Monday, March 02, 2009

Les Miserables Character Study - Monseigneur Bienvenu

Classics BookclubIt's time for another Classics Bookclub and this time Jennifertwistedmyarmintoparticipating I really wanted to participate. No, seriously, I actually did. I read Les Miserables at the tail end of 2007 (you can click on that link to read my full review) but I thought I'd give the book another go 'round. Once I got into it I realized I'd really rather just spend more time with my favorite character. Instead of reading the entire book all the way through again, as I originally planned, I focused my attention on Book One and tried to get to know my favorite character, Monseigneur Bienvenu (aka, Bishop Myriel) a little better. I'm so glad that I did.

In my previous review of Les Miserables I stated of Monseigneur Bienvenu that, "If there ever was a character worth admiring in the history of world literature, he would have to be the one." I still hold to that statement.

Interestingly enough, Hugo wrote this book when he was 60 years old, "divorced", exiled from his country, having lost his children to accidental deaths and suicides, and generally wasn't in a really pleasant place. In reading about his life, you discover that he was everything that the Bishop in Les Miserables was not. I wonder if he was writing about what he wished he could be, or wanted to be, or was striving to be or . . . ?

As for striving, well, put me on the list! Monseigneur Bienvenu has a great many character qualities but the one I'm most fixated on in the present moment is the greatest of all. Can you guess?

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Monseigneur Bienvenu is a picture of love for the sinner. His character rubs up against the worst in society - the poor and downcast, the band of thieves and the dreaded criminal. Out of all of the characters in this book, Monseigneur shows best what true forgiveness is. He erases the stains of the past (including perhaps his own?) and moves forward, looking towards the future. He forgets the dirty little secrets of people's past history and replaces their old vision of who they are with a new one.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.
Romans 12:9

Hugo created a character who truly lives without hypocrisy. Monseigneur Bienvenu practices what he preaches, only taking enough money from his salary to keep a roof over his head and put food on the table. He is good and pure. When Jean Valjean comes upon the scene, the Bishop is no less favorable towards him than any other unexpected guest. He sets a place at the table for him and ultimately offers him the only forgiveness that would, in that exact moment, set Valjean free from his muddied past. A true and more noble pardon would be hard to find in literature. Forgiveness and love. Tenderness and kindness. Mercy and grace. All of these attributes are wrapped up in this one fictional character. And then I regret that he IS fiction while at the same time I acknowledge that he doesn't have to be. We could all live like this with certain conditions.

A quote from the Bishop to Valjean:

Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.... Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!

Of course, the Bishop is not God in this story but I do think he represents Jesus to Valjean. I do think this parallels scripture in Christ's death on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. By His pardon, we are granted a new life, free to explore a new reality in which we are forgiven and are made whole. Although redeemed we will certainly have trials, much like Valjean does for the remainder of the book! But Jean Valjean is forgiven, he knows it, and he never forgets it. Forgiveness - LOVE - is a powerful force and Hugo expresses it in a beautiful way.

Of course, this book has been made into a very popular musical (that I had the pleasure of seeing in London years ago!) and I looked up the performance of the Bishop for your viewing pleasure.

At about the 6 minute mark you will meet the Bishop as he is portrayed on stage:

I love this book and I would be happy to read it again, in whole, many times over. (This is, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, my brother's favorite classic. It's easy for me to understand why.) It does take time to get through this book, but for my money - this is time well spent. For now I'm content to have just had a little fellowship with someone I admire. I read about the Bishop and I am encouraged and motivated. I know that's my emotions are not the sole test of what makes good literature but it certainly colors my opinion of it!


Laura said...

I completely agree with your comments about Monseigneur Bienvenu. I am glad the book started with his character because it encouraged me to continue reading and see how this wonderful man's influence was portrayed in the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

Carrie, he is my favorite character so far, too, and for just the points you elucidate so well here.

Unknown said...

Great thoughts and fun clip.

I love it how you reviewers paint me as the not-so-benevolent dictator. I feel like I'm getting some sort of reputation here.

Brooke from The Bluestocking Guide said...

Nice post!!

Les Mis

Carrie said...

For the record everyone, Jennifer IS benevolent. ;)

Nise' said...

Wonderful post about your favorite character. Watching the clip makes me want to see it again!

Melissa said...

I just finished this book for the fifth or sixth time. I love it - it gets better every single time one reads it. Two of my favorite quotes from the Bishop:

The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.

Love one another: He declared that to be complete; he desired nothing more, and that was his whole doctrine.

ibeeeg said...

The Bishop is by far my favorite character as well! I really felt him and so admired him. He spoke to me...spoke to me of how I feel we all should be but I fall so incredibly short. Yep, the Bishop is a great, wonderful and much to be admired character.

I also, after listening to an audio production, admired Valjean for following the Bishop's lead.

ibeeeg said...

Oh, I forgot, Thanks for posting the info about Hugo. That was interesting to read.

Kipi said...

Loved your review, Carrie. The clip is great and makes me want to see the show again...or at least buy the PBS DVD. I saw Les Mis on Broadway about eight years ago and it was fabulous. This was the first time I've read the book, and now there are things about the show that are so much clearer. The bishop is a wonderful character, but I Jean Valjean is my favorite...must be the "flawed hero" thing.

morninglight mama said...

Simply beautiful. In the move to condense the novel into the musical production, this character is sadly diminished to a small, though still significant, part. I remember reading the novel after seeing the play and being overjoyed that there was more to know about the Bishop.

Lisa Spence said...

I second Carrie's assertion: Jennifer is indeed benevolent! :-)

I too loved the mercy of the Bishop!

dk nolte said...

It is his prayer that touches me most!

Oh Thou who art!
Ecclesiastes names thee the Almighty;
Maccabees names thee Creator;
the Epistle to the Ephesians names thee Liberty;
Baruch names thee Immensity;
the Psalms name thee Wisdom and Truth;
John names thee Light;
the Book of Kings names thee Lord;
Exodus names thee Providence;
Leviticus, Holiness;
Esdras, Justice;
Creation calls thee God;
man names thee Father;
but Solomon names thee Compassion, and that is the most beautiful of all thy names.

- thanks for sharing this

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