Study Guide

Les Misérables Religion

By Victor Hugo

Religion

"[You] do not care for the cruder aspect of truth. Christ cared. He drove the money-lenders from the temple. His scourge was a great teller of truths." (1.1.10.54)

An old revolutionary official chats with Bishop Myriel about religion and suggests that people don't like to hear unpleasant truths—like that God can be very harsh and brutal when it comes to defending the greater good. For Hugo, religion isn't just a warm blanket that you pull over yourself on Sunday morning. In fact, it's far more likely to demand that you give up that blanket to a beggar on the street.

"Progress must believe in God. The good cannot be served by impiety. An atheist is an evil leader of the human race." (1.1.10.77)

Bishop Myriel believes that a secular world can never achieve social progress. God is the guiding star, and he despairs at the thought that an atheist could ever be a leader of humanity. It's a pretty common belief for the nineteenth century, so Hugo isn't exactly rocking the religious boat here.

"Whom man kills God restores to life; whom the brothers pursue the Father redeems. Pray and believe and go onward into life." (1.1.4.11)

Ex-con? No problem. All Bishop Myriel cares about is saving Jean's soul and putting him on the path to goodness. If you're looking for a positive example of what religion can do for the world, look no further than Bishop Myriel.

He pondered on the greatness and the living presence of God, on the mystery of eternity in the future and, even more strange, eternity in the past, on all the infinity manifest to his eyes and to his senses; and without seeking to comprehend the incomprehensible he contemplated these things. (1.1.13.9)

Bishop Myriel might be as near a saint as anyone in the book, but he isn't complacent about religion. He's unwaveringly kind, even as he wonders endlessly about all the things he doesn't know (and can never know) about God.

"He who knows the answer to this knows all things. He is alone. His name is God. (1.5.11.6)

When pushed to explain the meaning behind the story he's telling, Victor Hugo admits that only God really knows the truth behind human experience. Hugo is just a storyteller in the end, not a prophet. Does that make God the ultimate storyteller?

In the case of a woman permission might be granted and they might talk through the closed shutters, which were opened only for a mother or sister. (2.6.2.24)

Midway through this book, Jean Valjean and Cosette hide inside a convent to avoid capture by Inspector Javert. The nuns who live inside it aren't even allowed to speak to their own family face to face, because their choice of a holy life apparently prohibits them from engaging with the outside world. Here's the question: does Hugo seem to approve of this kind of religious life, or would he prefer these nuns to be out in the world doing good like Bishop Myriel?

Marius clung to the religious habits of his childhood. (3.3.5.1)

Old habits die hard. Marius has gone to church his entire life, and he figures that this is a good enough reason to keep going as he gets older. For Hugo, that's enough. Eventually, he suggests, that habit is going to turn into real faith. (That's why your mom keeps bugging you about going to church while you're in college.)

As we can see, like all new converts to a religion, in the intoxication of his conversion he went too far. (3.3.6.17)

Interesting. Given that Bishop Myriel and Valjean were both new converts at one point, could Hugo be saying that they went too far at one point? We're not sure Hugo really believes you can go too far with religion—but with revolution, definitely.

"I have [a priest]," Jean Valjean replied; and he pointed upwards as though there were some other being present whom he alone could see. (5.9.5.61)

When asked whether he wants a priest in his dying moments, Jean Valjean says he already has one and points to the ceiling. God? Maybe. But he might also be referring to the spirit of Bishop Myriel, who has always been the most important religious figure in Valjean's life.

She was as rich in sorrow as you are in happiness. That is how God evens things out." (5.9.5.66)

When Jean Valjean tells Cosette about her mother, he admits that Fantine had a very hard life. Bit in his mind, Cosette's wonderful life is God's way of balancing out the scales of cosmic justice. Uh, okay … so does this mean Cosette's children have to be miserable, to balance out her happiness?