What are points for both sides of the argument that “Bienvenu represents the thematic centre” of  Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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On the one hand, Bienvenue, or the Bishop of Digne, represents the thematic center concerning humane treatment.  Bienvenue is the very essence of just and compassionate treatment.  Bienvenue invites a lowly, newly-freed prisoner, Jean Valjean, into his home and serves him with his finest silver, while others treated him as even lower than a dog.  When Jean Valjean steals some of Bienvenue’s silver and is caught by the authorities, Bienvenue rescues him, saying that the silver was a gift, even offering the last remaining candle stick and demanding his release.  Once the authorities release Valjean and leave, Bienvenue tells Valjean that he has bought his soul with the silver and that he is to use it to redeem himself and make a new man of himself.  In other words, Bienvenue felt compassion for Jean Valjean and gave him the gift of the silver to rise up in dignity, free himself from the binds of poverty, and become a new man.  Jean Valjean’s transformation is not instant, but soon he creates enough of a fortune with the silver to buy a factory in a new town, which he operates with the utmost care towards his workers.  Soon Valjean becomes mayor of the town.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that the thematic center of Les Miserables is actually more political in nature, rather than humanitarian.  While the character Bienvenue addresses the humanitarian need of just treatment, compassion, and a break from poverty, his character does not offer a solution for the government of France.  It can be argued that the government of France, not just its citizens, needs to become just, compassionate, and redeem its poor people.  Hence the political side of the thematic center teaches that so long as the government is still oppressing its people, then its people will never be lifted out of poverty and redeemed.  Bienvenue represents what the French government needs to achieve, without actually representing the French government.

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