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Les Misérables | Part 1, Book 1 : Fantine (An Upright Man) | Summary

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Summary

Told in omniscient, third-person narration, Les Misérables begins in 1815 in the small, obscure town of Digne. Monseigneur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel is 75 and has been the town's bishop since 1806. The son of a judge, he married early and lived a worldly life of pleasure until the Revolution of 1789. Being among the privileged, Myriel and his family were forced into exile, where Myriel's wife died after a long illness. The couple had no children, and at some point he became a priest and returned to France. Then a chance encounter with Napoleon elevated him to bishop.

He brings his unmarried sister, Mademoiselle Baptistine, and a servant, Madame Magloire, to Digne. Both are about ten years younger and quite devoted to him. The bishop's palace sits beside a small, cramped hospital, and he convinces the hospital director to switch buildings to create more room for the sick. Myriel uses most of his generous salary to help the poor. Since he has converted his carriage into alms, he visits his parishioners on foot or on the back of a mule when traveling greater distances. Because of his charity, the poor of the neighborhood have dubbed him Monseigneur Bienvenu, or "Bishop Welcome."

The bishop lives on the first floor of his two-story home, which comprises his sparsely furnished bedroom, oratory (chapel), and a dining room with a few chairs. Although rich parishioners donate money to improve the bishop's residence, he gives it to the poor. Monseigneur Bienvenu has only one luxury—a set of silver cutlery for six and a ladle and two silver candlesticks. The bishop's other indulgence is his quarter of the garden, devoted to flowers, which he personally cultivates. The bishop has removed all the locks from his house, and the main door is closed with only a latch. Monseigneur Bienvenu has no fear and travels freely everywhere; once while visiting some shepherds in a mountain hamlet, he travels though country known for its dangerous bandits. Not only does he pass back and forth unmolested, but the head of the bandits, Cravatte, sends the bishop a chest full of precious objects stolen from the cathedral of Norte-Dame at Embrun.

Although from a Royalist family, meaning that his family supported the monarchy, the bishop ministers to a dying "Conventionist." This man, introduced as G_____, took part in the revolutionary government during the Reign of Terror. Hated for his role in the French Revolution, he is unrepentant, telling the bishop, "Justice has its anger, Monsieur Bishop, and the wrath of justice is an element of progress." The two men argue, each citing abuses of power perpetrated by the other side. The bishop says, "Progress ought to believe in God"; G_____ concedes "The Infinite exists" and equates his "ideal" with it. At the end of the conversation, the bishop kneels to ask for the G_____'s blessing, but when he looks up, the man has died. From then, we are told, the bishop "redoubled his tenderness and brotherly love for the weak and the suffering."

Analysis

Instead of starting with the main character, the novel begins with an extended description of the saintly bishop who will save the protagonist and restore his faith in humanity. Victor Hugo's sprawling story is about the downtrodden, the disenfranchised—those without a vote, either literally or metaphorically; people whom no one cares about; people who are discriminated against, because of class or sex; people whose survival is threatened at every turn. While Hugo is unquestionably an advocate for social change, he is also a man of faith, and he wrote about his own novel that its "major character is the Infinite"—his preferred term to name God or the Supreme Being. Hugo was at times highly critical of the Catholic Church and had unorthodox religious views, but too often literary critics have put to one side the key role his vision of the sacred plays in understanding this novel. Hugo's view is that social progress ultimately must be grounded in moral values emanating from religious or spiritual ideals.

Monseigneur Bienvenu begins life as a member of the privileged class, and the narrator doesn't explain his change of heart; the reader does learn he became a priest in middle age and thus brings the wisdom of life experience to his calling. Although a Royalist (supporter of the monarchy) by family tradition, he naturally takes the side of the poor and works tirelessly to redistribute both his own wealth and that of his wealthy parishioners. When the thief Cravatte presents him with a gift of loot taken from the cathedral, the narrator says he might have "turn[ed] it to the benefit of the poor." Monseigneur Bienvenu's attitude is not based in political sentiment but is the result of a profound practice of Christianity.

Following the example of Jesus Christ, Monseigneur Bienvenu rejects no one—not even the old "Conventionist," a man who was elected to the National Convention in 1792 and who governed during the Reign of Terror. The French Revolution took place over a 10-year period, and in 1799, Napoleon came to power and ruled France for most of the next 15 years. At the beginning of the novel, the Bourbon monarchy has been restored, which is why both revolutionaries and Napoleon have fallen out of favor. The bishop recognizes G_____ as a man of principle, and both men are visionaries in their own realms. The bishop kneels, perhaps as an act of humility to acknowledge the limits of his own prejudices, or perhaps because G_____ has admitted progress cannot occur without a belief in the Infinite. Feeling the constant presence of God, Monseigneur Bienvenu acts as one who continually lives in a state of grace, despite his own shortcomings. The bishop is extraordinary in his simple holiness, and it is not surprising he has a profound impact on those who come into contact with him.

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