Those who have only a peripheral acquaintance with Les Misérables will find it surprising that its Book One opens, not with Jean Valjean, but with one Charles Myriel, the Bishop of Digne. Myriel has descended from a well-to-do French family, but his devotion to God has caused him to shun all wealth, even the somewhat affluent trappings of his office. To the people of his bishopric, he’s a saint.
One day, a scruffy, beggarly man passes by: this time it’s Jean Valjean, just released after nineteen years on a slave galley. Earlier, he’d tried unsuccessfully to steal bread to feed his sister and her children, and was sentenced to fourteen years on the galley. Then five more years were added due to escape attempts. Even though now released, his passport marks him as a former convict, a man not to be trusted. Still, the bishop insists that Valjean board overnight in his home. But succumbing to his unfounded reputation, Valjean steals a set of silver candleholders from the bishop’s house. Naturally, Valjean is caught again. But the bishop insists to police officers that he’s given Valjean the candleholders. In fact, after the police leave, he allows the convict to keep the candleholders, with a proviso: he’s to use them to become an honest man.
As we’ll see at other times with other characters, such kindness sets Valjean into a spiritual and psychological turmoil; he doesn’t know how to react – except to thank God.
In order to escape his past, and to avoid the supremely focused policeman Javert, Valjean becomes Monsieur Madeline – an enterprising businessman, a philanthropist, and eventually mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-mer.
In Book Three, Hugo finally introduces us to Fantine. She’s a working class girl – one of four – who has her eye on a well-off playboy type, Tholomyès. He and three of his male friends toy with the four girls, treat them cavalierly, and Fantine ends up pregnant with Tholomyès child, Cosette.
Fantine has a hard time supporting herself and Cosette, and bargains to leave the child with the Thénardier family, who are destined to be the villains of Hugo’s piece. They treat Cosette cruelly and continually increase their price of keeping the child. Fantine becomes distraught and penniless because of this – and she’s threatened with prison, only to be saved by M. Madeline.
Javert begins to meddle in the affair. He informs Madeline that someone has been arrested for stealing apples; the supposed perp is thought to be the ex-convict Valjean. Madeline deliberates, trying to decide if he should sit tight and let this man, Champmathieu, be sent to the galleys as Valjean. But he can’t do this; he travels to the trial in the town of Arras and proclaims himself to be Valjean. Champmathieu is acquitted and Madeline returns home, where Fantine is dying. Following her death, Madeline tacitly assumes responsibility for Cosette. But Javert has come to take Madeline to prison. Of course, the town of Montreuil-sur-mer is set on its ear by the news, and Madeline becomes universally shunned.
Here, Hugo is giving us a micro-view of French society. The rich have no use for the poor, as personified by Fantine’s treatment by Tholomyès, and his friends. Yet the poor have little use for one another (example: the Thénardiers) due to the brutal conditions of the underclass.
But why has Hugo introduced Myriel at the book’s beginning? Clearly, to depict two things: first, society doesn’t have to operate in the above manner. Myriel is of rich origins, and he’d consummately compassionate. Also, Hugo seems to want to set Myriel apart as an instrument of God, believing that only by such divine intervention can French society be set to rights.
As he says of Myriel: “What was this surplus of love? It was a serene benevolence, flowing over all people…”
But Hugo also wishes to note that same divine spark in the secular world as well, even in society’s dregs. He allows Cosette to become known as The Lark, a delicate, beautiful being among these damaged dregs. But he wants us to be aware that this spark is fragile, that the brutality and harshness of French underclass life can snuff out even this whisper of the divine.
Javert, then, is the implement of enforcing the status quo on these poor, with no consideration for or conception of kindness and compassion.
And what of M. Madeline? He’s Hugo’s vehicle of passage (at this point) through French society. He’s a convict on the lam, an exemplar of France’s growing middle class, who has made himself wealthy and has brought up with him those who work in his factory. As well, he champions the all-too-poor whom he continually helps, despite their minimal “value” to local society. He has indeed taken Myriel’s admonishment to heart.
What’s relevant here to us of the twenty-first century is that M. Madeline is an example of what can be done by one person in upholding human dignity and protecting it from threat by selfish callousness.
On the next post, we’ll move on to Part Two and one of Hugo’s grander digressions – the Battle of Waterloo.