The novel begins with a brief biography of M. Myriel, the bishop of Digne, a diocese in France. Born in 1740 to a wealthy aristocratic family, Myriel is forced to flee to Italy during the French Revolution of 1789. Years later, he returns to his homeland as a priest. A chance encounter with Emperor Napoléon in 1806 leads to Myriel’s appointment as bishop of Digne. When he moves to Digne, he discovers that the church has provided him and his small entourage with a well-appointed eighteenth-century palace, while the patients at the hospital next door live in cramped and dangerous conditions. Myriel insists on switching houses with the hospital and gives the majority of his church salary to the city’s poorest citizens and to charities in Paris and abroad.
Myriel and his family live a simple life, but out of consideration for his housekeeper, he holds on to two little luxuries: a set of silverware and two silver candlesticks. Myriel’s compassion earns him the love of his parishioners, and he becomes a clergyman of wide renown. He defends the needs of the poor and argues that most petty criminals steal to survive, not because they are inherently malicious. He becomes a vocal critic of the prejudices of French society and an advocate for universal education. Among the needy, Myriel’s actions earn him the nickname “Bienvenu,” which means “welcome.”
[Valjean’s] knees suddenly bent under him. . . . [H]e fell exhausted . . . and cried out, “I’m such a miserable man!”
In October 1815, a mysterious wanderer enters Digne. The man has been walking all day and is desperately hungry. His first stop is at the mayor’s office, where the law requires him to show a yellow passport indicating that he is an ex-convict. The man is tired and hungry, but the town’s innkeepers refuse to serve him. He tries the town prison, the houses of local villagers, and even a dog kennel, but his reputation has preceded him and the townspeople are afraid. When the stranger stops at Myriel’s house, however, the bishop immediately invites him in for dinner.
The stranger’s name is Jean Valjean, a tree-trimmer from the south of France who has spent the last nineteen years in prison. The first five years of Valjean’s prison term were for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his impoverished family, and the next fourteen were imposed for his frequent escape attempts. He is used to rough treatment and is surprised by the respect Myriel shows him. Valjean does not initially realize that Myriel is a member of the clergy and is certainly not aware that he is a bishop. Myriel invites Valjean to spend the night free of charge. He accepts the invitation but then leaves in the night with Myriel’s silverware.
Early the next day, the police stop Valjean. They discover the silverware in his knapsack and take him back to Myriel’s house. To everyone’s surprise, Myriel claims that he gave the silverware to Valjean and even chides Valjean for having forgotten to take the silver candlesticks as well. Valjean is immediately released. Myriel gives Valjean the candlesticks and tells him that in taking the candlesticks, he has made a promise to become an honest man.
Humiliated and confused, Valjean leaves town furtively, as if he were still on the run. In the countryside, he takes a silver coin from a little boy named Petit Gervais. As the boy runs off crying, Valjean is struck by the wickedness of his act. He tries in vain to find the boy and return the coin. Valjean begins to cry for the first time in nineteen years. Confronted by his own malice, he vows to become an upstanding citizen. Later that night, he prays on the doorstep of Myriel’s house.