The title Les Misérables is Hugo’s revision of his original title, “Les Misères.” The choice is affinitive with Hugo’s Romanticism, as it indicates a preference of the concrete (the wretched ones) to the abstract (miseries), of persons to situations. The full connotative strength of neither title can be retained in literal English translation, and it is good that English translations of the novel appear under the French title. The word misérables supports the double sense of “those who are wretched” and “those who are to be pitied.” The second sense implies the possibility or presence of pitiers. The readers of the novel, then, may participate in the narrative as those who pity the pitiable. Pity is, etymologically, an act of pietas (piety). It is in this subjective inclusion of the reader in the artwork that Romanticism differs from classicism. With regard to Les Misérables, the reader’s pity is an experience of piety; and piety, in the full Latin sense of pietas (devotion, dedication, commiseration), is as much the theme of the novel as it is a manifestation of Hugo’s deep religious sensibility.
The story begins with an account of the exemplary piety of a Christian bishop, Monseigneur Myriel Bienvenu, who selects as the most beautiful name of God not Creator, Liberty, Light, Providence, not even God or Father, but the name given by Solomon, Miséricorde (compassion or pity). He is contrasted with men who dig for gold: He is one who digs for pity. To this seventy-five-year-old bishop, in the year 1815, comes Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who has spent nineteen years in prison. He is seeking lodging for the night, and no room has been found for him at the inns of the town. The priest offers him food, lodging, and trust. Valjean had been sentenced to prison, first for the theft of bread to feed his widowed sister and her seven children, and subsequently for four unsuccessful attempts to escape. Hardened by imprisonment and the reception given him by those who had either despised or exploited the former convict, he is capable now of crime for its own sake, as well as for survival. Checking his movement to murder the bishop as he sleeps, Valjean settles for stealing the household silverware. Apprehended and returned to the bishop, he is released, as the bishop, insisting the silverware was not stolen, adds a pair of candlesticks to the “gift.” Valjean’s receipt of mercy restores him to piety, the showing of mercy to others, although the first stage on his new journey involves his reflex theft of a coin from a boy, in his tearful remorse for which he undergoes repentance: He awakens to see a semblance of “Satan in the light of Paradise,” returns to the door of Monseigneur Bienvenu, and...
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