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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
BOOK FIRST: An Upright Man
The story opens in 1815 with a detailed description of Monsieur Myriel, a widower become priest, along with his sister Mademoiselle Baptistine and their housekeeper, Madame Magloire. Having received his appointment as Bishop of Digne, he takes up residence in the spacious, ornate Bishop’s palace, which adjoins an austere hospital. He decides that the hospital needs the space much more than does his own small household, so he trades and makes his dwelling in the hospital. This is only the beginning of a pattern of generosity, which earns him the name of Monseigneur Bienvenu. He budgets his household such that most of his income is given to charities. When given an additional sum as carriage expense, he finds a way to distribute that to needy causes as well.
In addition to being utterly selfless, the bishop has a deep understanding of human life, of people of all economic backgrounds and of the emotional as well as spiritual needs of the people of his parish. He also has a sense of humor and the ability to shame without antagonizing even the most aristocratic elements of society. He is indulgent toward women and children and the poor, saying that ignorance is not the fault of the ignorant but of the one who caused the darkness.
The bishop is devout and trusting in his private life as well as his public one. His hospital-become-home is austere and spare with no luxuries save a table service of silver with matching silver candlesticks that are brought out for company. The bishop does not lock up his silver or even bolt the doors to his house, a matter that frustrates the women of his household. However, he defends his decisions by maintaining the philosophy that a man has more to fear from his own prejudices than from any robber.
The narrator is not necessarily sympathetic with all aspects of the Catholic church; this seems indicated by the elaborate Bishop’s Palace which is built alongside the tiny hospital. Myriel behaves in ways that are not generally expected of the religious leaders. But he lives his faith, and his self-sacrifice as well as his example of caring and ministering to others both protects him and brings a measure of respect. Given the religious overtones throughout the book, it does not seem too far afield to suggest that The Bishop also provides a “forerunner” or John the Baptist image.