Les Mis bishop key to story’s redemptive theme


In a op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last year, Dr. Doris Donnelly drew attention to the clerical hero of “Les Miserables,” a character she says is key to understanding the story’s message of redemption. Although the pious Bishop Bienvenue is central to the plot of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” which last year was adapted into an Academy-Award winning movie — his role is greatly reduced in the musical and film versions.

Donnelly, a theology professor and head of the Cardinal Suenens Center at John Carroll University in Cleveland, said she decided to write the piece which appeared in the Wall Street Journal last year because “obviously there would be no story without the bishop.”

”It’s just so beautiful, no matter who reads it, you don’t have to be a Catholic to read it, it’s stunning,” she told CNA.

In her article, she described how even though Hugo was anticlerical, he chose to use the character of the bishop as a “catalyst” for Jean Valjean’s epic conversion story. At the same time, he expected corrupt priests of his day “to be shamed and indicted by comparison with a good one.”
Valjean, or Prisoner 24601 as he was known during his nearly 20 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving relatives, emerges as “a very mean, angry, dejected, depressed man.”
Unable to find work because of his mark as an ex-convict, Valjean struggles to survive until he is directed to seek refuge from Bishop Bienvenue who was known by his flock to be a particularly benevolent and holy man.
The bishop heartily welcomes Valjean as an honored guest in his home. Valjean is touched, but still desperate, and steals the silver place-settings from his host’s house.

When he is soon brought back by the police, the bishop denies that the pieces were stolen saying that they were, in fact, a gift.

In addition to letting Valjean keep the silver and protecting him from the police, Bishop Bienvenue “buys” the ex-convicts soul for God with two silver candlesticks, telling him to use the treasure to begin a virtuous new life.
Although the event “is a tiny part of the movie,” it shows Bishop Bienvenue’s “intimate connection with Christ.”

As a theologian, Donnelly said she found this scene interesting since God is the only one who can ransom souls. This act shows that in his role as bishop, the cleric is “so confident and so comfortable” acting as a mediator of Christ for Valjean.

“Once you know the story, you can connect it with the movie,” she said.
Due to this confidence in Christ, she said the bishop and Sister Simplice — a character who is not clearly defined in the recent musical — are able to lie in order to spare Valjean’s life.

Similar to how the bishop tells the police that Valjean did not steal the silver, Sister Simplice tells antagonist Javert, who is tracking Valjean for violating his parole, that she does not know where he is even though he is hiding in her convent.
This event illustrates God’s mercy because technically, the cleric and the nun tell lies, but do so for the purpose of saving a human life, Donnelly said — something that Javert could never understand.
“He has no flexibility whatsoever and that’s what drives him mad,” she said. “He’s just a law and order person and doesn’t get it.”
Because of the depth of the novel, many details are unable to be included in the modern adaptation which is why Donnelly said that the original, unabridged version of the novel is “worth reading.”

Editor’s note: Les Miserables is coming to Anchorage later this month.

'Les Mis bishop key to story’s redemptive theme'
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