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Free Study Guide for Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: "Les Mis"

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Book First: An Upright Man


The story opens in 1815 with a detailed description of Monsieur Myriel, a widower become priest, along with his sister Mademoiselle Baptistine and their housekeeper, Madame Magloire. Having received his appointment as Bishop of Digne, he takes up residence in the spacious, ornate Bishop’s palace, which adjoins an austere hospital. He decides that the hospital needs the space much more than does his own small household, so he trades and makes his dwelling in the hospital. This is only the beginning of a pattern of generosity, which earns him the name of Monseigneur Bienvenu. He budgets his household such that most of his income is given to charities. When given an additional sum as carriage expense, he finds a way to distribute that to needy causes as well.

In addition to being utterly selfless, the bishop has a deep understanding of human life, of people of all economic backgrounds and of the emotional as well as spiritual needs of the people of his parish. He also has a sense of humor and the ability to shame without antagonizing even the most aristocratic elements of society. He is indulgent toward women and children and the poor, saying that ignorance is not the fault of the ignorant but of the one who caused the darkness.

The bishop is devout and trusting in his private life as well as his public one. His hospital-become-home is austere and spare with no luxuries save a table service of silver with matching silver candlesticks that are brought out for company. The bishop does not lock up his silver or even bolt the doors to his house, a matter that frustrates the women of his household. However, he defends his decisions by maintaining the philosophy that a man has more to fear from his own prejudices than from any robber.


The narrator is not necessarily sympathetic with all aspects of the Catholic church; this seems indicated by the elaborate Bishop’s Palace which is built alongside the tiny hospital. Myriel behaves in ways that are not generally expected of the religious leaders. But he lives his faith, and his self-sacrifice as well as his example of caring and ministering to others both protects him and brings a measure of respect. Given the religious overtones throughout the book, it does not seem too far afield to suggest that The Bishop also provides a “forerunner” or John the Baptist image.

Book Second: The Fall


Jean Valjean arrives in the town of Digne after walking all day. We find out later that he has just been discharged from prison where he served a lengthy prison term for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s family. His identity seems to have arrived ahead of him, and although he is able to pay for his food and lodging, he is turned away from every door until finally an elderly woman directs him to the small, low-roofed house adjoining the former Bishop’s Palace. It is, of course, the home of Monseigneur Bienvenu.

As if tired of being turned away, Jean Valjean immediately blurts out that he is a convict, having served time for robbery and then more time for five attempts to escape. He carries a yellow passport that describes him as a “dangerous” man. He asks only for something to eat and a stable to sleep in.

Instead Bishop Myriel orders a bed made in the alcove and lights his silver candles. He gives a signal to Madame Magloire who resets the table. She had placed the three plates necessary before Valjean’s arrival, but whenever they have company, the Bishop always has her set all six plates around the table, as an “appearance of luxury” that has the effect of elevating poverty to dignity. The Bishop addresses Jean as “Monsieur” and gets out a bottle of good wine for him. In the “diaries of Pontarlier”-a subsection which is actually a letter from Mademoiselle Baptistine to a friend-Mademoiselle describes the graciousness with which her brother treated Valjean, noting how carefully he avoiding reminding the stranger of his past or treating him in any way like a convict.

Sections VI through IX of this chapter describe Jean Valjean’s background, the despair and hunger of his family that drove him to steal a loaf of bread. His years in prison are described, his attempts to escape, and his subsequent development of acid bitterness toward human law, a mistrust of even the upright and a “habitual indignation” for the injuries and injustices he suffered in the galleys.

We learn that after 19 years in the galleys, he was at first dazzled with his liberty, but that too becomes sour. His meager savings accumulated during that time was reduced by various and bogus charges. He found a job for a day, but was driven out without pay when a policeman asked him for his papers and saw the “yellow passport,” the mark of the ex-con. Valjean realized that “liberation is not deliverance” and that he can leave the galleys but that his condemnation will follow him forever.

Sections X through XII related how Jean wakes up in the night and becomes obsessed with the silver plates which have been replaced in their unlocked cupboard. He steals the plates and sneaks out in the night, leaping over the garden wall.

In the morning, Madame Magloire finds the empty silver basket in the garden. Monseigneur B is not the least disturbed to find it stolen, insisting that the poor man had greater need of it than they did. While they are talking, three police lead Valjean into the garden. They explain that they caught Valjean running with the silver, whereupon the Bishop says that he gave him the plates. He reinforces the idea by having the candlesticks brought out and insisting that Valjean “forgot” to take them with the plates.

Once the police are gone, the Bishop continues to press the candlesticks on Valjean. He also tells him that he need not return by the garden but can enter through the front door by day or night. In exchange the Bishop claims to have purchased Valjean’s soul, redeeming him from perdition. He says that Valjean has promised to use the silver to become an honest man.

Later in the day, Valjean is resting on a county lane near a hedge-row when a 12 year old boy named “Petit Gervais” appears. The lad is singing and playing with a small handful of coins. Petit Gervais drops a 40 sous piece which rolls near Valjean who puts his foot on it and refuses to return it. The child becomes angry, demanding his money, then frightened at Valjean’s answer, and finally runs off. By evening Valjean is still standing there staring as if in a trance. The coolness of the evening brings him back to self-awareness and he stoops to pick up his walking stick. Then he sees the coin and realization of the day’s events comes to him. He runs in the direction Petit Gervais has gone, enquiring after him and calling for him. At length he gives up and returns to the Bishop’s door where he kneels and weeps bitterly. We are told that in stealing from the child, Valjean has done a thing that he is no longer capable of doing. He sees his past, his own anger and vengeance, and condemns himself, but he is seeing himself by the “light of heaven.” Valjean has become a changed man through a combination of the Bishop’s act of forgiveness and generosity and his own “one last deed of perfidy.”


The reader cannot help but feel a sense of frustration in realizing from the very start of the book that the “crime” of Valjean was so menial. He did nothing truly worthy of condemnation under any reasonable law, but the maltreatment in the prison turns him into a bitter, angry man who becomes capable of doing exactly the things he has been accused of. And since he can’t get a real job, his only means of survival seems to be to steal; such is the mark of the French prison even after release. The influence of the priest, however, is described almost in the tones of a “baptism.” In giving Valjean the silver, Myriel has purchased the man’s soul, although Valjean himself is too stunned to understand what is happening to him.

It is obvious that Valjean is basically a good person to start with, and that once the crust developed through years of torment is broken, the saintly man himself is revealed. If Myriel is a “John the Baptist” image then, it stands to reason the Valjean is the Christ image. And since his own crime is really only the crime of trying to save and feed another person, the sacrifices and self condemnation that will permeate the entire story must symbolically become the sacrifice of one in the interest of saving, a Christ image.

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Ruff, Dr. Karen S. C., D. A.. "TheBestNotes on Les Miserables". . 09 May 2017