess, even at a distance. She always imagined the Thenardiess nearby.

However, she could not make much headway this way and was moving along very slowly. As hard as she tried to shorten her resting spells, and to walk as far as possible between them, she anxiously realized that it would take her more than an hour to return to Montfermeil at this rate, and that the Thenardiess would beat her. This anguish added to her dismay at being alone in the woods at night. She was worn out and was not yet out of the forest. Reaching an old chestnut tree she knew, she made on last halt, longer than the others, to rest up well, then she gathered all her strength, took up the bucket again, and began to walk on courageously. Meanwhile the poor little despairing thing could not help crying: “Oh my God! Oh God!”

At that moment she suddenly felt that the weight of the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily. She looked up. A large dark form, straight and erect, was walking beside her in the darkness. A man who had come up behind her in the darkness. This man, without saying a word, had grasped the handle of the bucket she was carrying.

There are instincts for all the crises of life.

The child was not afraid.