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Hugo’s account of convent life highlights his religious philosophy, which embraces Christianity and its values but rejects the rigid dogma of the Church and its institutions. Hugo’s simultaneous praise of Christianity and disdain for the Church is very much in keeping with the beliefs of many contemporary philosophers of the latter half of the nineteenth century, who thought that the Church distorted the original intent of Christian faith through corrupt, self-serving practices. Although Hugo largely avoids explicit criticism of the Church in Les Misérables, he does occasionally point to the corrupting influence of certain religious institutions. In Book Seven, for example, he suggests that the religious isolation of convents leads to zealotry and personal imbalance rather than any deeper understanding of God. Nonetheless, Hugo respects the convent’s inflexibility more than the secular world’s rigid laws. The convent’s exemption from the laws governing the rest of French society provides Valjean with shelter and with the chance for rebirth.
Although the convent provides safe harbor for Valjean and Cosette, Hugo’s negative views of the place imply that Cosette’s entrance into the boarding school is a mixed blessing. The boarding school has its idyllic aspects, and it will provide Cosette with the kind of education that Hugo frequently champions. However, it is also a sort of rustic prison. It gives Cosette the opportunity to develop her intellect, but it forces her to do so within a secluded life that prevents her from developing her emotional and social intelligence. This lack of social interaction, particularly with boys, becomes more of a problem as Cosette approaches adolescence. This situation is optimal for Valjean, since he does not have to worry about Javert and since he has his beloved Cosette all to himself. The confinement of convent life, however, sows the seeds of a conflict that ultimately threatens to drive Cosette away from Valjean.
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