In 1815, M. Charles François-Bienvenu Myriel has been Bishop of Digne for nine years. He is seventy-five years old and lives only with a sister Baptistine, ten years younger than he, and an old servant, Madame Magloire, the same age as his sister.
The bishop's background destined him to a worldly career. His father was a counselor at the Parlement of Aix and was grooming his son to be his successor. The young man married at eighteen and cut an impressive figure in society. But the Revolution changed his destiny. Exile, his wife's death, the destruction of the ancient order, perhaps some private grief, turned M. Myriel toward the priesthood.
M. Myriel became a priest of ineffable goodness. His appointment as bishop by Napoleon was a blessing to his diocese. He turned over his vast and sumptuous palace to the sick and converted the hospital into his own Spartan residence. The only luxury that he has retained from a more comfortable past are a few silver pieces: six knives and forks, a soup ladle, and two candlesticks.
Not only the resources of the church but most of his own are used for the benefit of the indigent. Out of a salary of 15,000 francs, 14,000 are earmarked for charity. For the sake of the poor, the bishop willingly hazards his reputation. He requests funds for the maintenance of a carriage, risking criticism for this extravagance, in order to give the money to orphans and foundlings. His sacrifice does not prevent him from visiting his flock on foot, by donkey, or by some other modest means of transportation. Tirelessly he ministers to the sick, consoles the dying, and preaches the moral life. He does not demand the impossible and never condemns hastily. His front door is always unlocked, a perpetual invitation for those in need.
Only a few events interrupt his saintly daily routine. On one occasion, he consoles a convict during his last night on earth and attends his execution. The experience leaves him with a lingering impression of horror and doubts about the social order.
The bishop's pastoral duties involve him in another experience that illustrates his unflinching zeal. Eager to visit an isolated parish village, he ventures alone into the mountains where the bandit Cravatte has his hideout. At the village, he wants to sing a Te Deum but finds the parish too poor to provide the necessary episcopal ornaments for the service. Help comes from an unexpected source: the thief Cravatte sends him a trunk filled with the treasures he has stolen from another church, Notre Dame of Embrun. The bishop uses them for his service, but we are left in suspense as to whether he then returns them to Embrun or sells them and gives the funds to the hospital.
Humble with the underprivileged, M. Bienvenu (as his parishioners call him because of his kindness to them) can be cutting with the complacently wealthy. He refutes the amoral materialism of a senator with a sarcastic sermon, an ironic compliment.
His irony is reserved exclusively for the selfish, however, and he treats honorable opponents with consideration and courtesy. When he hears of the serious illness of C., a member of the Convention of 1793 that sent so many to the guillotine, he feels compelled to pay him a pastoral visit, and in a long conversation marked by mutual respect, the two argue the value of the Revolution. With uncommon understanding, the bishop acknowledges its merits and, in a reversal of roles, concludes by asking the conventionist's blessing.
It is often the case that the opening lines of a book set the keynote for the whole. Here, it is the Bishop of Digne who sets the spiritual keynote for Les Misérables.
A truly good man or woman is one of the most difficult characters for a writer to portray convincingly. Notice that in describing the bishop, Hugo does not simply tell us "This man is a saint." Instead, he introduces him to us gradually and lets us form our own conclusions. We learn first what people say about his past. Then we see him in action, giving away his palace and his income; and we hear him speak — simply and wisely to his parishioners, gaily to his sister, wittily to the great. In Chapters 5-9, we penetrate further into his private life and learn that he lives as unpretentiously in his bedroom as he does in public, and that his sister and servant love and revere him even more than his parishioners. To add more conviction still to this straightforward account, Hugo lets us read at firsthand the bishop's personal budget and his sister's letter to an old friend, and subjects him to two difficult tests: a test of courage with Cravatte, the thief, a test of charity with G., the conventionist. And when, finally, we are given a glimpse of his inner thoughts, we are not surprised at the radiance we find there.
Most of all, however, it is the touch of humor — even of the sardonic — which Hugo gives M. Myriel that makes him believable. The bishop is not above a bit of larceny in a good cause, nor is he free from personal and class prejudice. But he is constantly being changed by what he believes; his inner light changes his own personality as well as that of those around him.
The bishop is also important to Hugo as a social symbol. A man of the Old Regime, he has accepted his loss of privilege without bitterness, and though a student of the divine, he is not blind to the flaws in human law. In his sympathetic treatment of both the bishop and the conventionist G., and in showing that a reconciliation between them is possible, Hugo is indirectly urging his readers to put progress above party and to unite to lift from the poor the terrible burden that, more than eighty years after the Revolution, they are still suffering.