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Two of the central themes in Les Miserables are what one might call redemption, rebirth, or even transformation, and human rights, particularly the lack of human rights found in the social orders of France before, during, and even after the French Revolution. The Bishop of Digne, M. Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel, represents both of these crucial themes with respect to how he ministers towards his diocese and with respect to an act of mercy and redemption he bestowed on the character Jean Valjean that helped to redeem and transform Jean Valjean’s life forever.
The Bishop of Digne was known for doing everything he possibly could for the sick, the poor, and dying. Unlike those in French government, he gave nearly all of his salary to charity and kept very few luxuries for himself, except for a few pieces of silver. The Bishop’s humility and acts of charity contrast with the French government, which is being accused of hoarding wealth and keeping its citizens poor. We see the Bishop act most mercifully when he invites Jean Valjean, a newly released prisoner who was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephews and nieces, into his home for dinner and a bed. Jean Valjean has been treated most cruelly in prison and feels he has lost his humanity and is not even as important as a dog. When Jean Valjean repays the Bishop’s kindness by stealing his silver and is caught by the police, the Bishop shows a great act of mercy by telling the police that silver was a gift and telling Jean Valjean to become a new man. The Bishop’s act was an act of mercy against the cruelties of the French government and against the sufferings of mankind.
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