1044) A Noble Lie

Jean Valjean and the Bishop in the 2012 movie Les Miserables


From the 1862 novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1802-1885); as adapted in The Book of Virtues by William Bennett, 1993.

Truth can be so complicated a thing as to call for certain noble dishonesties on some rare occasions.  In this scene we witness a lie told not merely for the sake of compassion, but in order to secure virtue in another man’s soul.  As James Russell Lowell put it, “As one lamp lights another, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness.” 


     Jean Valjean was a wood-chopper’s son, who, while very young, was left an orphan.  His older sister brought him up, but when he was seventeen years of age, his sister’s husband died, and upon Jean came the labor of supporting her seven little children.  Although a man of great strength, he found it very difficult to provide food for them at the poor trade he followed.

     One winter day he was without work, and the children were crying for bread.  They were nearly starved.  And, when he could withstand their entreaties no longer, he went out in the night, and, breaking a baker’s window with his fist, he carried home a loaf of bread for the famished children.  The next morning he was arrested for stealing, his bleeding hand convicting him.

     For this crime he was sent to the galleys with an iron collar riveted around his neck, with a chain attached, which bound him to his galley seat.  Here he remained four years, then he tried to escape, but was caught, and three years were added to his sentence.  Then he made a second attempt, and also failed, the result of which was that he remained, nineteen years as a galley slave for stealing a single loaf of bread. 

     When Jean left the prison, his heart was hardened.  He felt like a wolf.  His wrongs had embittered him, and he was more like an animal than a man.  He came with every man’s hand raised against him to the town where the good bishop lived.

     At the inn they would not receive him because they knew him to be an ex-convict and a dangerous man.  Wherever he went, the knowledge of him went before; and everyone drove him away.  They would not even allow him to sleep in a dog kennel or give him the food they had saved for the dog.  Everywhere he went they cried:  “Be off.  Go away, or you will get a charge of shot.”  Finally, he wandered to the house of the good bishop, and a good man he was.

     For his duties as  bishop, he received from the state 3,000 francs a year; but he gave away to the poor 2,800 francs of it.  He was a simple, loving man, with a great heart, who thought nothing of himself, but loved everybody.  And everybody loved him.

     Jean, when he entered the bishop’s house, was a most forbidding and dangerous character.  He shouted in a harsh loud voice:  “Look here, I am a galley slave.  Here is my yellow passport.  It says:  ‘Five years for robbery and fourteen years for trying to escape.  The man is very dangerous.’  Now that you know who I am, will you give me a little food, and let me sleep in the stable?”

     The good bishop said:  “Sit down and warm yourself.  You will take supper with me, and after that sleep here.”

     Jean could hardly believe his senses.  He was dumb with joy.  He told the bishop that he had money, and would pay for his supper and lodging.

     But the priest said:  “You are welcome.  This is not my house, but the house of Christ.  Your name was known to me before you showed me your passport.  You are my brother.”

     After supper the bishop took one of the silver candlesticks that he had received as a Christmas present, and, giving Jean the other, led him to his room, where a good bed was provided.  In the middle of the night Jean awoke with a hardened heart.  He felt that the time had come to get revenge for all his wrongs.  He remembered the silver knives and forks that had been used for supper, and made up his mind to steal them, and go away in the night.  So he took what he could find, sprang into the garden, and disappeared.

     When the bishop awoke, and saw his silver gone, he said:  “I have been thinking for a long time that I ought not to keep the silver.  I should have given it to the poor, and certainly this man was poor.”

     At breakfast time five soldiers brought Jean back to the bishop’s house.  When they entered, the bishop, looking at him, said:  “Oh, you are back again!   I am glad to see you.  I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver also, and will bring forty francs.  Why did you not take them?”

     Jean was stunned indeed by these words.  So were the soldiers.  “This man told us the truth, did he?” they cried.  “We thought he had stolen the silver and was running away.  So we quickly arrested him.”

     But the good bishop only said:  “It was a mistake to have him brought back.  Let him go.  The silver is his.  I gave it to him.”

     So the officers went away.

     “Is it true,” Jean whispered to the bishop, “that I am free?  I may go?”

     “Yes,” he replied, “but before you go, take your candlesticks.”

     Jean trembled in every limb, and took the candlesticks like one in a dream.

     “Now,” said the bishop, “depart in peace, but you need not sneak through the garden this time, for the front door is always open to you day and night.”

     Jean looked as though he would faint.

     Then the bishop took his hand, and said:  “Never forget you have promised me you would use the money to become an honest man.”

     He did not remember having promised anything, but stood silent while the bishop continued solemnly:  “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  I have bought your soul for you.  I withdrew it from black thoughts and the spirit of hate, and gave it to God.”

     From that moment forth he was a totally different man.  What the bishop has wished to make of him, that he carried out.


Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse.  But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Luke 15:1-2  —  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

II Corinthians 5:17  —  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.  The old has gone, the new is here.

Luke 6:30  —  (Jesus said), “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”


Psalm 51:10

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.