Chapter I: M. Myriel [Commentary]

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The first few blog entries will be a bit long first because we're just starting and there is so much to introduce, and secondly because the text of the first few chapters is so rich that there is a lot to say about it.

Today, we discuss the first chapter of the first book of volume 1 of Les Misérables.

[Fr.] En 1815, M. Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel était évêque de Digne.

[En.] In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne.

With this chapter dedicated to M. Myriel, Hugo introduces not one character, but two. The year 1815 is not chosen by chance. It has a very deep significance in 19th century France, and, indeed, in the novel as well... At the same time as the author introduces the bishop, he also squarely puts his story within a very specific historical context, incarnated in this chapter by the appearance of Napoleon, the French emperor.

If you missed the beginning...

M. Myriel

Instead of starting with the hero of the story, Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo devotes the whole first book of his expansive novel to whom some may imprudently consider only a secondary character. Indeed Myriel's character is almost completely occulted in the popular musical and reduced to the key scene with Valjean (Book 2). It would appear that Hugo committed a fault of style by starting his tale with a slow moving depiction of the background of a small character instead of trying to captivate the reader's attention with a seminal event in Valjean's life. In fact, in an earlier draft of the novel, Hugo had indeed placed what is now Book 2 ("The Fall") at the very front of the novel, and the whole story of Myriel was placed later, as a flashback in the main story. By starting with Myriel's story, Hugo makes a profound statement about the real importance of the character.

Myriel is the key to understanding the development of Valjean's character throughout the book. He is the incarnation of a very high moral standard against which all other characters will be measured.

The title of the chapter itself ("M. Myriel") already gives an indication of the moral standing of the personage, of his humility. It contradicts the information given in the very first sentence of the whole novel (quoted above). "M." is the French abbreviation of "Monsieur" ("Sir'). Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel is a bishop but he already appears to shun the title "Monseigneur" ("Your Excellency"). He is simply "Monsieur" Myriel. As we shall witness in subsequent chapters, he does not need a title to remind us of his moral standing: his very actions are amply sufficient for that purpose.

While the title Monsieur appears to belittle Bishop Myriel, it will be used by the small priest to elevate Jean Valjean at the time of their encounter, as we shall see in Book 2, Chapter III ("The Heroism of Passive Obedience").

In the first edition of the novel, published in 1862, Digne was not spelled out. Only the initial was given and Hugo had instructed his publishers to write out the full name only in posthumous editions. If the author had wanted to protect the anonymity of a real person upon whom his character is based, it didn't work because very soon people started to point out the obvious resemblances with the person and the life of Charles-François Bienvenu de Miollis (1753-1843), bishop of Digne from 1806 to 1838. In fact, throughout the novel Hugo maintains a certain level of ambiguity between what is fictional and what is factual. In several places, he goes as far as calling upon himself as a direct witness, putting his own person on stage. This is no fantasy novel. Hugo's intention are clear: the main characters and the main plot might very well be fictional, but he is using them to point out, denounce, very concrete realities of our society. He does not want to entertain the readers but to awaken them!

The social and political realities or his time (and ours) cannot be dissociated from the novel. To fully understand the novel, one must have at least a certainly degree of familiarity with the political context in which the novel is set. History can be a catalyst for personal change, as it appears to have been the case in M. Myriel's life.

At the beginning of the novel, Myriel's character is a fairly rounded one. The development of his character mostly took place before the the novel starts, during the historical events briefly mentioned in this chapter. However, as we shall see in Book 2, there is still some room for personal and spiritual growth for Myriel. His character is not quite yet fully completed. Jean Valjean will be the catalyst to events that will allow Myriel to grow a bit further, up to his own full potential...

Historical context

Brief overview

As noted above, in order to properly understand Les Misérables, it is necessary to have a minimum of understanding of the French historical context. Hopefully, having understood the role that the political struggle of that time play within the story, we shall be able to properly transpose the story into the political context of our own times. What makes French late 18th and 19th century history so interesting is that within a short century, France has known almost every type of regime, going from an absolute monarchy to a republic, passing through empires and constitutional monarchies.

To appreciate the beginning of our story, here are the important dates to keep in mind. Please, do write down this list somewhere, keep it handy and refer to it when necessary. We shall fill in some blanks at later stages.

  • 17~18th century: absolute monarchy up to the reign of Louis XVI.
  • 1789: the French Revolution. 14th July: Storming of the Bastille, which is the origin of today's Bastille Day, France's National Day.
  • 1791~1792: constitutional monarchy, still with Louis XVI on the throne.
  • 1792~1804: French First Republic . Louis XVI is guillotined in 1793.
  • 1804~1814/1815: Napoleon's First Empire.
  • 1814/1815~1830: the Bourbon Restoration, another constitutional monarchy, with Louis XVIII (and then Charles X) on the throne.


[En.] The Revolution came; events succeeded each other with precipitation; the parliamentary families, decimated, pursued, hunted down, were dispersed. M. Charles Myriel emigrated to Italy at the very beginning of the Revolution. There his wife died of a malady of the chest, from which she had long suffered. He had no children. What took place next in the fate of M. Myriel? The ruin of the French society of the olden days, the fall of his own family, the tragic spectacles of '93, which were, perhaps, even more alarming to the emigrants who viewed them from a distance, with the magnifying powers of terror,--did these cause the ideas of renunciation and solitude to germinate in him?

[Fr.] La révolution survint, les événements se précipitèrent ; les familles parlementaires, décimées, chassées, traquées, se dispersèrent. M. Charles Myriel, dès les premiers jours de la révolution, émigra en Italie. Sa femme y mourut d’une maladie de poitrine dont elle était atteinte depuis longtemps. Ils n’avaient point d’enfants. Que se passa-t-il ensuite dans la destinée de M. Myriel ? L’écroulement de l’ancienne société française, la chute de sa propre famille, les tragiques spectacles de 93, plus effrayants encore peut-être pour les émigrés qui les voyaient de loin avec le grossissement de l’épouvante, firent-ils germer en lui des idées de renoncement et de solitude ?

1793 represents the darkest, bloodiest hours of the French Revolution. No single person could control the chain of events that King Louis XVI himself started in spring 1789 by calling the Estates-General (a legislative assembly composed of the clergy, the nobles and the Third Estate, which comprised all of the common people) in order to discuss and find a solution to the ongoing economic crisis. By doing so, the king unleashed forces that would soon overpower his erstwhile absolute power. Soon a constitutional monarchy was imposed upon him. However, the new regime didn't solve any of the underlying problems. The treasury was empty; the economic crisis was ongoing; the ordinary people were still hungry. To top it all, France was now at war with the rest of Europe, including the mighty forces of the Austrian and Prussian and English monarchies.

Revolutionary forces within France took control of the situation, abolished the monarchy and, on the 21st September 1792, declared the (First) French Republic. Executive power was now in the hands of the National Convention (the constitutional and legislative assembly). The Convention wasted no time in raising armies in order to fight foreign enemies as well as, increasingly, domestic ones. In January 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded.

It must be said, it is important for our story, that the revolutionary forces not only toppled the monarchy and the nobility, but also the clergy. Throughout the revolutionary period, France went through a progressive de-Christrianization of the society. A new Civil Constitution of the Clergy was adopted. Church lands were confiscated. Parish priests were forcibly replaced by "juror priests" who had sworn an oath to the Civil Constitution.

In the French provinces, where the youths were forced to join the Republican armies in order to repel invading forces, the peasantry loyal to the monarchy and to the Church started to raise and coalesce into a civil army fighting the Revolution from within.

The reaction of the Revolutionary government was most forceful and brutal in fighting the dual threat, foreign and domestic. In 1793, the increasingly paranoid government imposed a Reign of Terror, with tens of thousands of people being more or less summarily executed. Today's historians all agree the counter-offensives in the French provinces against the monarchists was particularly bloody. They only disagree on how to call it. "Genocide" may not be too strong a word, but it somehow does not fit the definition of this word, coined in 1944 in very specific circumstances. Maybe the best word is one coined by a contemporary, in 1794: "populicide" (or, in English, "democide").

In our story, M. Myriel is issued from the small nobility and one can understand how the revolutionary events affected his whole family and what caused them to flee the country to take refuge in Italy.


[En.] About the epoch of the coronation, some petty affair connected with his curacy--just what, is not precisely known--took him to Paris. Among other powerful persons to whom he went to solicit aid for his parishioners was M. le Cardinal Fesch. One day, when the Emperor had come to visit his uncle, the worthy Cure, who was waiting in the anteroom, found himself present when His Majesty passed. Napoleon, on finding himself observed with a certain curiosity by this old man, turned round and said abruptly:--
"Who is this good man who is staring at me?"
"Sire," said M. Myriel, "you are looking at a good man, and I at a great man. Each of us can profit by it."

[Fr.] Vers l’époque du couronnement, une petite affaire de sa cure, on ne sait plus trop quoi, l’amena à Paris. Entre autres personnes puissantes, il allait solliciter pour ses paroissiens M. le cardinal Fesch. Un jour que l’empereur était venu faire sa visite à son oncle, le digne curé, qui attendait dans l’antichambre, se trouva sur le passage de sa majesté. Napoléon, se voyant regarder avec une certaine curiosité par ce vieillard, se retourna, et dit brusquement :
— Quel est ce bonhomme qui me regarde ?
— Sire, dit M. Myriel, vous regardez un bonhomme, et moi je regarde un grand homme. Chacun de nous peut profiter.

In this wonderful little scene with M. Myriel, his story meets History (La petite histoire rencontre la grande Histoire!). The Good One meets the Great One. Hugo again plays on two different registers, that of the fictional accounts and that of factual history.

Napoleon is an ambivalent figure in French history. He is neither a villain nor a hero. Or rather, he is both, depending of which aspect of his legacy one considers. It is quite amazing to consider the amount of monuments, institutions, administrative divisions and laws existing today in France that date back to Napoleon Bonaparte's rule. Still revered by a small fraction of the population, especially in his native Corsica, the French government preferred to keep a very low-key profile in the very modest celebrations of the bicentenary of his rule. Napoleon is full of complexities. It is difficult to summarize his influence on the course of history with a one-sided simple statement.

Born in 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte was a very young officer of artillery in the French army at the beginning of the French Revolution. He enthusiastically espoused the causes of the Revolution and progressively rose to fame and in stature thanks to his military genius and numerous victories on the battlefield. In many occasions, he was the Man of the Hour. Napoleon didn't seize power by force. People sought him out for help. In 1799, he was elected as one of the three consuls, the new executive power of the young republic. However, Napoleon Bonaparte manages to take hold of more and more executive powers. In May 1804, he finally overthrows the French Republic and declares himself to be Emperor of the French. In December 1804, he has himself crowned in a majestic ceremony. In the subsequent years, he will continue fighting the other European monarchies, very successfully at first, ostensibly in order to promote the values of the Revolution. Yet, at the same time, he is grooming his son to succeed him one day, in what would look more and more like another hereditary monarchy.

Joseph Fesch (1763 – 1839), as noted by Hugo in the current chapter, was Napoleon's maternal uncle. The young Fesch quits the priesthood at the start of the Reign of Terror, but comes back to the clergy in 1800. In 1802, Napoleon appoints him at the diocese of Lyon where he is soon named archbishop and then cardinal, thanks again to the intercession of his powerful nephew.


[En.] In 1815, [...]

[Fr.] En 1815, [...]

The year 1815 is not only the start of our story. It will appear several times throughout the novel, often only hinted at, as we shall see in due time.

Most importantly, within the wider historical context, 1815 is the year of the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's final defeat which changed the history of the whole of Europe. A French critic said that Waterloo is to Les Misérables what Genesis is to God's Chosen People. The Allied forces of all the European monarchies finally succeeded in defeating the French emperor. European crowned heads couldn't abide the bad example that first the French Revolution and then the French Empire was setting in Europe. Having forced Napoleon into exile, not once but twice (first in 1814 and then definitely in 1815), the European Allies promptly put Louis XVIII on the French throne. This was the (House of) Bourbon Restoration, a constitutional monarchy.

Church and State

The careful reader might have been surprised to notice that it was Napoleon, and not Rome, who appointed bishops in French dioceses:

[En.] That very evening, the Emperor asked the Cardinal the name of the Cure, and some time afterwards M. Myriel was utterly astonished to learn that he had been appointed Bishop of Digne.

[Fr.] L’empereur, le soir même, demanda au cardinal le nom de ce curé, et quelque temps après M. Myriel fut tout surpris d’apprendre qu’il était nommé évêque de Digne.

On the face of things, the separation of Church and State is firmly established in both modern France and USA both being secular republics. Before coming back to interesting modern examples of the sometimes fairly complex relationships between States and organized religions, let's have a quick overview of its historical evolution in France.


The French monarchy dates back to the 5th century. One of the early kings of the Franks, Clovis I, converted to Catholicism partly in order to consolidate his power against rival contenders to the throne. The kings derived their power from God. The anointment of the monarch by the Church legitimised their power. But as the centuries passed, the monarchy became more and more strongly anchored in tradition. There were sometimes complex power plays between the king and the Church (the Pope in Rome). So, the traditional arrangement with the Papacy became to be seen as increasingly cumbersome by the French monarch. It is no surprise that it was under the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, the absolute monarch par excellence, that the Declaration of the Clergy of France was unilaterally adopted (1682): many of the powers that Rome used to have over the clergy in France were revoked and transferred to the King. But still, the clergy remained powerful, the first of the three Estates that Louis XVI fatefully convoked in spring 1789.

At the start of the Revolution, the clergy was, by far, the largest land owner. This was very soon corrected! France was then going through the very thorough and methodical de-Christianization process mentioned above. A new Revolutionary calendar was even adopted, with 10 months a year and 10 days weeks, which conveniently eliminated the Sunday with its sabbatical significance. With the 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy, Catholic parish priests were replaced by clerical civil servants sworn to the Republic which set the scene for the civil insurrection and the bloody 1793-1794 Reign of Terror, as mentioned above.

In 1801, the Church regained most of its freedom, even if not all of its former might, thanks to the Concordat signed by the then consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII. The people gained back their liberty of religious expression (for the Catholics as well as for the Protestant and Jewish minorities) but Rome's power to influence French political affairs was still severely curtailed. Bishops were to be appointed by the State and Rome was forced to definitely abandon any claims to its confiscated land.

It is thus that Napoleon, now Emperor, would be the one to decide to appoint M. Myriel as Bishop of Digne.

In France, the terms of the Concordat have been in effect for over a century. It is only in 1905, during the French Third Republic, that the Concordat was repealed and France declared a secular republic. The power to appoint Bishops was now back into Rome's hands.

Because of a strange twist of history, we are not quite yet at the end of or brief overview of the relationship between Church and State in France. At the time that the 1905 law took effect, three Départements (administrative divisions) in Eastern France were not then part of France. The two départements in Alsace and the Moselle département were conceded to Germany after France lost its short war against Prussia, in 1870. These three départements were re-integrated into the French territory after Germany's loss of the First Word War (1914-1918). For some strange reasons, the 1905 secular laws were not applied to them and the terms of the 1801 Concordat still apply, event today in the 21st century, in these eastern départements. The French State simply appoints Bishops according to Rome direct recommendations, and the clergy there are still civil servants paid by the Republic!


I have nothing to say about the separation of Church and State in the USA that you wouldn't already know. Even though the US is a nominally secular republic, we all know to what extent religious issues play a part in American politics. Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, it was strange to witness that both McCain and Obama appeared at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California, apparently as an unavoidable stage on the road to the White House. Religious symbols have progressively reappeared, e.g. within the Oath of Allegiance and printed on the Federal money. The US society has apparently not quite yet definitely decided the relationship between the Federal State and religions.

United Kingdom

I lack both the time and the knowledge to cover the equally interesting relationship between the British Crown (and by extension the British government) and, first, the Catholic Church and later the Anglican Church. It is well known that the British monarch is now the head of the Anglican Church. Yet, the country enjoys a very high degree of religious freedom, with many Muslims, Sikhs, Catholics and followers of other religions freely practising within its borders.


Saddham Hussein's Iraq used to be a secular government, but, when threatened and attacked by the US ten years ago, Hussein changed the national flag to include a sutra from the Koran, in a vain attempt to rally religious zealots to his cause.


Ostensibly looking for Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, the US war in Afghanistan have had at least one beneficial result: that of chasing the most extreme Muslim fundamentalists, the Taliban regime, away from power. Yet, over ten years later, the Taliban are still around the corner...


Pakistan is a bit like the US: a country very ostensibly secular. Yet, see (at youtube) the recent two parts BBC documentary "Secret Pakistan", to understand the extent by which highly ranked religious zealots within the Pakistani secret services, the SSI, undermined from the very beginning the US war in Afghanistan, all in the name of the Shariah law as formerly enforced by the Talibans. Pakistan, whilst ostensibly very friendly to the US government, is engaged in a proxy religious war against the US, fought on Afghan soil.


When thinking about religious freedom, a name that does not come to mind is that of Saudi-Arabia, which is very openly a religious Muslim monarchy. Yet, things are (very) slowly moving to the right direction thanks to progressive reforms allowing women marginally more freedom. Again, see (at youtube) the recent BBC documentary "Inside the Saudi Kingdom".


Quick, tell me: what kind of regime is Germany? Secular or religious? Unlike in (most of) France where religion is not taught in schools and where there is a complete separation between the secular and the religious powers, there are religious classes in German schools. Religious ministers are paid by the German government which retains a neutral stance in the sense that all religions are treated equally, in proportion to to the self-declared religion of the population. (Do correct me if I am wrong).

Despite France's republican attachment to secularism, the German model is one that we sometimes look at because of the increasing Muslim population in France. There are regular social unrest because of the underprivileged status of the Muslim minorities. Combine this with not always very benevolent religious foreign influences (which are funding French Imams and French mosques), and one may understand why some would prefer Muslim Imams (and Catholic priests) to be paid by the government...

The Republic of China

I personally live in the Republic of China (some of you might be surprised to learn), and I must say that I don't know of any other country where there is such a high degree of religious tolerance. Indeed, religion is never an issue. It is not a social issue, nor a political issue. The religious affiliation of the political leaders and elected officials is almost never mentioned, and then only as a matter of passing curiosity. It is never an issue during electoral campaigns. Some former leaders of the Republic of China have been Christians, others not.

If the previous paragraphs surprises you, it's because you are confusing two Chinas: the People's Republic of China, the giant country lead by the Chinese Communist Party, and the small Republic of China, a vibrant democracy limited to the island of Taiwan.

Which model?

If it were up to you, which model would you adopt? The neutral German model, or the actively secular French model? What would you change in the US institutions with regard to the relationship between the Federal government and the religious leadership?


In order to complete the loop and go back to the text of the current chapter, let's discuss a bit the following quotes:

[En.] Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be superfluous, if merely for the sake of exactness in all points, to mention here the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him from the very moment when he arrived in the diocese. True or false, that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do.

[Fr.] Quoique ce détail ne touche en aucune manière au fond même de ce que nous avons à raconter, il n’est peut-être pas inutile, ne fût-ce que pour être exact en tout, d’indiquer ici les bruits et les propos qui avaient couru sur son compte au moment où il était arrivé dans le diocèse. Vrai ou faux, ce qu’on dit des hommes tient souvent autant de place dans leur vie et souvent dans leur destinée que ce qu’ils font.

And later in the chapter:

[En.] M. Myriel had to undergo the fate of every newcomer in a little town, where there are many mouths which talk, and very few heads which think. He was obliged to undergo it although he was a bishop, and because he was a bishop. But after all, the rumors with which his name was connected were rumors only,--noise, sayings, words; less than words--palabres, as the energetic language of the South expresses it.

[Fr.] M. Myriel devait subir le sort de tout nouveau venu dans une petite ville où il y a beaucoup de bouches qui parlent et fort peu de têtes qui pensent. Il devait le subir, quoiqu’il fût évêque et parce qu’il était évêque. Mais, après tout, les propos auxquels on mêlait son nom n’étaient peut-être que des propos ; du bruit, des mots, des paroles, moins que des paroles, des palabres, comme dit l’énergique langue du midi.

This is only the first of the very profound social statements that Hugo included in his novel. Here, there is no need to over-analyse the text: it speaks for itself. None of us would have to look very far in order to find examples of gossips shaping the lives both of ordinary people in our neighbourhoods and of public figures, candidates and elected officials. Justified or not, well-founded or not, think of the extent to which what was said about both successful and unsuccessful candidates (from the presidency and down to the lower echelons of government) shaped their campaign and sealed their fates, more than anything they actually did. What do you think would be the best of examples? Al Gore in 2000? John Kerry in 2004? Howard Dean (and his scream) in the 2004 primaries? Or the recent brouhaha over Marco Rubio's sip of water??

Can we take a moment to reflect on the fact that every single one of us, to larger or smaller degrees, have harmed other people with our careless gossips?

Another parting question: Which do you aspire the most to become: a good person or a great person?