Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 2, Book 6 : Cosette (Petit-Picpus) | Summary

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Summary

The Bernardines of the Perpetual Adoration at Petit-Picpus are nuns who have no contact with the outside world; when family members come to visit (rarely), they can see only a glimpse of a mouth and chin behind a grate and shutter, since the rest of the face is veiled. Their order was founded by a Spanish Bernardine monk, Martin Verga, and the rule they live by is among the strictest of the cloistered orders. Their rule includes abstaining from meat, fasting during certain parts of the year, rising at 1 a.m. to pray, and many other mortifications. The prioress, or head of the order, is elected, and the nuns must obey her without question. The nuns also rotate an austere duty of praying for the world, which consists of a 12-hour session in which the designated supplicant is mostly on her knees. The nuns also "chant the offices," which means they sing their prayers several times a day as a community.

Nuns begin as postulants, then become novices and finally nuns; the whole process takes about eight years. The nuns are not allowed to see any men, and the gardener must wear a bell so the nuns can hear him coming. Attached to the convent is a boarding school, generally for girls of the nobility who live more or less by the same strict rules as the nuns (for example, they may not touch their visitors) but do not perform the same austerities. The current prioress, Mother Innocent, is well read to the point of being erudite and knows Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The narrator introduces the rest of the nuns, along with their salient characteristics. Although the nuns are hard on themselves, they are gentle with the children.

Analysis

Victor Hugo invents the Bernardine nuns under the rule of Martin Verga, who is also fictional, although there was a Spanish Cistercian monk called Martin de Vargas who instituted some reforms in his order. St. Benedict (480–547) is considered by many to be the founder of Western monasticism; he is the author of the rules of St. Benedict. St. Robert of Molesme, a Benedictine monk, founded a new abbey at Cîteaux in an attempt to return to the strict order of the founder. He was followed by the more famous St. Bernard (1090–1138) who had the same idea. Thus the Cistercian order came to be known as Bernardine-Benedictines, and Hugo gives his nuns this lineage. Much of what the author says about monastic life is based in truth, but some of it is exaggerated. For example, he says the Carmelites were very strict, which is true, but they never had a rule that forbade them to sit down. The Carmelites were also reformed, by St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, in the 16th century.

Hugo's purpose in providing so much information about monasticism is to give the reader background by which to judge his critique of monastic life that follows in the next book. Moreover, life in the monastery holds a fascination for him as a republican agitating for change and as a romantic drawn to the poetic and sublime. On the one hand, the monastery is a symbol of medievalism standing in the way of progress. On the other hand, it represents the highest longing of the soul for transcendence, and the monastery will become Jean Valjean and Cosette's place of refuge.

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