Religion in “Les Misérables”
Victor Hugo did not like or approve of organised religion. He was totally opposed to insensitive insistence on doctrine and dogma at the expense of common humanity, compassion and tolerance.
“Notre Dame de Paris” (1832) is a scathing indictment of the unnatural position of a priest whose sense of duty and devotion conflicts with human nature to twist the man under the priest’s garb into a manipulative and scheming individual capable of natural injustice while convincing himself he is acting for all the “right” reasons.
By the time he wrote “Les Misérables” (1862), Hugo had mellowed in his feelings toward the Church enough to recognise the worth and value of at least one ecclesiastical figure – the Bishop of Digne (French for “worthy”), based on a genuine Bishop.
However, Hugo goes to considerable lengths to point out to what extent our Bishop does not follow the example of other contemporary ecclesiastics in similar positions. Much emphasis is laid on this man’s (Monseigneur Myriel) piety, understanding and poverty, his refusal to accede to any form of superiority or comfort offered up by his position, and above all that he holds Jesus himself as a model for his own conduct, as opposed to the doctrines of the Church.
It is essential to note that it is this good man who acts as an inspiration and model for Valjean. Valjean passes a number of unkind remarks about the clergy while dining with the Bishop and fails to recognise that Myriel may be a highly-placed ecclesiastic, so distant is he from the image of a Bishop in Valjean’s mind.
When Myriel feeds and lodges Valjean, it is not done out of a sense of duty but out of genuine caring and empathy. Similarly, when he tells the police he gave Valjean the silverware and goes on to hand over the silver candlesticks as well, he is acting out of charity and a genuine desire to help Valjean escape the fate which seems to be his due. He does not act as a member of the Church (who might well have been more concerned with loss of property than recalling a spirit to the fold), but as a caring and spiritual man who puts the needs of others above his own material comfort and possessions.
The fact that Myriel is a Bishop may be viewed (in one sense) as irrelevant – it is an act of goodness and kindness that inspires Valjean. On the other hand, Hugo has chosen to make Myriel a Bishop and is undoubtedly inviting his readers to consider the possibility that God has acted indirectly to guide and inspire Valjean.
While God is referred to on numerous occasions, in the broadest of terms, and his possible influence is alluded to in many instances, Hugo very cleverly leaves the issue of God’s influence on events to the judgement of the individual reader. Fundamentally, we do not know if God influences events in our lives, though we may perceive what we interpret as evidence of influence, but as I have suggested elsewhere in my scribblings, Valjean has become an independent thinker – he professes a belief in God, but does not spend his time pondering the unfathomable and waiting for divine inspiration. What defines Valjean is the fact that he has learned from his experience and acts on it. He tries to help people by his own initiative. He sees what is needed, takes control, and sets about creating circumstances which will help resolve the situation. Just as Myriel acted on his own conscience rather than follow doctrine, so Valjean has faith but acts according to his own reflection.
In the musical, Javert is portrayed as an unquestioning believer, though in the book there is little reference to religion and God – Javert appears to take it for granted that he is on the side of God. Just as he accepts and defends the status quo in society, so Javert has faith in the God of society and the Church, and by extension has faith in his own position in society, while Valjean is rejected by society but has found his own way forward founded on a faith (in principle) unfettered by Church and dogma.
Although a huge and instant success on its publication, “Les Misérables” was also instantly frowned upon by ecclesiastical authorities. They found the implication that God and salvation/fulfilment are accessible without necessary recourse to the Church threatened the very position of the Church in society.
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