What is the significance of Cravatte’s encounter with the bishop of Digne? How does their interaction illuminate the novel’s major themes?
In Les Misérables, the brief appearance of the character Cravatte introduces Hugo’s idea that prejudice can constrict and impoverish a bigot’s life. By ignoring society’s condemnation of Cravatte and believing the best about this troubled man, the bishop allows himself a richness of experience and a sense of calmness that he wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. Similarly, in many of the brief parables Hugo tells about the bishop, a rejection of prejudice permits the aging hero to have a varied, loving, and peaceful life. Panning outward, Hugo shows that bigotry takes a great toll on characters such as Javert and M. Gillenormand. Cravatte thus demonstrates Hugo’s simple notion that a solid trust in the essential good nature of human beings, rather than a rigid policy of suspicion toward people who are different, provides a person with an easier, fuller life.
The bishop’s interaction with Cravatte dramatizes Hugo’s idea that prejudices senselessly constrict and damage people’s lives. The bishop’s community tries to prevent the bishop from seeing a group of people he loves simply because a criminal, Cravatte, is at large in their region. The community tries to hamper the bishop with gendarmes, even though the bishop has nothing on his person that Cravatte might want to steal. Because of his faith in man’s goodness, the bishop not only travels alone and safely to his friends, but he also moves Cravatte to return the religious items he had stolen on an earlier raid. The bishop implies that refusing to travel, or traveling with armed guards, would be just as great a defeat as being robbed by Cravatte, because such a decision would have confirmed every onlooker’s negative assumptions about criminals. The bishop’s actions show that prejudice is a terrible burden, because it prevents the worrier from seeing the best in other people and living a satisfying, joyful life.
Other instances of the bishop’s trusting behavior confirm Hugo’s notion that internal prejudices can wound and restrict people, limiting their exposure to the riches of the outside world. By leaving his door unlocked at night, the bishop shows that he is open to any visitor who might come by, whereas the townspeople who lock their doors are shutting out all wanderers and committing themselves to a myopic, small-minded existence. By welcoming Valjean into his home, the bishop has the transformative experiences of healing a damaged soul and making a friend, whereas the townspeople persist in their ignorant hatred and fail to learn that a yellow passport is not always a sign of evil. By rejecting prejudice, the bishop is able to live in peace and enrich his understanding of human nature, whereas the townspeople do not have the same sense of tranquility or inspiring knowledge of man’s variety and capacity for change.
On a broader plane, many of Hugo’s characters demonstrate the truth in the bishop’s statements about the paralyzing effects of prejudice. Javert spends his entire life trying to enforce the petty stipulations of an inflexible legal system, but Hugo shows that all this concern for justice cripples Javert, for it prevents him from trusting and forming emotional bonds with obviously good and reformed “criminals” such as Valjean. M. Gillenormand’s monarchist prejudices persuade him to separate his son from his grandson: He cannot see beyond his own offspring’s political convictions to the good-hearted and loving man whom Hugo describes. Before his redemption, Jean Valjean allows his prejudice against the upper classes to color his attitude toward the kindly bishop of Digne, whom he conflates with all of the other wealthy oppressors in his life and thus robs in a moment of weakness and self-loathing. Again and again, characters assume the worst of other men because of their class background, politics, or criminal records, and these prejudices prevent many of Hugo’s creations from living rich, peaceful lives.
By risking impoverishment and even assault at the hands of Cravatte, the bishop shows that it’s better to trust one’s fellow man than to assume a constant state of war with people whose background is in any way different from one’s own. Even if the bishop had been attacked by Cravatte, even if thieves had crept into his unlocked home at night, the bishop implies that he would remain calm and content because of his choice not to live in a state of hatred and suspicion. Those characters who do succumb to prejudice—especially Javert—live far more troubled and difficult lives, even though they do not put themselves at risk in the ways the bishop does. The bishop’s bold attitude toward Cravatte thus emphasizes Hugo’s belief in the importance of a loving and compassionate attitude toward people from different political, economic, or ethnic backgrounds. Life is fuller and easier, Hugo implies, when built on a foundational trust in the goodness of others.