Les Miserables – The Purchase of a Soul

In my reading yesterday, I came across the book passage that is sort of the fulcrum (both in the book and musical) for the change in Jean Valjean’s life as he goes from being an angry prisoner to a warm, kind, generous soul.

Jean Valjean, after being treated with generosity by the Bishop of Digne, repays that generosity by stealing a basket of silver flatware from the Bishop’s house. When he is caught and returned, the Bishop makes a curious decision. He tells the officers who have caught Valjean that he gave Valjean the silverware, and that Valjean had forgotten the two silver candlesticks he had given as well.

When the officers leave, and Valjean is left alone with the Bishop, confused as to what has happened, the Bishop utters these words:

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

In the original text of the musical, the Bishop sings the following to Valjean:

“But remember this my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs. By the Passion, and the blood, I have raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.

In both passages, I have emphasized the Bishop telling Valjean that he has bought Valjean’s soul. In the film version of the musical that was released in 2012, the lyric is changed to “I have saved your soul for God.”

I’m sure that this was changed because there are some Christians who have an issue with the idea of buying someone into Christianity. I don’t think that was the way Hugo meant the “transaction” to come across.

The Bishop is talking to a common man. Hugo spends a portion of the novel detailing Valjean’s history before he was sent to prison, where he did menial jobs for very little money in order to provide for his widowed sister and her seven children. He is unable to read until he spends time learning how in prison. I believe that the Bishop is using the language that a common man would understand in order to get his point across. I don’t believe that the Bishop believes a soul can be purchased…he was using the language as a sort of parable. The silver is so expensive and will go so far in changing Valjean’s life, that he has no choice but to change his ways.

I prefer the language of “bought” to “saved”, because, as a Christian, I don’t believe that a Bishop can save a soul anymore than he can purchase one. A common man such as Valjean may have seen the Bishop’s claim of “I have saved your soul for God”, as meaning that he didn’t have any work to do. At least with the language of a purchase, there is a sense of something more to do, for the Bishop to get his “money’s worth.”


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