Les Miserables: The Bishop and the Redemption of Jean Valjean

Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Miserables, set in the French Revolution, was really about a revolution in the human heart and a contagious outbreak of virtue.

Many TSW readers know that I work in the prison library. I wrote about it in 2011 in “The Spring of Hope: Winter in New England Shows Signs of Thaw.” In 2012, the prison library broke all previous records. 25,861 books were checked out to prisoners during the course of the year. A part of my job is to maintain such statistics for a monthly report. In a typical month in this prison, over 1,000 prisoners visit the library.

I take a little ribbing just for having such a job. Every time the Stephen King story, The Shawshank Redemption replays on television, prisoners start calling me “Brooks,” the old codger of a prison librarian deftly played by the great James Whitmore. I even have Brooks’ job. When prisoners succumb to their worst behaviors, and end up spending months locked away in “the hole,” it’s my job to receive and fill their weekly requests for two books.

Locked alone in punitive segregation cells for 23 hours a day with no human contact – the 24th hour usually spent pacing alone in an outside cage – the two allowed weekly books become crucially important. On a typical Friday afternoon in prison, I pull, check out, wrap, and bag nearly 100 books requested by prisoners locked in solitary confinement, and print check-out cards for them to sign. I pack the books in two heavy plastic bags to haul them off to the Special Housing Unit (SHU).

It’s quite a workout as the book bags typically weigh 50 to 60 pounds each. Once I get the bags hoisted over my shoulders, I have to carry them down three flights of stairs, across the walled prison yard, up a long ramp, then into the Special Housing Unit for distribution to the intended recipients. The prison library tends to hire older inmates – who are often (but not always) a little more mature and a little less disruptive – for a few library clerk positions that pay up to $2.00 per day. One day the prison yard sergeant saw me hauling the two heavy bags and asked, “Why don’t they get one of the kids to carry those?” I replied, “Have you seen the library staff lately? I AM one of the kids! ”

Prisoners who have spent time in the hole are usually very grateful for the books they’ve read. “Oh man, you saved me!” is a comment I hear a lot from men who have had the experience of being isolated from others for months on end. When prisoners in the hole request books, they fill out a form listing two primary choices and several alternates. I try my very best to find and send them what they ask for whenever possible, but I admit that I also sometimes err on the side of appealing to their better nature. There always is one. So when they ask for books about “heinous true crimes,” I tend to look for something a bit more redemptive.

One week, one of the requests I received was from Tom, a younger prisoner who later became one of my friends and is now free. Tom’s written book request had an air of despair. “I’m going insane! Please just send me the longest book you can find,” he wrote. So I sent the library’s only copy of Les Miserables, the 1862 masterpiece by Victor Hugo.

It got Tom through a few desperate weeks in solitary confinement. Two years later, as Tom was getting ready to leave prison, I asked him to name the most influential book among the hundreds that he read while in prison. “That’s easy,” said Tom. “The most influential book I’ve ever read is the one you sent me in the hole – Les Miserables. It changed me in ways I can’t begin to understand.”

For a long time now, “Les Mis” has been on my list of books that I very much want to read. I’ve held off because the prison library’s only copy is an abridged version, though still well over 1,000 pages long in a worn and tattered paperback. I haven’t wanted to tie it up while men in SHU often wait for it. Though I haven’t yet read the huge novel, I know the story very well, however, and have written about it twice on These Stone Walls, the latest being in my post, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

Several times over the last two years, PBS has replayed the London 25th Anniversary production of Les Miserables with Alfie Boe in the role of Jean Valjean. If you’re not a fan of musical theatre, well, neither am I. However, this production of “Les Mis” made my spirits soar, and that doesn’t happen very often these days. If you haven’t seen the 25th Anniversary production of Les Miserables on PBS, you must.

The most recent resurgence of interest in Les Miserables has been in the film production with Hugh Jackman in the role of Jean Valjean. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture. It will be some time before I can see it, but from every review I’ve read, the film also soars. If you see the film, you might hear some mysterious applause during a brief scene involving Bishop Bienvenue Myrial. In the film, the brief role is played by Colm Wilkinson who fans of “Les Mis” will recognize as having played Jean Valjean in the original stage production in London, and then on Broadway, 25 years ago.

Why is the relatively small role of Bishop Bienvenue so significant? The answer can be found in a wonderful article in The Wall Street Journal by Doris Donnelly (“The Cleric Behind ‘Les Mis‘ ” January 4, 2013). Fans of both the stage and screen productions of “Les Mis” may not know of the controversy behind Victor Hugo’s choice of a Catholic bishop as a pivotal figure in Jean Valjean’s redemption. It’s a great story unto itself.

In Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Jean Valjean spent 19 years in prison for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s son from starvation. By the time Jean Valjean was released, all that he had and knew in life beyond prison was gone – just as it would be for me; just as it will be for our friend, Pornchai, and for any prisoner confined behind bars for so many years. I am approaching 19 years in prison, and Pornchai passed that mark two years ago.

Desperate and alone with no place to go, Jean Valjean, formerly prisoner number 24601, knocked on Bishop Bienvenue’s door. It’s a scene like one of my own that I recalled in a painful dream that I wrote of just last week in “What Dreams May Come.”

In Les Miserables, the convict Jean Valjean spent a night at the Bishop’s house from which, in his fear and desperation, he stole some silver place settings and fled. Apprehended by police, Jean Valjean was returned to the Bishop’s house to answer for his new crime.

However, Bishop Bienvenue sensed that this crime was paltry next to the real crime – the 19 years stolen from Jean Valjean’s life – and a few silver settings did not even begin to atone for that. So, to the dismay of police and the astonishment of Jean Valjean, the Bishop declared the silver to be a gift freely given, and then threw in two silver candlesticks that the Bishop claimed Jean Valjean had left behind in error.

It was an act of altruism and kindness that in the ensuing years set in motion Jean Valjean’s transformation into a man of heroic virtue who in turn would transform others. Down the road, as Victor Hugo’s novel, film and stage production reveal, many lives were fundamentally influenced and changed by what Bishop Bienvenue had set in motion.

In her Wall Street Journal article, Doris Donnelly, professor of theology and director of the Cardinal Suenens Center at Cleveland’s John Carroll University, revealed how extraordinary it was for Victor Hugo to have envisioned such a character as Bishop Bienvenue. In 1862 when Les Miserables was written, Catholic France was beset by a popular and potent form of anticlericalism. The French of the Enlightenment – that fueled the French Revolution – were especially offended by Victor Hugo’s inclusion of a Catholic bishop as the catalyst for redemption. Even Victor Hugo’s son, Charles, pleaded with him to omit the Bishop Bienvenue character, or replace him with someone whose virtue would be more acceptable to the post-Enlightenment French – such as a lawyer, perhaps. I just love irony in literature, but sometimes it’s more than I can bear.

Though the Bishop’s role in the film and stage versions of “Les Mis” is potent, but brief, Victor Hugo spent the first 100 pages of his novel detailing Bishop Bienvenue’s exemplary life of humility and heroic virtue. He wasn’t the bishop France typically had in the peoples’ view of the 19th Century French Catholic Church, but he was the bishop Victor Hugo wanted France to have. As described by Professor Doris Donnelly, in Bishop Bienvenue,

“They had a Bishop whose center of gravity was a compassionate God attuned to the sound of suffering, never repelled by deformities of body and soul, who occupied himself by dispensing balm and dressing wounds wherever he found them . . . Bishop Bienvenue conferred dignity with abandon on those whose dignity was robbed by others.”

In the end, Hugo’s Bishop Bienvenue (in English, “Bishop Welcome”) removed Jean Valjean’s chains of “hatred, mistrust and anger,” and ransomed his soul from evil to reclaim him for God. This enabled Jean Valjean, as Doris Donnelly so aptly put it, “to emerge as one of the noblest characters in literature.”

Most of you will be able to see this fine film long before I will. I will likely have to wait for it to be released on DVD, and then wait for some kind soul to donate the DVD to this prison. (Contact me first, please, if you are so inclined to do that, lest we receive multiple copies). If you have seen the film version of Les Miserables, or plan to in the near future, perhaps you could comment here with your impressions of the film. It’s a glorious story, and I look forward to hearing all about it.

Meanwhile, I have seen some other noble characters set in motion some contagious virtue of their own. I have a new neighbor in this prison. John is 70 years old and has been in prison for most of his adult life. John suffers from acute Parkinson’s disease and advanced stomach cancer, and is clearly facing the winter of life. He was moved on the day after Christmas to a bunk just outside my cell door. Almost immediately after he was moved here, he also caught a flu virus that swept through here like a wildfire. He’s a little better as I write this, but has had a couple of very rough weeks.

Remember Ralph Carey, the young man I wrote about in “The Elections Are Over but There’s One More Speech to Hear“? Ralph is in the upper bunk just above John. I told Ralph that it falls to us to look out for this man God has put in our field of vision. Since then, I have never seen a finer example of heroic virtue. Ralph stepped up admirably to care for an old man society has left behind. In the act of sacrificing and caring on a daily basis, Ralph has seen some of his own chains of hatred, mistrust and anger fall away, and he is learning what it means to be free. I am very proud of Ralph who now sees virtue as its own reward, and it really is contagious – even more contagious than the flu. Though on a far smaller scale, this is the story of Les Miserables playing out right before my eyes.

Editor’s Note: 
As we mark the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, as well as the annual remembrance of civil rights, Father Gordon wants to ask readers to consider two of his previous posts. “The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Civil Rights and the Right to Life” explored the connection between our struggle for civil rights and the March for Life taking place this week in Washington and other cities.

Honoring Father Norman Weslin as Light Finally Dawns Upon Notre Dame” profiled some of the champions of the modern civil rights movement. We are at a crossroads in our culture, and the most basic of all human rights is at stake. Join us in solidarity with those who mark this anniversary with prayer and action.

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. Stewart Eldridge says:

    Father, I own Raymond Bernard’s 1934 two hundred eighty one minutes version of Les Miserables along with his masterpiece Wooden Crosses. Highly recommend. I saw the musical recently and loved it. Inspiring, it left one feeling wonderful. I too plan to read the novel. You are also inspiring. Thank you for who you are.

  2. Oh man. I cried lots at the 2012 movie. I got teary-eyed here too. Great article. Great example from you. God’s grace, is, amazing. Praying for you, father!

  3. Teresa O says:

    Thank you so much for writing about Les Misérables- I have seen the stage show 5 times, the movie twice, and am in the process of rereading the unabridged novel, which Les Mis aficionados call “The Brick” because those are the dimensions of the book. You may find it interesting that critics in Hugo’s time deemed Les Misérables “too Christian.” Also, if you are unable to see the current movie or read the book soon, you might want to see if the 1958 French version starring Jean Gabin is available to you. It is a very faithful version. (The movie musical version is closer to the book than the original stage musical.) Only one correction, Father- it’s a common misconception Les Misérables takes place during the French Revolution. It actually takes place 1815- 1833, while the French Revolution was 1789.

  4. Karin says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,
    Thanks for the background on Hugo’s character of the bishop. The book is on my to read list. I have seen the Broadway musical several times. I love the story and I love the stage productions. When I heard the new movie version was being released, I was very excited. However, upon seeing it, very disappointed. I know, I know~ I am in a small minority with this negative review. I felt it lacked something (not sure what). The extreme closeups were in my humble opinion awful, and they overplayed the sex in Lovely Ladies and Master of the House.
    Its few redeeming qualities are that it did stay true to the story and they didn’t down play the bishop’s Catholicity, oh, and Hugh Jackman played Jean Valjean wonderfully. Other than that, you aren’t missing anything.
    As always prayer for you and all the men there.

  5. Jeannie says:

    I saw the original musical in San Francisco about a month after our big quake of 1989. I was a fully lapsed Catholic then with just a smattering of loyalty still intact, but I will never forget the soaring joy and pride and welling up that I felt during two moments of that magnificent musical: 1) When Valjean is caught by the guards and dragged back to the bishop his whole body was slumped in defeat as they sneered at him and prepared to haul his miserable and useless carcass back to prison. They go through the formalities of asking the bishop if he actually gave the candlesticks to Valjean (I’m welling up now as I write this). The bishop, the soul of priestly love and hospitality, warmly asserts that this was the case but then approaches Valjean, gently reminding him that he forgot to bring the rest of the valuable ‘gifts’ that the bishop had given him.

    EVERYONE is stunned. Shortly thereafter a magnificent song discloses the moment of Valjean’s resurrected faith, a life changing course from which he does not waiver, despite innumerable temptations still to be faced in the future. As a result of this one man’s re-conversion countless lives are changed…and some go on, oblivious.

    Later on, Javer, the cynical, jaded gendarme who has made it his life’s work to track down the fugitive Valjean, blindly ignoring the immense good that Valjean, in his new guise as a civic leader and loving parent has done, prepares to haul him back to prison, his person as meaningless and valueless in the gendarme’s eyes…as a baby tucked in the womb of a woman, whose sexual recreation and pleasure there from has been elevated to the level of such sacredness, that the ‘burden’ of a baby is all too obviously reason enough to extract all human worth and dignity from the ‘blob’ and exterminate it.

    When (divine) events conspire to render Javer vulnerable for his very life to Valjean, Valjean follows his faith and spares him.

    Therein leads the second magnificent work that rendered me just a sobbing lump (one does NOT forget to bring kleenex or expect any mascara that is not waterproof to remain intact) as Javer, totally dumbfounded, humbled and remorseful about his lifelong course of sadistic pursuit, makes a decision that years later would resonate just as tragically as Judas’s decision to consider himself too fallen to have any hope of God’s compassion.

    Phantom of the Opera was enjoying a massive appeal at the same time and I remember being nearly unmoved by what was heralded as a magnificent production, selling out night after night, after having seen Les Mis. ANY lessons learned in Phantom were so shallow and so stripped of real profundity that I remember, even as a lapsed Catholic, feeling as if I was among people of vapid and shallow taste (I was a right sanctimonious thing back then).

    Coincidentally, my other two favorite musicals (behind Les Mis which both due to Hugo’s magnificent work and due to the divine lyrics and music, remains intact as my clear favorite) are Chorus Line and Man of La Mancha, the former because it gives such a wonderful example of sheer American grit and humble gratitude, without expectation of special favors; and the latter because it shows the magnificent dignity of the human condition that can be leant to even the most fallen and despairing of souls when exposed to nobility, charity, pardon and hope.

    The full soundtrack of Les Mis is huge and not all of it is exactly sing along, but it leaves you hungry to see the story again.
    On a side note, the soundtrack of Man of La Mancha (based on Cervantes wonderful tale) contains the originally french version of ‘La Quete’, which we know as “The Impossible Dream”, perhaps one of the noblest and poignant of anthems for any person who understands what hope means, and especially for any Christian who understands this to be our legacy from Christ till the moment of our earthly death.

  6. Kathy Maxwell says:

    Dear Father Gordon,
    I was watching an episode of “The Five Pillars of Faith” on EWTN the other night and Fr. Spitzer was stressing that Jesus, in offering His Body and Blood at the last supper, was recognizing His role as the Scapegoat for all mankind.
    I immediately thought of you; a scapegoat for the Church. In your false persecution, you so closely resemble Jesus that it sometimes takes my breath away. When you leave that prison (please God, soon!) you will leave it better than you found it. You are truly ministering to “the least of these.”

    God bless you and keep you.
    Kathy Maxwell

  7. SteveD says:

    I saw the film yesterday. It was a great joy to see a Catholic clergyman portrayed very sympathetically and to see Jean Valjean at prayer before a crucifix. It is unusual these days to see ANY fictional Christian behaving even decently let alone heroically, I recently walked into my lounge where my wife was watching a TV detective series, I knew nothing about the program but the scene showed a stern looking man saying grace with his family. I immediately said to my wife, ‘Don’t tell me, HE is the villain and also a nutcase’, she confirmed that he was both.
    As to the film, I must admit that I have never read the book but have listened to a serialised radio dramatisation and was surprised that the film did not include the moving scene in which Jean is begged by a child to move his foot from a coin that the child has dropped and, distractedly tells the child to go away to discover the coin and become heartbroken when he realises what he has done. However I enjoyed the movie except for the end where all the young dead revolutionaries appear to be living in a heaven of constant joyful revolution at the barricades.

  8. Juli says:

    I would love to donate some books to the prison library if needed, or DVDs. I get a lot of books through a (somewhat free) online sharing library, and would happily use some of my book credits for this.

  9. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Thanks Fr. for this post. I was intrigued by the topic.

    I have recently seen the new film version twice, and have been blown away both times. It is throughly entertaining, and very moving.

    The singing was something I loved, and the lyrics/dialogue were so good. The catchiest were done by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, “Master of the house”. They filled their roles quite appealingly nasty. Jackman singing “Who am I’ was moving, and Hathaway’s “I dreamed a dream” was enough to get me searching for tissues. Very beautifully done on all counts.

    I too loved the story. Read the book many years ago, a have to in high school, and really did not remember all of it. Today, the story touches me on many levels. I appreciated the background you provided about Victor Hugo and the reasoning behind the use of the Catholic Bishop.

    Jackman gives an amazing performance, along with most of the others, especially Anne Hathaway. For me, each person in the film touched me in some way. Of course, the story is there, but these performances were particularly moving for me. Tears? How about sobs! As I said, I was moved and have not enjoyed a film this much in a very long time.

    My hat is off to those who created the sets, the makeup, the costumes, the music and lyrics. The actors were great. The director is now a favorite of mine. I know some did not like Russel Crowe as Jauvert as he did not sing as well as the others, but that was not enough to ruin the character.

    I hope it won’t be long before someone sends you the dvd. You will want to see it more than once.

    God bless you Fr. Blessings and prayers sent your way, as always.

  10. Liz says:

    Hi, Father. I hope you get to read “Les Mis: soon.

    That part about John really gets me. What the heck? I always supposed a person like that would be in the hospital not jail. That is so unbelievable to me. What about human dignity? Oh it just angers me. On the other hand, Ralph Carey inspires me. That is so neat! We prayed for them both in our family rosary today.

  11. Josefina Caliso, OFS says:

    Father, you are like Bishop Bienvenue who return love after being wronged and betrayed. You are so united with Jesus the Eternal High Priest that I only see Jesus in you. Thank you, thank you, thank you! May I humbly ask your prayers for my son.

  12. Hi Fr Gordon , Will continue to remember me in prayer,IHS.

  13. Molly says:

    Thank you for this post. What is so beautiful in this most recent Les Miserables is that Jean Val Jean’s redemption is central to everything in the movie and the Director hasn’t tried to minimized it or scrub it down. Your “Behind Stone Walls” blogs are always gripping and challenging. You are in my husbands and my prayers.

  14. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    The story of Les Miserables continues to this day for sure.
    Just as there are people willing to condemn there are people willing to forgive.It is because of the latter that we exist. Jesus Himself taught us that.
    had the good fortune of seeing it on Broadway many years ago and look forward to seeing the movie. May we always be open to the goodness of that Bishop. Sending love and prayers to you all. God bless, Jeannie

  15. I am going to ask Charlene to give me a list of books I can send to the library. Thanks for caring for each of the prisoners in the way that only you can do! Hello to Pornchai and I wish you the best of years in your quest for a reversal of your sentence.

    Sharon

  16. MaryK says:

    Fr Gordon, I love your choices in great literature, and Les Miserables is my favorite. I’ve read the unabridged verson twice. In addition I’ve seen the original movie, the movie with Liam Neeson playing Jean Valjean, the stage production, and the current movie. But, it is the unabridged book that gives a full picture of the “Bishop of Digne” and portions of that brings the reader (at least me) to tears, especially the scene where the only person the Bishop looks down upon, deems unrepentant and unredeemable, turns out to be a man from whom the Bishop requests a blessing because of his superior holiness. I have to keep reminding myself that this is only fiction – but, in reality, it mirrors some of the worst and best of human affairs in all ages and especially in our own times.

    I will keep an eye out for an unabridged version of Les Miserables in a used book store, and, if I find it, will send to you for your library.

  17. Gina Nakagawa says:

    If I can get another copy of the book, I will donate it to you for the prison library. God bless you, Father. Unjust as your situation is, I know God loves you and is using you for His Most Holy Purpose.

  18. Monsignor Michael says:

    Dear Gordon,

    Another great post. Yes, les Misérables is a Masterpiece. As a French-Canadian Teenager, I learned many passages of the Masterpiece by heart when I was in Grade 10 ! You know, I think YOU are the Monseigneur Bienvenue in Prison. Know that I have not forgotten you and you are stillin mt daily prayers. I will be writing you a long letter as soon as I can yo bring you up to speed in my missionary endeavours. Let us continue being Missionaries for the Lord in our respective “missionary la ds”. My hope for 2013 is that you may soon be able to be a missionary on my side of the fence ! Much brotherly love to you as well as the two angels who make it possible for you to be “on-line” week after week !

  19. Dan says:

    You continue to be an inspiration… to teach us what it really means to be a priest. You are a strong example of what we should all be… and I can’t help but think of John Henry Newman’s pray about having ‘some special work to do’. You’ve surely found yours. Bless you. I have my young people pray for you every Sunday at the Mass.

  20. Kelly says:

    Oh Father, do try to read the book. There is a whole lot of (sometimes agonizing) detail. But there are many more points in the story than the wonderful musical can possibly contain. What happens in the soul of Jean Valjean is laid out, and so beautiful. He ends up giving Cosette into the hands of some nuns in a very austere convent, and he, himself works outside as the gardener. (The wrongly accused man that he stands up for in the play also comes back into the story).
    Another thread of the book is Hugo dealing with his mixed thoughts and feelings about the Church and clericalism. It is beautifully ironic that the themes of mercy. grace, and forgiveness are the ones that prevail, though there is much criticism aimed at the Church throughout.
    I find it kind of amazing that you are just about at 19 years.
    God Bless and keep you.
    +JMJ+

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