In case you didn't already know, this book is about a zillion pages long. Many translations are actually an abridged version of the full text, and we decided to follow suit. So if you see a few chapters missing or combined here and there, that's why. We've covered all the chapters you'll ever really need to read. (Sorry, Hugo.)
Part 1, Fantine
An Upright Man
So once upon a time there was this local Monseigneur (which is kind of like a high-ranking priest) who lived in a place called Digne. This guy was a partier and womanizer in his early years, but he eventually found God and became a really humble and virtuous guy. It's clear that the author likes him and wants us to like him, too.
The dude now lives in Digne with his sister Mademoiselle Baptistine, who's basically his right-hand woman.
Over time, the Monseigneur (named Myriel) develops such a welcoming and generous reputation that he gets nicknamed "Monseigneur Bienvenu." Bienvenu means "Welcome" in French, so you can probably guess that people aren't afraid to knock on this dude's door and ask for help.
The Monseigneur is so generous that he decides to use a rundown village hospital as his house and arranges for his fancy palace to become the new hospital. He figures that the patients could use the extra room more than he can. He also lives on a strict budget and gives all of his extra money to the poor and needy.
Monseigneur Bienvenu eventually becomes the Bishop of Digne and he uses every chance he can to preach to his churchgoers about the importance of giving to the poor and not being too greedy. It's easy for him to do this because he talks the talk and walks the walk. But he also causes a lot of his rich parishioners to grumble about him behind his back for making them all look like the cheap and greedy good-for-nothings that they are.
One day, the bishop visits a guy who's been convicted of counterfeiting money and sentenced to death. Everyone treats the guy like garbage in his final moments, except for guess who? The bishop, who shows sympathy and comforts the man. He even walks beside the man on the street when he's taken to be executed.
Despite his deep faith, the bishop is deeply shaken by seeing the man killed with a guillotine. For weeks afterward, he walks around feeling gloomy, wondering where all the kindness and compassion in the world has gone.
The narrator gives a really long and detailed description of the bishop's house and bedroom. After all, folks didn't have TV back then, so the author had to be very specific if she/he wanted the readers to picture something in a certain way.
Also, it gives the narrator a chance to emphasize that the bishop doesn't allow any door in his house to be locked, not even the front door.
One year, a fearsome band of thieves takes over the woods separating the bishop's town from one of his other parishes. The bishop decides to visit this other town with nobody but a young boy to accompany him. People say he's ca-razy for riding without an escort, but he's like shrug. If people want to rob him, be his guest.
Instead of robbing the bishop, the thieves actually send him a gift. It's a truck filled with all kinds of religious artifacts and jewels they've stolen over the years. See what you get when you trust people?
When having dinner with a senator one night, Bishop Myriel listens to the senator's arguments about how God is a superstition for poor people who have nothing in their lives and need a little hope. The man believes that wealthy, educated people are too smart (and comfortable) to believe in God. The bishop is totally unfazed by this kind of talk.
Living outside the bishop's village is a man who the villagers think of as some kind of monster. This dude was apparently a member of the "Revolutionary Convention," a group that executed all kinds of French people on made-up charges back in the 1793 Reign of Terror. Word eventually reaches the village that this guy is on his deathbed, and everyone is mostly relieved. The bishop, though, decides to visit this guy and comfort him in his final moments.
As the man dies, he and the bishop get philosophical about whether compassion alone can move the world forward, or whether extreme violence is sometimes necessary. You can probably guess who believes what.
The dying man agrees that the French Revolution killed innocent people, but he also thinks that thousands, even millions of innocent people have escaped death because of it.
By the end of the conversation, the dying man admits that he believes in some form of God. The bishop gets on his knees and, as a show of humility, asks for the man's blessing. But when the bishop looks up, he sees that the man has died.
From that point on, the bishop is twice as generous and sympathetic as he was before, so basically he's a walking puddle.
Predictably, no young priestlings want to work with him. They want to live lavish lifestyles and know they'll never do it with Bishop Myriel.
So the bishop goes about his lonely life, being kind to people and quietly thinking about the power of God and the afterlife, which are things so big he knows he'll never understand them.