In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Doris Donnelly drew attention to the clerical hero of “Les Miserables;” a character she says has been significantly “pared down” in the musical and film versions.
Although the pious Bishop Bienvenue is central to the plot of Victor
Hugo's “Les Miserables” – which has recently been adapted into an
Academy-Award nominated musical – his role is minimized outside the 19th
Dr. Donnelly, a theology professor and head of the Cardinal Suenens
Center at John Carroll University in Cleveland, said she decided to
write the piece for the Wall Street Journal because “obviously there
would be no story without the bishop.”
“It’s just so beautiful, no matter who reads it, you don’t have to be a
Catholic to read it, it’s stunning,” she told CNA Jan. 8.
In her article, she described how even though Hugo was anticlerical, he
chose to use the character of the bishop as a “catalyst” for Jean
Valjean’s epic conversion story. At the same time, he expected corrupt
priests of his day “to be shamed and indicted by comparison with a good
Valjean, or Prisoner 24601 as he was known during his nearly 20 years
of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to save his starving
relatives, emerges as “a very mean, angry, dejected, depressed man.”
Unable to find work because of his mark as an ex-convict, Valjean
struggles to survive until he is directed to seek refuge from Bishop
Bienvenue who was known by his flock to be a particularly benevolent and
The bishop heartily welcomes Valjean as an honored guest in his home.
Valjean is touched, but still desperate, and steals the silver
place-settings from his host’s house.
When he is soon brought back by the police, the bishop denies that the
pieces were stolen saying that they were, in fact, a gift.
In addition to letting Valjean keep the silver and protecting him from
the police, Bishop Bienvenue “buys” the ex-convicts soul for God with
two silver candlesticks, telling him to use the treasure to begin a
virtuous new life.
Although the event “is a tiny part of the movie,” it shows Bishop Bienvenue’s “intimate connection with Christ.”
As a theologian, Dr. Donnelly said she found this scene interesting
since God is the only one who can ransom souls. This act shows that in
his role as bishop, the cleric is “so confident and so comfortable”
acting as a mediator of Christ for Valjean.
“Once you know the story, you can connect it with the movie,” she said.
Due to this confidence in Christ, she said the bishop and Sister
Simplice – a character who is not clearly defined in the recent musical –
are able to lie in order to spare Valjean’s life.
Similar to how the bishop tells the police that Valjean did not steal
the silver, Sister Simplice tells antagonist Javert, who is tracking
Valjean for violating his parole, that she does not know where he is
even thought he is hiding in her convent.
This event illustrates God’s mercy because technically, the cleric and
the nun tell lies, but do so for the purpose of saving a human life,
Donnelly said – something that Javert could never understand.
“He has no flexibility whatsoever and that’s what drives him mad,” she
said. “He’s just a law and order person and doesn’t get it.”
Because of the depth of the novel, many details are unable to be
included in the modern adaptation which is why Donnelly said that the
original, unabridged version of the novel is “worth reading.”