The read-along for Les Mis is going very well. I have caught up to speed and am staying on schedule. (Once I caught up, I only fell behind once). Nick @ One Catholic Life is hosting this event and his weekly posts are worth taking the time to read. I read one chapter everyday of Les Miserables and I am really enjoying the slow read. Were moving on to Book III, but I wanted to take a moment just to get some initial thoughts out about the first two books.
Just a head’s up: This post turned into an unusual one for me with lots of quotes. But, Victor Hugo’s beautiful and descriptive words compelled me to do so.
First, I enjoyed getting to know the good Bishop. It surprised me to read that he wasn’t always a priest, in fact, he married when he was young. We are told that he fled to Italy– where his wife died– at the beginning of the Revolution and that his family lost everything. We are given little insight into what happened in Italy, we are simply told that “… when he returned from Italy he was a priest.” So, something happened to him during that time.
What took place next in the fate of M. Myriel? The ruin of the French society of the olden days, the fall of his own family, the tragic spectacles of ’93, which were, perhaps, even more alarming to the emigrants who viewed them from a distance, with the magnifying powers of terror–did these cause the ideas of renunciation and solitude to germinate in him? Was he, in the midst of these distractions, these affections which absorbed his life, suddenly smitten with one of those mysterious and terrible blows which sometimes overwhelm, by striking to his heart, a man whom public catastrophes would not shake, by striking at his existence and his fortune?
Its hard to say, but he is now a man completely dedicated to helping the poor.
It seems to me that Hugo wants not only to look at society, but he also wants to look at the history and conflict of the French Revolution. This is powerfully communicated in a dialogue between the Bishop and a former member of the convention.
The conventionary says:
Louis XVII! let us see. For whom do you mourn? is it for the innocent child? very good; in that case I mourn with you. Is it for the royal child? I demand time for reflection. To me, the brother of Cartouche, an innocent child who was hung up by the armpits in the Place de Greve, until death ensued, for the sole crime of having been the brother of Cartouche, is no less pitiful than the grandson of Louis XV, an innocent child, martyred in the tower of the temple, for the sole crime of having been the grandson of Louis XV.
The conventionary later says:
You have mentioned Louis XVII to me. Let us come to an understanding. Shall we weep for all the innocent, all martyrs, all children, the lowly as well as the exalted? I agree to that. But in that case, as I have told you, we must go back further than ’93, and our tears must begin before Louis XVII. I will weep with you over the children of kings, provided that you will weep with me over the children of the people.
And still later:
Sir, sir, I am sorry for Marie Antoinette, archduchess and queen; but I am also sorry for that poor Huguenot woman, who, in 1685, under Louis the Great, sir, while with a nursing infant, was bound, naked to the wrist, to a stake, and the child kept at a distance; her breast swelled with milk and her heart with anguish; the little one, hungry and pale, beheld that breast and cried and agonized; the executioner said to the woman, a mother and a nurse, ‘Abjure!’ giving her her choice between the death of her infant and the death of her conscience.
This is a powerful chapter whose focus seems to be on providing justification for the French Revolution. Were these Hugo’s thoughts as well? He changed his political views several times, but I’m thinking, that Hugo’s views are expressed by this conventionary. Interestingly, the Bishop left the conventionary seeing things differently than when he first arrived because of this conversation. I think this chapter serves to give us a glimpse of the harsh and oppressive world that existed prior to the French Revolution and, in doing so, to justify the Revolution. However, it doesn’t appear that society was any less severe post-revolution and it is into this world that the bishop returns. What caused Monsier Muriel to become an advocate for the poor? There had to become something that he saw or experienced or, perhaps, both. Whatever it was, his society was broken and he gave himself to support the people, specifically the poor, and to be a positive instrument for change in his own way.
And, the good Bishop continues his support for the poor and the outcast. When we meet Jean Valjean he has spent 19 years in prison. He was sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his starving family. Many years were added to his sentence for repeated attempts to escape and we read how prison changes a man and for the worse.
The peculiarity of pains of this nature, in which that which is pitiless–that is to say, that which is brutalizing–predominates, is to transform a man, little by little, by a sort of stupid transfiguration, into a wild beast; sometimes into a ferocious beast.
He goes on to say:
Jean Valjean’s successive and obstinate attempts at escape would alone suffice to prove this strange working of the law upon the human soul. Jean Valjean would have renewed these attempts, utterly useless and foolish as they were, as often as the opportunity had presented itself, without reflecting for an instant on the result, nor on the experiences which he had already gone through. He escaped impetuously, like the wolf who finds his cage open. Instinct said to him, “Flee!” Reason would have said, “Remain!” But in the presence of so violent a temptation, reason vanished; nothing remained but instinct. The beast acted alone. When he was recaptured, the fresh severities inflicted on him only served to render him still more wild.
And, had it not been for the Bishop’s intervention, he would have returned to prison. In an act of mercy and love, he frees him and sends him off with these words:
Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.
Powerful words. Words of support. Words of hope.
What the Bishop gives Jean Valjean extends beyond the value of silver. He saw past the wild beast driven by instinct, to the man inside, and gave him freedom and hope for a better life.
Does the Bishop represent the love and mercy of Christ? Expressed through an uncorrupt priest, serving the people with a right heart? Probably. But, does he not also represent the difference one person can make in someone’s life? Sometimes all it takes is one person, one kind word, one word of encouragement that helps us to see that we are more than our present situation dictates.
I don’t know if we will see this Bishop again as the story continues, but, I’m sure his influence will remain, beautiful and radiant, in Jean Valjean. Is the message of love, mercy and hope a key point in this book? Time will tell…and I’m reading slowly, taking in as much as I can.
My edition is
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Barnes and Noble 2017 collectible edition by Sterling Publishing Co.