Sisters of The Wretched

Roman Catholic nuns play a critical role in the novel of Les Misérables. Victor Hugo takes up several chapters in an interlude about their order. It is one of the famous “digressions” of his novel. Like the other digressions, it requires patience, but the effort is rewarded, and I find myself thinking about it long after finishing the novel. As with the earlier section about the Bishop, we get a look at a small world whose values are starkly inverted from those in the world outside but in other ways embody the principles of equality that Hugo wants the world to strive for.

Just as he did with the Bishop, Jean Valjean finds refuge in this convent, but also employment. And he’s not the only one. The sisters are cloistered from the outside world and, having taken vows of chastity, they naturally as their gardener one who represents no temptation whatsoever. This gardener, Monsieur Fauchelevent, was —

Old, lame, practically blind, probably a little deaf into the bargain, so many good qualities! It would have been hard to replace him.

Christine Donougher’s translation of “The Wretched,” used for all excerpts

Jesus loved the handicapped, so it’s really interesting that such a man finds so useful a role in a convent!

Of course, the motivation in the sisters’ case is a little different. At a basic level, that can’t be denied. But really how different is it? In both cases, for Jesus and the sisters, isn’t the entire point to live in such a way as to not see with purely human eyes, not looking only for what is beautiful, attractive and useful? When that is done, when that vision is embraced and a community actively built on it, shouldn’t that be the exact result? The “useless” will find themselves wanted and useful.

Abbess played by Georgie Glen in “Les Misérables” (BBC, 2019)

Hugo acknowledges that he is speaking of the ideal convent, because what he wants to speak of what is possible rather than what exists.

And the convent that already exists, says Hugo, is built on the very democratic ideal that France and all the world strive for —

On entering the place, anyone who was rich becomes poor. What he has, he gives to all. The man who was what is called a nobleman, a gentleman or an aristocrat is the equal of the man who was a peasant. The cell is identical for everyone. All undergo the same tonsure, wear the same cassock, eat the same black bread, sleep on the same straw, die on the same ashes. With the same sackcloth on their backs, the same rope around their loins. If the rule adopted is to go barefoot, all go barefoot. There may be a prince among them. That prince is the same wraith as the rest. No more titles. Even family names are lost. They have only first names. All bow beneath the equality of baptismal names. They have annulled the blood-related family and within their community have formed a spiritual family. Their only relatives now are all of mankind. They help the poor, they care for the sick. They elect those whom they obey. They call each other ‘my brother’…. 

The monastery is a product of the formula: Equality, Fraternity.

(Hugo writes “he” and “brother” even though he is referring to a convent.)

We had seen some of this earlier in Bishop Myriel, who “took his supper with this Jean Valjean in the same spirit and in the same manner as he would have taken his supper with Monsieur Gédéon Le Prévost or our local parish priest.”

This is a kind of class-blind attitude, and I think you can also detect it in Inspector Javert, but in him it becomes something frightening because it is not built on charity:

[Javert] looked on any state official, from the prime minister to the rural policeman, with a deep-seated blind faith. On anyone who had once crossed the legal threshold of wrong-doing he heaped scorn, loathing and disgust. He was uncompromising, and he allowed of no exceptions.

We can naturally compare nuns with bishops and maybe with police inspectors, but Hugo offers up a striking comparison between nuns and prisoners.

To do that, he has to give some idea of the sternness of the sisters’ lives. He says that this particular order lives by one of the strictest rules found in any cloistered community:

Let us return to the austere Spanish rule of Martin Verga. The Bernardine-Benedictines of this obedience abstain from meat all year round, fast in Lent and on many other days of special significance to them, rise from their first sleep to read their breviary and sing matins from one o’clock until three o’clock in the morning, sleep on straw and between serge sheets in all seasons, do not take baths, never light a fire, scourge themselves every Friday, observe the rule of silence, speak to each other only during recreation periods, which are very brief…

Then, the comparison with prisoners:

These human beings, too, lived with their heads shorn, their eyes downcast, their voices lowered, not in disgrace but amid the world’s jeering, not with their backs bruised by the rod but with their shoulders lacerated by self-mortification. Their names, too, had died among men. They now existed only under an austere nomenclature. They never ate meat and they never drank wine. They often went without food until evening. They were dressed not in red tunics but in black woollen shrouds, heavy in summer, light in winter, unable to take anything off or to put on anything extra, without even the possibility, according to season, of thinner clothing or a woollen overcoat. And for six months of the year they wore serge vests that made them feverish. They lived not in rooms heated only during the coldest weather but in cells where no fire was ever lighted. They slept not on mattresses two inches thick but on straw. Lastly, they were not even left to sleep. Every night after a day of toil, just as they were falling asleep and beginning to get warm, they had to waken from the heaviness of their first sleep, get up and go and pray, kneeling on stone in a gloomy, freezing-cold chapel.

On certain days each of these human beings in turn had to remain twelve hours on end kneeling on the flagstones or lying on the ground, face down with arms outstretched in the form of a cross.

The others were men, these were women. What had those men done? They had stolen, raped, pillaged, killed, assassinated. They were outlaws, counterfeiters, poisoners, arsonists, murderers, parricides. What had these women done? They had done nothing.

Chastity, of course, is another common point. Hugo writes of the convicts:

What is most terrible for the prisoner entombed within those four stone walls is a kind of glacial chastity.

Once again we can look at Javert (because, why not?) and find something similar, but again it’s devoid of any charitable purpose. Javert lived —

a life of privation, isolation, abnegation, chastity, never a moment’s recreation.

Javert undergoes all this with a ceaseless aim, to capture and crush criminals. The sisters, it turns out, also have the criminals perpetually in mind. They pray for them, not abstractly, not as part of general humanity, but in their name and for their sake:

Each one in turn makes what they call ‘reparation.’ Reparation is prayer for all the sins, all the lapses, all the transgressions, all the profanations, all the iniquities, all the crimes committed on earth. For twelve consecutive hours, from four o’clock in the evening till four o’clock in the morning, or from four o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the evening, the sister who is making reparation remains kneeling on the stone floor in front of the Blessed Sacrament, her hands joined, a rope around her neck. When her tiredness grows unendurable, she prostrates herself, lying flat on the ground, face down, with her arms outstretched, in the shape of a cross. This is her only relief. In this attitude she prays for all who are guilty in the universe. There is a greatness in this that attains the sublime.

Hugo lands on a somewhat modern version of this thinking when later he writes of the sisters as providing modern society with a skill of contemplation that it badly needs:

‘What is the good of these motionless figures with an inclination for mystery? What use are they? What do they achieve?’


Faced with the darkness that surrounds us and awaits us, not knowing what will become of us in the ultimate diaspora, we reply, ‘There is probably no work more sublime than the work these souls do.’

And we say further: ‘There is probably no work more useful.’ 

Hugo adds: “Those who pray constantly are surely needed for those who never pray at all.”

Jean Valjean, survivor of 19 years in the prison cells, now living with the nuns, makes his own comparisons:

Two places of slavery, but in the first, the possibility of being freed, a legal term always in sight, and even escape; in the second place a life sentence to be served, the only hope in the far distant future that glimmer of freedom men call death.

In the first the enslaved were fettered only by chains, in the other they were fettered by their faith.

What issued from the first? An all-encompassing curse, the gnashing of teeth, hatred, desperate viciousness, a cry of rage against human society, a jeer at heaven. What came from the second? Blessings and love. And in these two places, so alike and so unalike, these two species of human being, so different from each other, were devoted to the same task: expiation.

At other times in this long section of “Les Misérables,” Hugo shares his personal views on monasticism and becomes broadly critical of cloistered communities anywhere in the world. He states that institutional monasticism as it exists both in Spain and in Tibet “cuts off life”, causes depopulation, supports feudalism, and tends toward corruption and stagnation. He says that the nuns of Spain in their stationary poses before the crucifix do not think, love or live, but a few pages later he says that nuns in these same poses are engaging in contemplation, philosophy, and beneficial work. He goes back and forth between embrace and rejection, declaring at one point that “the monastic regime is bad for nations in their maturity” while insisting that cloistered communities are “one of the optical devices through which man views the infinite”.

After saying all that he has said about the bishop and the sisters, and giving them the most prominent salvific roles in his novel, the lines that seem to reject monasticism leave you wondering what he really believed.

Hugo wrote “Les Misérables” over the course of many years, during which his views are known to have moved more firmly toward French Republicanism, one feature of which was anticlericalism. He was in fact criticized by some in his circle for his sympathetic treatment of the bishop and the sisters.

I read Hugo here as perhaps trying to run a fine balance between his own in-tense and changing views in the first place and the warring views of others in the second. Throughout this long section Hugo apologizes more than once for taking the convent seriously, and he sounds like someone trying to reconcile inflexibly opposed worldviews.

He attempts to strike a balance sometimes in lines like these:

The convent is supreme egoism entailing supreme abnegation.

In a way that is perfectly true, and it goes right back to the Gospels, as Hugo himself surely knew, given that “Les Misérables” is filled with Biblical allusions:

“He that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”

Matthew 23:11-12

Hugo may well have held personal views quite different from what he laid out in his art. That is one of the qualities of a great artist.

But whatever the exact layout of Hugo’s beliefs and his art, I leave this post with his personal conclusion about the sisters:

We, who do not believe what these women believe, but who, like them, live by faith, have never been able to contemplate without a kind of compassionate and religious anguish, a kind of pity full of envy, those devout, quaking, trusting creatures, those humble, noble souls who dare to live on the very brink of mystery, waiting, between the world on which they have closed the door and a heaven that remains unopen, turned towards the invisible light with the sole joy of thinking they know where it is, aspiring to the abyss and the unknown, their eyes fixed on the still darkness, kneeling, overwhelmed, amazed, trembling, half raised at times by the deep breaths of eternity. 

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