We have spent the first twelve chapters of Les Miserables learning all about the character of Monseigneur Bienvenu. Victor Hugo did a very thorough job of laying out this character and exploring it from many different angles. We learned all about how he became bishop of Digne, and we saw how he came to be very much respected and revered by his parishioners. We saw that compassion for the poor was the top priority in his life, even though it seriously inconvenienced himself and those who lived with him. We saw numerous examples of this compassion in action, including a visit to far-flung parishioners which required him to pass through bandit-infested mountains, and a visit to a dying pariah which unexpectedly turned out to be a defining moment in his life.
Now we meet a rough-looking stranger traveling on foot who enters the town of Digne about an hour before sunset. We track with him as he tries to obtain dinner and lodging at a tavern. At first the owner is obliging, telling him that dinner will be ready soon. But unbeknownst to him, the owner sends a messenger to the town hall, and apparently obtains some information on who this stranger is, because as soon as he receives the answer, he throws him out. In the course of this interchange, we learn that the stranger is none other than Jean Valjean.
Next we track with Jean Valjean as he tries, unsuccessfully, to obtain lodging at other taverns. The word about him has spread all over town, and none of the other innkeepers is willing to receive him. Even the local jailer will not receive him. He stops at a likely looking home and knocks on the door, but the family closes it violently in his face. He even tries to find shelter in an outbuilding in somebody’s yard, but this turns out to be a kennel and the dogs chase him out. He heads out of town with the idea of sleeping under the stars, but the sky looks so threatening and the landscape so desolate that it scares him. Finally he heads back into town through a gap in the wall; by this time the gates have closed. As he passes the church he shakes his fist at it; he settles down for the night on a stone bench in the cathedral square. An old woman directs him to the bishop’s residence and instructs him to knock on that door.
At this point Monseigneur Bienvenu is in the middle of a thesis on Duty, working through everything that the Bible, the Church Fathers, and other philosophers have to say on the subject. Victor Hugo points out that this project was never completed. It did not have to be; the bishop is about to demonstrate through his actions the completion of this thesis.
The women of the house, Mademoiselle Baptistine and Madame Magliore, are troubled because they have heard the reports that there is a dangerous man on the loose and walking the streets of Digne. Madame Magliore is quite animatedly upset, but Mademoiselle Baptistine is willing to accept whatever the bishop does. And then, all of a sudden, Jean Valjean knocks at the door and the bishop lets him in.
Jean Valjean immediately proceeds to tell the bishop who he is, holding nothing back. The bishop immediately invites him to dinner, introducing himself as the priest who lives in this house. They converse over dinner; the bishop proceeds to tell him how he might be able to make a good living at the dairies of Pontarlier. We get part of this in the words of Mademoiselle Baptistine; she is quite impressed that the bishop does nothing to take advantage of what would be a prime opportunity to moralize or to set himself above Jean Valjean in order to make an impression. (I know of very few evangelicals who would pass up a similar opportunity.) Jean Valjean is impressed that this priest is showing him such respect when he was a convict accustomed to harsh treatment from his fellow men.
Now this act of sharing a meal is a significant event. Why? The very act of eating is such an everyday thing in the lives of people that there is very little which can be said about it that has not already been said. For this reason, many writers simply do not include any details about their characters eating, unless they have a very special reason to do so.
So what reason could Victor Hugo have had for including this dinner scene? The act of sharing a meal with another person (or people) is a very big deal in our Western culture. So much so, that we usually only do it with family members or close friends. Think about it; you will not walk into a restaurant and sit down at the same table with a complete stranger and just start eating. Neither will you invite someone you just met over to your place for dinner; you will usually reserve this honor only for family or close friends. So the bishop’s act of sharing a meal with someone would indicate his kinship or friendship with that person. And the fact that he was willing to share a meal with Jean Valjean, a complete stranger to him at that point, indicates that he is intentionally placing himself into friendship with Jean Valjean. In so doing, he is putting into action everything that he believes and preaches about concern for the poor and solidarity with the poor.
Also let me point out that the very first creative act of God was to speak order into chaos. Chaos is a result of sin, and when Jean Valjean arrived at Monseigneur Bienvenu’s his heart was very much in a state of chaos, as a result of his crime and his suffering in prison and his experience after being released from prison. The very first thing which Monseigneur Bienvenu did for Jean Valjean was speak order into this chaos by sharing a meal with him. There is a certain order in the customs associated with a formal dinner; the place settings, the serving of food, and even the conversation which takes place during the meal. Now this was not enough to heal the deep spiritual hurt which Jean Valjean was carrying, but it did begin to work on him at a surface level.
After the dinner is finished, the bishop proceeds to show Jean Valjean to his room. At this point, Jean Valjean gives us a rather ominous indicator of things to come. Victor Hugo relates it as follows:
Scarcely had he pronounced these words of peace, when suddenly he made a strange gesture that would have horrified the two women of the house, if they had witnessed it. Even now it is hard for us to understand what impulse he obeyed at that moment. Did he intend to give a warning or threat? Or was he simply obeying a sort of instinctive impulse, obscure even to himself? He turned abrupbly toward the old man, crossed his arms, and glaring at his host, exclaimed harshly, “So, now! You let me stay in your house, so near to you as that!” He checked himself, and added, with a laugh that had a trace of something horrible, “Have you thought I might be a murderer?”
The bishop replied, “God will take care of that.”
The bishop has already shown such trust in the mercy of God in the face of danger before. We have seen how he sleeps with his doors open. We saw how he handled the Cravatte incident. So it should not surprise us that he would react in a similar fashion in this instance.
After this, the bishop goes out for his nightly walk in the garden. Jean Valjean just collapses onto the bed without even bothering to change his clothes or to slip into the clean sheets. And that is where we will leave things for now (another cliffhanger). Tune in next time to see what happens during the night.