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Among the many classics that I read in childhood, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables stands out for one specific scene. After serving a long prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread ― a sentence that four escape attempts extended to nineteen years ― released convict Jean Valjean wanders for four days in the countryside before finding shelter in the house of the bishop of Digne, known in the parish as Monseigneur Bienvenu.
During dinner, Jean Valjean reveals to the bishop his true identity: Number 24601 in the forced labour camp of Toulon. The clergyman listens attentively and says to Valjean words of comfort before sending him off to bed. The troubled guest wakes up in the dead of night, and on the spur of a bad moment steals the bishop’s silver and runs away. The morning after, he gets arrested by three gendarmes who take him back to Monseigneur Bienvenu and show the stolen cutlery to his host.
A classic of literature should be read again, in adulthood, and preferably in the original. Reading Hugo’s epic in later life reveals the author’s personality, his credo of values expressed in the choice of words, metaphors, and descriptions. My first reading of Les Misérables was from a heavily abridged Greek translation, where even the names of the main characters were Hellenised.
Hugo devotes the first fourteen chapters of Les Misérables to A righteous Man (Un Juste) as he calls the bishop of Digne. The excerpts that follow are my own free translation.
“There are those who work to extract gold; he worked to extract compassion from the mine of universal misery. Suffering wherever he saw it was an occasion for goodness. Love one another, he kept declaring, he wished nothing more, that was his entire doctrine.” Using plain but powerful language Victor Hugo goes on to describe the benevolent bishop as “simply a man who considered the questions of the Mysterious without scrutinising them, without agitating them, and without troubling his mind with them; a man who had in his soul the great respect for the shadow (my emphasis.)” Whereas sublime thinkers applied genius to decipher religion, thereby gliding into madness, “Monseigneur Bienvenu took the path that shortens: The Gospel. He wasn’t casting a ray of the future on the dark roll of events nor seeking to condense in a flame the glow of things. He had nothing of the prophet or the magus. This simple soul loved ― that was all he did.”
Let us now go back to the novel. Upon seeing the arrested convict on his doorstep, the bishop exclaims: “Oh, there you are! I am so relieved to see you! Tell me, I had given you the candlesticks which are also made of silver, and you could get another two hundred francs by selling them. Why didn’t you take them along with the cutlery?”
Fifty years on, the humanity of that scene still radiates in my mind.
“Can human nature be totally transformed from one moment to the next?” The author of Les Misérables wonders. “Can a bad destiny condemn a soul forever? Isn’t there in the soul of every person, isn’t there in the soul of Jean Valjean an original spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this life, eternal in the other, a spark that the Good can develop into a flame glowing so splendidly that no Evil, however strong, can blow away?”
“Do not forget, not even for a moment, your promise to use this money in order to become an honest man” the bishop reminds Jean Valjean. “From now on you do not belong to the evil, but to the Good. I buy your soul in order to save it; I take it out of its malice and give it to God.”
This last sentence had a life-changing effect on the ex-convict. “The pardon of the priest was a most formidable attack that shook him to the core of his existence; he realised that if he resisted this grace, he would never be cured from his hardness, whereas if he gave in, he would have to empty his soul from the hatred that filled it all those years. The time had now come for a colossal, decisive fight between the malice of his own self and the goodness of that man”. And as with every life-changing fight, the battle takes place in the conscience: “By effects that occur only in states of ecstasy, the figure of the bishop kept becoming larger while that of Jean Valjean diminished until it vanished completely. And then, the bishop filled the soul of that wretch with a magnificent radiance.”
Repentance has now taken over the ex-convict’s inner self. “Jean Valjean started to cry. He was crying in sobs. How long was he crying? What did he do afterwards? No one can tell other than the coachman doing the regular service from Grenoble to Digne, who at three in the morning saw a man in the position of prayer outside the bishop’s house.”
Victor Hugo was more than a novelist. He was a humanist who opposed absolutism in all his forms. “To love is to act” he wrote two days before he died. In a passage where his poetic licence takes over Scriptural accuracy, Hugo the Christian reflects through the benevolent bishop over God’s attributes:
“The Ecclesiastes calls you Almighty, the Maccabees call you Creator, the Epistle to the Ephesians calls you Liberty, Baruch calls you Immensity, the Psalmist calls you Wisdom and Truth, John call you Light, the Kings call you Lord, Exodus calls you Providence, Leviticus calls you Holiness, Ezra calls you Justice, Genesis calls you God, man calls you Father; but Solomon calls you merciful, and this is the most beautiful name of all.”
The glow of the bishop’s gift, the two silver candlesticks, illuminated the path of the repentant man to the end of his days.
The path of mercy stretches under the glow of Grace.
by Costas Nisiotis
Athens, Greece - email@example.com
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