Les Misérables on Sacrifice

We all love Les Misérables (okay, fine – most of us: American Idol veteran Adam Lambert is a notable exception). A key theme throughout is the generosity and self-offering of so many doomed, tragic characters. However we encounter the story, we are introduced to the used-up Fantine, the lonely Eponine, and the defiant and rigid Javert. Each gives everything he or she has, but is there any meaning to their sacrifice?

I think the answer lies in a character I grew to love from the story: Bishop Bienvenue. In the novel, Victor Hugo vividly recounts the backstory of this loveable – literally “welcoming” – man. Bienvenue is a redeemed man, and we follow his journey. A contemptuous nobleman at the outset, he loses all in the revolution – a loss that occasions his conversion, his vocation, and his sanctity. Doris Donnelly of John Carroll University captures his holiness in her recent article for The Wall Street Journal:

With Bienvenue, Hugo created a no-frills bishop who lived in a modest cottage, having surrendered his episcopal palace to the hospital next door…

The bishop subsisted on less than one-tenth of his state entitlements, with the remaining funds dispensed to provide for the release of fathers in debtors’ prisons, meat for the soup of people in the hospital, and other unpopular charities… 

He agonized over the guillotine, and having accompanied a prisoner to his execution he was certain—as was Hugo himself—that anyone witnessing the death penalty would declare it a barbaric act unworthy of a civilized society…

Hugo himself was quite anti-clerical. Yet despite his harsh (and often warranted) criticism of 19th-century Catholic France, he provided then and provides now a template for those in church ministry. Bienvenue continuously gave of himself to his people. His final act of self-offering to the community was to rid himself of the very last vestiges of noble self-sufficiency. He gave the convict Jean Valjean the set of six silver place-settings and candlesticks in order to help resuscitate Valjean’s hopes and desires to live freely. This act set in motion the redemption of Valjean, and helped give meaning to the bishop’s – and Fantine’s, and Eponine’s, and Valjean’s – sacrifice