Saturday Book Notes — Les Miserables


I know it’s common practice to make notations and highlights in non-fiction lit, but do you make notes and highlights in your favorite fiction books, too? I do. I will write on and/or highlight just about anything if it’s interesting (and still for long enough).

As mentioned in a previous post, I am re-reading Les Misérables in anticipation of the new movie which premieres Christmas Day. I’ve made some new highlights during this second reading, and it seems good to me to compile these highlights in one place. What better way to utilize my blog?!

I am reading the Signet Classics version, A new unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, published in 1987.

The portion of LM introducing Bishop Bienvenu/Monsieur Myriel contains many of my favorite portions. He provides interesting, thought-provoking social and spiritual commentary. I love this character and his way of life.

The Good Bishop:

Never in all his life had M. Géborand given alms to the unfortunate; but from the day of this sermon it was noticed that regularly every Sunday he gave a penny to the old beggar women at the door of the cathedral. There were six of them to share it. One day the bishop, seeing him perform this act of charity, said to his sister with a smile, “There’s Monsieur Géborand, buying a pennyworth of paradise.”

One day he preached this sermon in the cathedral: “Dearest brethren, my good friends, in France there are one million three hundred and twenty thousand peasants’ cottages that have only three openings; one million eight hundred and seventeen thousand that have two, the door and one window; and finally, three hundred and forty-six thousand cabins with only one — the door.  And this is because of the tax on doors and windows. Imagine poor families, aged women and small children living in these huts, and think of the fever and disease. Alas! God gives light to men, and the law sells it. I do not blame the law, but I bless God…My brethren, be compassionate; see how much suffering there is around you.”

…[H]is words penetrated every soul.

He behaved the same with the rich as with the poor.

He condemned nothing hastily or without taking account of circumstances. He would say, “Let’s see how the fault crept in.”

Being, as he smilingly described himself, an ex-sinner, he had none of the inaccessibility of a rigid moralist, and would boldly profess without the raised eyebrows of the ferociously virtuous, a doctrine that might be loosely summarized as follows: “Man has a body that is both his burden and his temptation. He drags it along and gives in to it. He ought to watch over it, keep it in bounds, repress it, and obey it only as a last resort. It may be wrong to obey even then, but if so, the fault is venial. It is a fall, but a fall onto the knees, which may end in prayer. To be a saint is the exception; to be upright is the rule. Err, falter, sin, but be upright. To commit the least possible sin is the law for man. To live entirely without sin is the dream of an angel. Everything on this earth is subject to sin. Sin is like gravity.”

When he heard people raising a hue and cry, easily finding fault, “Oh ho!” he would say, with a smile. “It would seem that this is a great crime that everyone commits. See how an offended hypocrisy is quick to protest and run for cover!”

He was indulgent toward women and the poor, upon whom the weight of society falls most heavily. He would say, “The faults of women, children, and servants, and of the weak, the indigent, and the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise.” Or he would say, “Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is guilty in not providing universal free education, and it must answer for the night is produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”

Clearly, he had his own strange way of judging things. I suspect he acquired it from the Gospels.

The private life of M. Myriel was filled with the same thoughts as his public life.

He coming was cause for celebration. It was as though he gave off warmth and light as he passed along. Old people and children would come to their doors for the bishop as they would for the sun. He blessed and was blessed in return. Anyone in need of anything was shown the way to his house.

Again he wrote: “Do not ask the name of him who asks you for a bed. It is precisely he whose name is a burden to him who most needs sanctuary.

“Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. Why worry about what threatens our heads or our purses? Let us think instead of what threatens our souls.”

“My sister, a priest must never take any precaution against a neighbor. What his neighbor does God permits. Let us confine ourselves to prayer when we feel danger looming, pray not for ourselves, but that our brother not fall into crime because of us.”

“There is always One with us who is the strongest. Satan may visit our house, but the good Lord lives here.”

He did not study God; he was dazzled by Him.

What more was needed by this old man, who divided the leisure hours of his life, where he had so little leisure, between gardening in the daytime and contemplation at night? Was this narrow enclosure with the sky for a background not space enough for him to adore God in his most beautiful, most sublime works? Indeed, is that not everything? What more do you need? A little garden to walk in, and immensity to reflect on. At his feet something to cultivate and gather; above his head something to study and meditate on; a few flowers on earth and all the stars in heaven.

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2 thoughts on “Saturday Book Notes — Les Miserables

  1. I make notes regularly in my non-fiction books, but for some reason, I haven’t been able to bring myself to do that in my fiction books. And, I’m all for writing in books! :) My 15 year old has been reading Les Miserables, and he’s frequently recording passages from it in his commonplace book. He and his brother (Ink) both shudder at the thought of writing in books. Perhaps one day they’ll be convinced. I’m sharing your quotes with Jake, for perhaps these impressed him as well.

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