Section 1 - Fantine
Book One - An Upright Man
The story begins in 1815 with a description of Charles Francois-Bievenu Myriel who was at that time the Bishop of Digne. He was about seventy-five years old and had been Bishop since 1806. He was the son of a rich family and as a young man had married and lived a worldly life devoted to pleasure. During the French Revolution he fled to Italy where his wife died. When he returned to France he was a priest. While serving as a cure he went to Paris on a business trip at roughly the same time as Napoleon's coronation. He happened to meet the Emperor and paid him a compliment. Soon afterward he learned that he had been appointed Bishop of Digne, a rough and mountainous region that suited his preference for seclusion. He lived with his sister, Mademoiselle Baptistine and a domestic servant Madame Magloire. Soon after arriving in Digne he traded residences with the hospital next door so that the spacious buildings and grounds of the Bishop's palace could be used for patients and he could live in the small building formerly used for the hospital. He drew up a household budget in order to allocate the fifteen thousand livres he received as a salary every year and much to Madame Magloire's chagrin the bulk of his income was used for charitable purposes and left little for housekeeping. The bishop traveled simply by foot or mule, admonished people to help the poor, and formed a strong opinion against the death penalty after counseling a prisoner and witnessing the man's death at the guillotine. Everything about the bishop's life was indicative of simplicity and economy except for a set of silver cutlery and two silver candlesticks because, as he once said, it would be difficult for him to give up eating from silver. All these valuables were much cherished by Madame Magloire and were kept in an unlocked cabinet at the head of the bishop's bed. The bishop would not permit the doors of the house to be locked. He loved flowers and spent many happy hours in his garden caring for his small plot.
The bishop put all his faith in God. On one occasion he risked an attack from bandits to visit some neglected parishioners in a remote hamlet. Before leaving the hamlet he resolved to say a formal Te Deum service but the poor village lacked the proper religious articles. The next day the bishop found a chest with fine gold articles for the service left by the bandits. On another occasion he was debating with a worldly senator from his district and wholeheartedly agreed with the senator that materialism was the proper philosophy of the rich because it left the poor with religion. Once he went to see a dying man who had lived as an outcast from society because he had been a member of the National Convention and was tied to acts of regicide and atheism. After a lengthy interview the bishop was so humbled by the conventionist's story that he begged for the dying man's benediction. The bishop was loved by his parishioners but not well liked by his peers because his life of scarcity and charity annoyed them.
The novel begins with a description of one of the main characters, Myriel, who has changed from being a rich and worldly individual to a devout religious leader. He is introduced as being a very pious and self sacrificing person who has embraced religion in its purest form. He is sincere when he gives up his spacious living quarters and donates it to the hospital which occupies a very small building so that the patients would be able to enjoy a more comfortable setting. He is loved by his parishioners for his kindness but his life of charity is bothersome to his peers.