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.