After watching Les Miserablés in theaters and listening to the Broadway soundtrack obsessively, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jean Valjean’s character transformation. After the bishop lies on Valjean’s behalf, gives him the church’s silver, and “buys his soul for God”, Valjean transforms his life: he becomes a mayor, does good deeds, and prays a lot. He is an “honest man” in every sense of the word– except he isn’t truthful. Because he has broken parole, he has to evade the law to avoid slavery and arrest. In order to become an honest man, Valjean has to be dishonest. But interestingly, the gatekeeper in this narrative, the bishop, also becomes a dishonest-honest man when he lies to protect Valjean. In this story of dishonest-honesty, what does it mean to be honest?
In the beginning, Valjean “[hates] the world/ This world that always hated [him].” After earning parole, he seeks shelter at a church– but he steals the church’s silver in the middle of the night and leaves. After Valjean is arrested, the bishop goes along with Valjean’s lie that the bishop gave Valjean the silver, and even elaborates on it, giving him two silver candle holders, and saying, “You forgot I gave these also;/ Would you leave the best behind?” After the officers leave, the bishop tells Valjean to “use this precious silver to become an honest man.”
Both the bishop and Valjean interpret the idea of an honest man liberally rather than conservatively. In the OED, one definition of “honest” reads:
That deals fairly and uprightly in speech and act; sincere, truthful, candid; that will not lie, cheat, or steal. (The prevailing modern sense, the ‘honest man’ being the ‘good citizen’, the law-abiding man, as opposed to the rogue, thief, or enemy of society.)
While Valjean is the poster-boy for fairness, sincerity, and moral uprightness, he isn’t truthful, candid, and law-abiding. Likewise, the bishop, while generous and respectable, gives away silver that isn’t his and lies to the officers. To both the bishop and Valjean, honesty (and honor) must be purchased, not necessarily earned.
This moral exchange mirrors the economic nature of honesty in Les Mis. It’s clear from the beginning that becoming an honest man, at least in 19th century France, requires money. As a slave, Valjean is dehumanized; he doesn’t have the means to do good deeds, go to church, or hold a job. Just as Valjean buys honesty, the bishop “[buys Valjean’s] soul for God”, a concept reminiscent of indulgence-buying. Souls are monetized; honesty is monetized.
This monetization gives way to a moralization of classes, meaning that the poor are portrayed as less virtuous by default, and the rich are more virtuous. This kind of moralization of class is also seen in the English language– the word “vulgar”, which comes from the Greek word for “common or ordinary”, means “having a common and offensively mean character” (“vulgar”); “ignoble” doesn’t just mean “not noble with respect to birth”, but also “mean, base, sordid; dishonorable” (“ignoble”).
In the Catholic culture in Les Mis, where souls and honesty must be purchased, this social hierarchy is upheld. The poor cannot afford to be honest, and especially can’t afford the luxury of being considered honest while lying– even if it’s for a good cause. In this way, Les Mis is a fascinating inquiry into the nature of honesty and the economics of honor.