Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has become a familiar tale for most of us — perhaps too familiar in some ways. The world-renowned musical and the hit movie in 2012 that followed it has become the stuff of pop culture and even parody. These are songs we know by heart.
In the story, there is a poignant scene between the protagonist Jean Valjean and the Bishop Monseigneur Bienvenu (literally ‘welcome’ in French). After receiving care as a guest in the Bishop’s home, Valjean repays the kindness by stealing the Monseigneur’s silver. The Bishop’s response is a lens through which to see and understand all that follows. It’s a scene about mercy and second chances.
Like Hugo, we live in a world where we see sorrows and indignities just as he did – whether it’s the violence and outrage in Ferguson or the selling of kidnapped Yazidi girls in Iraq into slavery (or Nigeria or Southeast Asia and other places around the world) — and that’s not to mention the countless stories of pain, despair and loss all around us that CNN never reports. Les Miserables reminds us that like Valjean’s ours is a world in desperate need of second chances; of merciful giving without requiring return. Caring for how the world turns out leads to thoughtful action even in the smallest of things or interactions. And ultimately, like the Bishop (and Valjean for that matter) it will cost us something.
Chapter XII: The Bishop works
“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
“Monseigneur,” said the brigadier of gendarmes, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver–”
“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”
“In that case,” replied the brigadier, “we can let him go?”
“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.
The gendarmes released Jean Valjean, who recoiled.
“Is it true that I am to be released?” he said, in an almost inarticulate voice, and as though he were talking in his sleep.
“Yes, thou art released; dost thou not understand?” said one of the gendarmes.
“My friend,” resumed the Bishop, “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them…Read the whole chapter >”