Tag Archives: Bishop

Valjean and the Bishop

Some things I noticed, or thought about, while reading the about the Bishop of Digne and his encounter with Jean Valjean this time around.

First off, here’s what I wrote about last time: The Bishop and Part 2…4601. Suffice it to say that while the bishop does disappear afterward, he’s a fascinating character in his own right.

Donougher points out in her intro that the infamous galleys at Toulon weren’t actually in use as ships. They were decommissioned, basically convenient place to house prisoners without building new structures. To reduce confusion (as seen in all the ship-based opening scenes in various adaptations), she translates them as “prison hulks” rather than “galleys.”

Victor Hugo complains about how the crowd frequently mistakes success for merit. Five years ago, I remarked that it reminded me of criticisms of the internet and reality TV. Today it seems even more widely applicable.

The narrator goes out of his way to avoid naming Jean Valjean from his first appearance all the way through his arrival at the bishop’s house…even though the innkeeper drops his name a few pages in.

I’d wondered about the itinerary on Valjean’s passport, which I hadn’t noticed in the book, but figures in at least three movies. It turns out there is one line in his first conversation with the bishop mentioning that he is “under obligation to follow a fixed route.” A translator’s note about the yellow passport explains that the fixed route was standard at the time, as the ex-con’s passport was basically a specialized travel visa.

Valjean was nicknamed “the jack” in prison, not because of his name, but because he could lift so much. The French term for the tool the time was cric, unrelated to John/Jack.

Edit: The metal spike that he plans to use as a lockpick/weapon is translated as a miner’s candlestick! How appropriate!

A few chapters in, the wordiness is starting to grate a bit – I suspect Donougher is trying to stick closer to Hugo’s words where possible.

The extended man-overboard metaphor would be a great into to a Lovecraftian horror story.

The bishop’s forgiveness and generosity don’t trigger an instant conversion so much as they set up Valjean believing that change is possible. Stealing Petit-Gervais’ coin is the point where he reaches rock bottom and decides to change. The fact that he commits one theft very deliberately, and then another without even thinking, make for an interesting contrast, and tie in with ideas like the system 1/system 2 model of brain function. Valjean doesn’t flip a switch from “very dangerous man” to saint, he has to work to overcome 19 years of training.

On that first day, there are moments when Valjean wishes he’d been arrested and put back in prison, because “it would have been less disturbing” — just like Javert later wishes Valjean had killed him, because it would have been less embarrassing. (Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.) It’s not just he musical that tied these two conversions together, it’s there in the book as well.

Anyway, I seem to be reading at about the same pace as last year, though I think I’ll try to take fewer breaks and finish up sooner. The fact that I’m not writing as much commentary this time will help, I’m sure!

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Second Chances

The offering of a second chance, and acceptance/refusal of said chance, happens repeatedly in Les Misérables.

  • The Bishop’s pardoning of Jean Valjean’s theft, of course, works out quite well.
  • M. Madeleine releasing Fantine from custody elicits a reaction very much like Valjean’s response to being pardoned by the Bishop, and if she hadn’t been deathly ill, this probably would have been her chance to climb back out of poverty (options in 1823 for an ex-prostitute might be limited, but she might have left town for a fresh start, or joined a convent, or something).
  • Valjean offers Montparnasse some money and a chance to reform after he tries to mug the elderly gentlemen. Parnasse of course ignores it. The scare-em-straight approach with an attitude of utter contempt might have been a factor, but Montparnasse clearly wouldn’t have been receptive at this point anyway.
  • Marius offers Thénardier some money after the blackmail attempt fails, admonishing him to make an honest man of himself. Again, Thénardier isn’t receptive, and again, Marius is condescending.

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Part 2…4601

Les Misérables: The BookI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years, and providing a running commentary on Twitter at KelsonV @ReadingLesMis. This post is reworked from this week’s comments. Read on, or start with part 1.

The Bishop of Digne continues to be the focus of an extended character study, one which also describes conditions in the French countryside in the early 1800s.

After chapters of M. Bienvenu seeming perfect, we see him confront his own prejudices as he talks with a dying Revolutionary (as in The French Revolution a generation before) who lives outside of town, shunned by the population as a regicide and probably an atheist. The old man convinces the Bishop of the noble aims of the Revolution, and asks whether the abuses were really worse than the abuses they fought against. Bienvenu comes to respect him even without a miraculous deathbed conversion (he says something about the universe having a self, which must be God, but that’s a long way from standard Christian theology). That’s a much more even-handed treatment of atheism than I expected to find in an 1862 book with heavy religious themes, especially after the snark directed at a materialist a few chapters before.

“Without going deeply into matters with which this book is only indirectly concerned…” Why let it stop you this time?

Hugo’s thoughts on those who join a cause only after it is sure to succeed: “We can respect the struggle only when it is dangerous…only those who fight from the beginning deserve the final victory.”

He then goes on to rant about the difference between success and merit, and the crowd’s inability to tell them apart. I swear I’ve read this same rant about the Internet, business, and reality television more times than I can count.

Valjean, At Last!

On page 71, Jean Valjean makes his first appearance as he arrives in Digne. Note that we’re still in “Part 1: Fantine,” and there’s still no sign of her. The costume designer for the movie clearly read this description of him after his release from jail.

Two inns kick him out because he’s an ex-convict, so Valjean asks for lodging at the prison. They won’t take him because he’s an ex-con, and tell him he needs to get himself arrested. He ends up in the doghouse — literally — and even the dogs force him out.

The bishop’s sister and their servant are arguing over rumors of a dangerous stranger in town, and whether they should bolt the door, when Valjean knocks. Awkward.

His reputation having preceded him, Valjean gives up on keeping his status quiet, and blurts out his whole story as soon as he opens the door. After a whole chapter being tight-lipped and vague, everything just tumbles out and he just starts rambling. Come to think of it, everyone the Bishop meets seems to talk at length. He must have that effect on people.

And now we get to Valjean’s past as the provider for his widowed sister and her seven children. A bad winter left them with no food, no money, and no work, and that’s when he breaks a windowpane, steals a loaf of bread and gets sentenced to five years hard labor. His sister and her family vanish long before he gets out of prison. He gets one letter, and then nothing. The loss sheds some light on him taking in Cosette.

Victor Hugo really wants you to understand Jean Valjean’s state of mind after 19 years in prison — or lack thereof, as it’s basically turned him into a desperate, caged animal. You also get some idea of what Valjean was like before his prison sentence, something missing from the show.

Then Hugo shifts gears and starts telling about a ship and a man being swept overboard. It takes a few paragraphs to become clear that this isn’t a POV shift, but a metaphor for what happened to Valjean’s soul when he was abandonded by society.

The theft of the silver, almost automatic in the musical, is a tense, suspenseful scene as Valjean wrestles with indecision.

You’ve got to love the bishop’s wit: An exchange the next morning: “Where’s the silver basket?” “Here you are.” “But it’s empty!” “So it’s the silver you’re worrying about? I can’t tell you where that is.” (Interestingly, it’s his idea to tell the police that he gave it to Valjean, not something he picks up and runs with as in the musical.)

It takes Valjean a whole day after he leaves Digne to process what’s happened, finally understanding when he realizes that he’s absent-mindedly stolen a coin from a small boy and that his first impulse is to find him and return it. “…in robbing the boy, he had committed an act of which he was no longer capable.” Valjean went for a long walk, met himself, and realized he didn’t like himself much.

At page 118 of Les Misérables, I’ve finished what, in the musical, is the prologue. Whoa. It is like a Wheel of Time book!

Update: thoughts from my next read-through.

Continue to Part 3 to meet Fantine, Cosette and the Thénardiers.

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The Bishop!

I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (the Norman Denny translation) after 20 years, and providing a running commentary on Twitter at KelsonV @ReadingLesMis. I’ve expanded on this week’s comments here.

Les Misérables: The Book

The book begins with Part One: Fantine, and opens with the Bishop of Digne. The first several chapters are mainly a character study of him, known to his flock as Msgr. Bienvenu, a kind-hearted soul who cares for those in need and still lays the verbal smackdown on anyone more self-absorbed than him (which seems to be everyone).

Victor Hugo not only worked out the Bishop’s household budget, but included it in the novel. To be honest, it is character building. The bishop allocates most of his “household expenses” to various charities.

The silver Valjean later tries to steal gets mentioned in passing as the only luxury he hangs onto, giving everything else to the poor…even when he goes off to bandit-controlled territory for two weeks and, instead of robbing him, they hand him the loot from another cathedral.

“Although it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell…” As I recall, there’s a lot of that, just not admitted.

The first time I read this I had no idea of the significance of the bishop speaking Languedoc.

This will have to be more than a lunchtime project, or it’s going to take months. I’d forgotten just how dense the book is. I only had two lunch hours to read this week, and I read 1/4 as many pages as I’d read of A Memory of Light in the same amount of time.

Update: thoughts from my next read-through.

Continue to part 2 as Jean Valjean makes his first appearance.

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