Some things you need to know about "Les Miserables" -- Valjean and the Bishop

Les Miserables, the book written by Victor Hugo, was published in December of 1862.

Portrait of "Cosette" by Emile Bayard, from the original edition of Les MisΓ©rables (1862)
It became an instant bestseller and is still viable today.  But, it is long.  My unabridged translation, published in March of 1987, is 1463 pages.  I encourage people to read the abridged translation in order to encounter the strength of the writing and the story as a whole;  in this case I think it is better to encounter it in part than not at all.

Still, many people today will learn the story only through the musical.  Those of us who love this musical are quite die hard about it, as you can tell from my post titled "My Year With Les Mis."  (For more with a dose of realism, also see P.S. Les Mis, Paris Texas style ).  Many have seen movies, but with few exceptions they do not do it justice.  There was a TV miniseries of it that I watched in highschool, that was the only screen encounter of it that I ever liked, until I saw it on Christmas Day.

Here it is -- it is pretty dated, but it is the most true to the book that I have encountered.

Now, the recent  Les Miserables the musical is based upon the book and the musical theater show, and it does give you more of the story (there were several in our group who had "Aha!" moments).  But of course, the movie cannot last forever, so here is is my short list of book facts that you need to know in order to more fully appreciate the story: 1.  Jean Valjean's original prison sentence was just for 5 years.  He truly was stealing a loaf of bread for his widowed sister's seven starving children.  That was in 1795, so France was still going through the rigors and horrors of the Revolution, France's experiment with liberty that became "The Terror" as the victors fed off of their martial control and began beheading each other.  At that time, Valjean was still a young man. The terms of the penal code were explicit.  In our civilization there are fearful times when the criminal law wrecks a man.  How mournful the moment when society draws back and permits the irreparable loss of a sentient being.  Jean Valjean was sentenced to 5 years in prison. All for stealing only a loaf of bread, which he dropped when the baker chased him and caught him.  The children never received it.    2.  Valjean was the only person standing between his sister's family and starvation. While they were riveting the bolt of his iron collar behind his head with heavy hammer strokes, he wept.  The tears choked his words, and he only managed to say from time to time, "I was a pruner at Faverolles."  Then still sobbing, he raised his right hand and lowered it seven times, as if touching seven heads of unequal height, and from this gesture one could guess that whatever he had done had been to feed and clothe seven little children. So what happened to them? It is an old story.  The poor little lives, these creatures of God, thereafter without support, guidance, or shelter, wondered aimlessly, who knows where. 3.  Valjean's final prison stay was nineteen years because he tried to make a number of ultimately unsuccessful prison breaks.  From 1976 to October of 1815, the world had changed quite a bit while he was on the chain gang.  Napoleon had come and gone, and had come again, briefly in 1815, only to devastating losses in Waterloo. Life for the French had changed, and changed, and changed again. That wasn't the only thing that had changed. Jean Valjean entered the galleys starving and trembling; he left hardened.  He entered in despair; he left sullen.   What had happened within this soul? In short, though he had started with admitting his crime and the punishment that went with it, after much thought he had concluded that society should be more tolerant of the poor.  He made society responsible for his fate, and determined to call it to account for this gross injustice.  So he resolved to sharpen himself and he partook of the prison classes taught by "by some rather ignorant friars."  His despair was such that it could only have been purchased by a man like the Bishop,"anything less than the first could have failed to soften the second." 4.  On the Bishop.   Interestingly, the Bishop is the first person encountered in the first section of the book, entitled Fantine, where he proceeds to shock his town by being utterly good, and giving to the poor, except for his one point of pride -- the silver that was his one luxury -- "It would be difficult for me to giving up eating with silver."  He had so impoverished himself by giving every single thing away that Valjean thinks he is simply a lowly sort of priest.  When the Bishop sees Valjean, a destitute parolee, he calls him Monsieur  and let him eat with his little household, with full place setting of the silver, and said that he knew him, said that Valjean's name was "my brother." 
Then he proceeded to give him great detail about work that could be found in the region that the Bishop's family had been from before being driven out by the Revolution, dropping names and information that could be used to gain admittance to good society there.  He told him what to do to survive, basically advised him to jump parole without actually saying those words, then he led him to bed, leaving one of two precious silver candlesticks on Valjean's nightstand, and he blessed him.  In return for which, Valjean challenged him, rather like a starving dog biting the hand that is feeding it: So now!  You let me stay in your house, as near to you as that! . . . Have you thought I might be a murderer?" The bishop replied, "God will take care of that." And He did, but not in the way that Valjean would have ever imagined.  After the miracle of the Bishop, Valjean's dark soul must flee, as there is only room for the Bishop's goodness. The songs, "The Bishop" and "Valjean's Soliloquy" explain the rest of the story.  But something important to note with both songs is that they show up at other times in the musical.  The Bishop  tune is used for Marius's moment in "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables"  when he considered the death of his friends, and wonders "what your sacrifice was for," making for a very strong parallel.  Then Valjean's musings turn into Javert's Soliloquy, with very different results, making for a strong comparison of the two men.  But what is important here is what moved Valjean (Thank you Hugh Jackman for singing your heart out as Valjean and Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop (he was the original Valjean, what a thrill to see him come full circle in this role!) From The Bishop: But remember this, my brother See in this some higher plan You must use this precious silver To become an honest man By the witness of the martyrs By the Passion and the Blood God has raised you out of darkness I have bought your soul for God!   If only we Christians, myself included, were more like the Bishop. Or more like Valjean who responds to grace:  From Valjean's Soliloquy: What have I done?  Sweet Jesus, what have I done?   Become a thief in the night  Become a dog on the run  And have I fallen so far  And is the hour so late  That nothing remains  but the cry of my hate . . .  Yet why did I allow that man  To touch my soul and teach me love?  He treated me like any other  He gave me his trust  He called me brother  My life he claims for God above  Can such things be? . . . One word from him and I'd be back  Beneath the lash, upon the rack   Instead he offers me my freedom,   I feel my shame inside me like a knife  He told me that I have a soul,  How does he know?  What spirit came to move my life?  Is there another way to go?
. . .
Yes.  There is, for all of us.  I like to be reminded of this, because I get world weary and cynical.  And I don't think it is just because I am a lawyer, I think we all do, it is just life.  So these words renew my hope.  My hope in myself and in my fellow man. P.S. -- Just for fun, here is an interview with Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, about playing the Bishop in the musical.


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