Les Misérables Summary

Overview

Les Misérables

Summary of the Novel
Set in the post-Napoleonic era just after the French Revolution, Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict, who has just been released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Influenced by the bishop to begin a new life, Jean assumes a new name and moves to a new location where he becomes a respected citizen and makes a fortune in manufacturing. The police inspector, Javert, is suspicious of him, but it is not until Jean’s conscience prods him to reveal his true identity that he is forced to flee.

The rest of the novel is set in Paris, where Jean changes residences frequently and assumes a number of identities in order to avoid arrest. Fulfilling a promise to her dying mother Fantine, he rescues a young girl named Cosette from the evil Thénardier family and becomes her guardian. They spend many years in a convent where Cosette grows into a beautiful young lady. Eventually, Jean leaves this safe haven so that Cosette may have a more normal life.

Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young lawyer, who joins a band of revolutionists at a barricade. Unbeknownst to Marius, Jean is also at the barricade; when he is wounded, Jean, who has spared the life of his constant adversary Javert, risks his life to carry Marius to safety through the sewer system of Paris, returning him to his family and Cosette.

Against all odds, Jean struggles to follow the bishop’s teachings and become a good man. It is not until after the wedding of Cosette and Marius and he is on his deathbed that he is at last able to stop running from his past and reveal all. Not until then does he finally find peace.

The Life and Work of Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was the most influential and best known of the nineteenth century French poets. A poet, novelist, and dramatist, he was a leader of the Romantic movement in France. Born in 1802, Victor was a sickly child who was the youngest of three sons. His father was a soldier of the Revolution whose military career required the family to move often after Napoleon’s rise to power. After his parents separated when he was 16, Victor lived with his mother, a royalist and conservative, whose political views strongly influenced him. He reconciled with his father after her death in 1821.

Recognized as a child prodigy, Hugo became a prolific and successful writer at an early age. His first published volume of poems led to an annuity of 1200 francs from King Louis XVIII, a sum permitting him to marry Adele Fancher, his childhood sweetheart. They were to have two sons and two daughters.

Hugo’s early dramas also expanded his reputation. In 1829, his drama Marion de Lorme was censored because of its negative portrayal of Louis XIII. When the romantic drama Hernani was staged soon after, his fellow writers and other artists organized to support it. Throughout his career, Hugo challenged not only established literary conventions, but also the governments under which he lived. The publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, a long novel about medieval Paris, enhanced his prestige and popularity.

In 1833, Hugo fell in love with Juliette Drouet and she became his mistress. Their affair lasted 50 years and inspired some of his lyric poetry. Claude Guex, published in 1834, expressed Hugo’s interest in the social problems caused by poverty as well as his views on abolishing the death penalty. In 1841, he was honored by being elected to the French Academy.

Hugo began work on Les Misérables in 1845, but his work was interrupted by the Revolution of 1848. Initially, he supported the conservative party and Napoleon’s son, Louis Napoleon, for the presidency, but he broke with both over social and political issues. In 1851, when Louis Napoleon declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, Hugo began a 19-year exile which led him first to Jersey and later to Guernsey where he collaborated with other artists and writers also in exile. Many of them were offered pardons and returned to France, but Hugo rejected amnesty and continued to criticize the government from abroad.

During this period, he wrote some of his greatest works, including nature poetry and poems inspired by his daughter Leopoldine, whose drowning in the Seine following a boating accident in 1843 was a great tragedy. His most famous novel, Les Misérables, was published in 1862 and received instant acclaim.

Hugo remained in exile until the downfall of Napoleon III in 1870 when he returned to Paris with Juliette. He continued to publish novels, poetry, and plays until he was in his eighties. When Juliette died of cancer in 1883, his health began to deteriorate, and he died two years later in May of 1885. His body lay in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe, an honor usually reserved for heads of state, and all of France mourned the man who had been the favorite author as well as the conscience of the nation. He left an extraordinary number of completed works which were published after his death.

Estimated Reading Time

Because of its length, the complexity of the plot, and its many unfamiliar terms, the average student will require at least eight hours to read Les Misérables. The novel is comprised of five main parts, four bearing the name of a main character and one named for the setting of that part. Each part is divided into sections named to advise the reader of the direction of the plot. These sections are further subdivided into shorter subsections. Readers should pay particular attention to the titles of each subsection which provide clues regarding the action.

First-time readers of the novel are advised to tackle no more than one part at each sitting. The first three sections introduce the main characters as well as the plots and subplots. The final two sections are considerably longer and more complicated as the author ties everything together and progresses toward the final resolution. Readers are well advised to break each of these pieces into at least two sittings.

Les Misérables Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The title Les Misérables is Hugo’s revision of his original title, “Les Misères.” The choice is affinitive with Hugo’s Romanticism, as it indicates a preference of the concrete (the wretched ones) to the abstract (miseries), of persons to situations. The full connotative strength of neither title can be retained in literal English translation, and it is good that English translations of the novel appear under the French title. The word misérables supports the double sense of “those who are wretched” and “those who are to be pitied.” The second sense implies the possibility or presence of pitiers. The readers of the novel, then, may participate in the narrative as those who pity the pitiable. Pity is, etymologically, an act of pietas (piety). It is in this subjective inclusion of the reader in the artwork that Romanticism differs from classicism. With regard to Les Misérables, the reader’s pity is an experience of piety; and piety, in the full Latin sense of pietas (devotion, dedication, commiseration), is as much the theme of the novel as it is a manifestation of Hugo’s deep religious sensibility.

The story begins with an account of the exemplary piety of a Christian bishop, Monseigneur Myriel Bienvenu, who selects as the most beautiful name of God not Creator, Liberty, Light, Providence, not even God or Father, but the name given by Solomon, Miséricorde (compassion or pity). He is contrasted with men who dig for gold: He is one who digs for pity. To this seventy-five-year-old bishop, in the year 1815, comes Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who has spent nineteen years in prison. He is seeking lodging for the night, and no room has been found for him at the inns of the town. The priest offers him food, lodging, and trust. Valjean had been sentenced to prison, first for the theft of bread to feed his widowed sister and her seven children, and subsequently for four unsuccessful attempts to escape. Hardened by imprisonment and the reception given him by those who had either despised or exploited the former convict, he is capable now of crime for its own sake, as well as for survival. Checking his movement to murder the bishop as he sleeps, Valjean settles for stealing the household silverware. Apprehended and returned to the bishop, he is released, as the bishop, insisting the silverware was not stolen, adds a pair of candlesticks to the “gift.” Valjean’s receipt of mercy restores him to piety, the showing of mercy to others, although the first stage on his new journey involves his reflex theft of a coin from a boy, in his tearful remorse for which he undergoes repentance: He awakens to see a semblance of “Satan in the light of Paradise,” returns to the door of Monseigneur Bienvenu, and prays in the predawn darkness.

Valjean’s life of altruism takes the forms of various personas after his moment of truth in the shadow. The first of these is that of the good mayor of a town; his appropriate pseudonym is Père Madeleine (translatable as Father Magdalene, that is, a priestlike layman converted from wrongdoing). He intercedes with a police inspector, Javert, to save a woman, Fantine, from a six-month prison sentence. Then, learning from Javert that another man had been arrested as Valjean in connection with the goods stolen from the bishop, Valjean turns himself in. Later, he escapes from prison and becomes the protector of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. Living under cover in Paris, he rears Cosette as his daughter and becomes devoted to her. Eventually, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a political activist, toward whom Valjean will bear a paternal resentment; he is once again a “father,” and Cosette addresses him as such. Marius is wounded in the republican uprising of 1832; Valjean rescues him and carries him to safety through the labyrinthine Parisian sewers. The strictly honorable Javert, who finally discovers his unceasing pursuit of Valjean to have been unjust, commits suicide. Cosette and Marius are wed. Valjean, vindicated and at last content, dies in peace in the light of candles held by the “gift” candlesticks.

The novel incorporates a number of subplots and a great variety of characters. All of its narrative elements contribute in the manner of an epic, which it is, to a broad perspective of the Napoleonic era. The Emperor Napoleon I himself appears in the long episode devoted to the Battle of Waterloo. Marius’s father is an officer in Napoleon’s army whose life is saved by Thénardier, to whom accordingly Marius is in debt and by whom Valjean comes also to be pursued. The history of postrevolutionary France, its changing social institutions, the persistence of its religious customs, and its political turmoil, along with realistic depictions of Parisian life and converse, much of which is embodied in the character of a street-smart boy named Gavroche, are interstitial to the vast fabric of Hugo’s tale. To his Romantic tale Hugo adapts much of the machinery of classical epic.

Hugo includes two parenthetical disquisitions: one on the Convent as an abstract idea and as historical fact (part 2, book 7) and one on argot, or slang (part 4, book 7). These slow down the narrative but greatly intensify its substance. The Convent, according to Hugo, is abstractly right in its nurture of religious sensibility but concretely wrong in its preservation of outmoded ritual and dogma. Argot is la langue des ténébreux (the language of the shadows). It is the language mainly of wrongdoers (those abominated by society), like “cant” in Henry Fielding’s The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743, 1754) and “nadsat” in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), but it is also the language of poverty and is, in its rebelliousness and poetic turn, a language of true life.

Rebelliousness, religious sensibility, and poetic concretion make Les Misérables an epical testament to Romanticism. In its five parts, comprising forty-eight books, themselves comprising 361 chapters, the novel discloses the failure of rationalism and of rigidly organized religion. The first two chapters of the first book in part 1 are significantly titled “Un Juste” (a just man) and “La Chute” (the fall). The just man is Monseigneur Bienvenu; the fall is that of Jean Valjean, but it is a fall, not from, but into, grace as he becomes the bishop’s successor in justness. His passage through crime and, climactically, through the Dantesque hell of the sewers of Paris is a pilgrimage of redemption, a movement not toward a paradisiacal light but into the true light at the core of darkness. The last chapter of the concluding book is titled “Suprème Ombre, Suprème Aurore” (supreme darkness, supreme dawn). The supreme darkness is the life that Valjean has fully lived; the supreme dawn is his death.

Les Misérables Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1815 in France, a man named Jean Valjean is released after nineteen years in prison. He had been sentenced to a term of five years because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, but the sentence was later increased because of his attempts to escape. During his imprisonment, he astonished others by his exhibitions of unusual physical strength.

Freed at last, Valjean starts out on foot for a distant part of the country. Innkeepers refuse him food and lodging because his yellow passport reveals that he is a former convict. Finally, he comes to the house of the bishop of Digne, a saintly man who treats him graciously, feeds him, and gives him a bed. During the night, Jean steals the bishop’s silverware and flees. He is immediately captured by the police, who return him and the stolen goods to the bishop. With no censure, the priest not only gives Valjean what he had stolen but also adds his silver candlesticks to the gift. The astonished gendarmes release the prisoner. Alone with the bishop, Valjean is confounded by the churchman’s attitude, for the bishop asks only that he use the silver as a means of living an honest life.

In 1817, a beautiful woman named Fantine lives in Paris. She gives birth to an illegitimate child, Cosette, whom she leaves with Monsieur and Madame Thénardier to rear with their own children. As time goes on, the Thénardiers demand more and more money for Cosette’s support, yet they treat the child cruelly and deprive her even of necessities. Meanwhile, Fantine goes to the town of M—— and obtains a job in a glass factory operated by Father Madeleine, a kind and generous man whose history is known to no one, but whose good deeds and generosity to the poor are public information. He had arrived in M—— a poor laborer, and through a lucky invention he was able to start a business of his own. Soon he built a factory and employed many workers. After five years in the city, he was named mayor and is now beloved by all the citizens. He is reported to have prodigious strength. Only one man, Javert, a police inspector, seems to watch him with an air of suspicion.

Javert was born in prison. His whole life is influenced by that fact, and his fanatical attitude toward duty makes him a man to be feared. He is determined to discover the facts of Father Madeleine’s previous life. One day he finds a clue while watching Father Madeleine lift a heavy cart to save an old man who had fallen under it. Javert realizes that he has known only one man of such prodigious strength, a former convict named Jean Valjean.

Fantine has told no one of Cosette, but knowledge of her illegitimate child spreads and causes Fantine to be discharged from the factory without the knowledge of Father Madeleine. Finally, Fantine becomes a prostitute in an effort to pay the increasing demands of the Thénardiers for Cosette’s support. One night, Javert arrests her while she is walking the streets. When Father Madeleine hears the details of her plight and learns that she has tuberculosis, he sends Fantine to a hospital and promises to bring Cosette to her. Just before the mayor leaves to get Cosette, Javert confesses that he has mistakenly reported to the Paris police that he suspects Father Madeleine of being the former convict, Valjean. He says that the real Valjean has been arrested at Arras under an assumed name. The arrested man is to be tried in two days.

That night, Father Madeleine struggles with his own conscience, for he is the real Valjean. Unwilling to let an innocent man suffer, he goes to Arras for the trial and identifies himself as Valjean. After telling the authorities where he could be found, he goes to Fantine. Javert arrives to arrest him. Fantine is so terrified that she dies. After a day in prison, Valjean escapes.

Valjean, some time later, is again imprisoned by Javert, but once more he makes his escape. Shortly afterward he is able to take Cosette, now eight years old, away from the Thénardiers. He grows to love the child greatly, and they live together happily in the Gorbeau tenement on the outskirts of Paris. When Javert once more tracks them down, Valjean escapes with the child into a convent garden, where they are rescued by Fauchelevant, whose life Valjean had saved when the old peasant had fallen beneath the cart. Fauchelevant is now the convent gardener. Valjean becomes his helper, and Cosette is put into the convent school.

Years pass. Valjean leaves the convent and takes Cosette, her schooling finished, to live in a modest house on a side street in Paris. The old man and the girl are little noticed by their neighbors. Meanwhile, the blackguard Thénardier had brought his family to live in the Gorbeau tenement. He now calls himself Jondrette. In the next room lives Marius Pontmercy, a young lawyer estranged from his aristocrat grandfather because of his liberal views. Marius is the son of an officer whose life Thénardier had saved at the battle of Waterloo. The father, now dead, had asked his son someday to repay Thénardier for his deed. Marius never suspects that Jondrette is really his father’s benefactor. When the Jondrettes are being evicted from their quarters, however, he pays their rent from his meager resources.

During one of his evening walks, Marius meets Cosette and Valjean. He falls in love with the young woman as he continues to see her in the company of her white-haired companion. At last he follows her to her home. Valjean, noticing Marius, takes Cosette to live in another house. One morning, Marius receives a begging letter delivered by Eponine Jondrette. His neighbors are again asking for help, and he begins to wonder about them. Peeping through a hole in the wall, he hears Jondrette speak of a benefactor who would soon arrive. When the man comes, Marius recognizes him as Cosette’s companion. He later learns Cosette’s address from Eponine, but before he sees Cosette again he overhears the Jondrettes plotting against the man whom he believes to be Cosette’s father. Alarmed, he tells the details of the plot to Inspector Javert.

Marius is at the wall watching when Valjean returns to give Jondrette money. While they talk, heavily armed men appear in the room. Jondrette then reveals himself as Thénardier. Horrified, Marius does not know whom to protect, the man his father had requested him to befriend or the father of Cosette. Threatened by Thénardier, Valjean agrees to send to his daughter for more money, but he gives a false address. When this ruse is discovered, the robbers threaten to kill Valjean. Marius throws a note of warning through the hole in the wall as Javert appears and arrests all but Valjean, who makes his escape through a window.

Marius finally locates Cosette. One night she tells him that she and her father are leaving for England. He tries, unsuccessfully, to get his grandfather’s permission to marry Cosette. In despair, he returns to Cosette and finds the house where she had lived empty. Eponine meets him there and tells him that his revolutionary friends have started a revolt and are waiting for him at the barricades. Cosette has disappeared, so he gladly follows Eponine to the barricades, where Javert had been seized as a spy and bound. During the fighting, Eponine gives her life to save Marius. As she dies, she gives him a note that Cosette had given her to deliver. In the note, Cosette tells him where she can be found.

In answer to her note, Marius writes that his grandfather will not permit his marriage, that he has no money, and that he would be killed at the barricades. Valjean discovers the notes and sets out for the barricades. Finding Javert tied up by the revolutionists, he frees the inspector. The barricades fall. In the confusion, Valjean comes upon the wounded Marius and carries him into the Paris sewers.

After hours of wandering, Valjean reaches a locked outlet. There, Thénardier, unrecognized in the dark, meets him and agrees to open the grating in exchange for money. Outside, Valjean meets Javert, who takes him into custody. Valjean asks only that he be allowed to take Marius to his grandfather’s house. Javert agrees to wait at the door, but suddenly he turns and runs toward the river. Tormented by his conscientious regard for duty and his reluctance to return to prison the man who had saved his life, he drowns himself in the River Seine.

When Marius recovers, he and Cosette are married. Valjean gives Cosette a generous dowry, and for the first time Cosette learns that Valjean is not her real father. Valjean tells Marius only that he is an escaped convict, believed dead, and he begs to be allowed to see Cosette occasionally. Gradually, Marius banishes him from the house. Marius then learns from Thénardier that Valjean had rescued Marius at the barricades. Marius and Cosette hurry to Valjean’s lodgings, to find him on his deathbed. He dies knowing that his children love him and that all his entangling past is now clear. He bequeaths the bishop’s silver candlesticks to Cosette, with his last breath saying that he has spent his life in trying to be worthy of the faith of the bishop of Digne. He is buried in a grave with no name on the stone.

Les Misérables Summary

Les Miserables is the story of four people. Bishop Myriel, Jean Valjean, Famine, and Marius Pontmercy, who meet, part, then meet again...

(The entire section is 1487 words.)

Les Misérables Summary and Analysis

Fantine: Summary and Analysis

The Fall - Summary
New Characters:
Jean Valjean: the main character

Jacquin Labarre: host of the inn

Madame la Marquise de R——: the woman in the square

Madame Magliore: the bishop’s servant

Mademoiselle Magliore: the bishop’s sister

Maubert Isabeau: the baker of Faverolles

Petit Gervais: a street musician from Savoy

One evening a weary traveler enters the small town of D—— in a western region of France near the French Alps. His clothes are ragged and torn, and he is exhausted from walking all day. The time is October 1815. He stops briefly at the mayor’s office and then searches for shelter for the night.

...

(The entire section is 4000 words.)

Cosette: Summary and Analysis

The Ship Orion - Summary
Two newspaper articles record the recapture of Jean Valjean. The first, from Drapeau Blanc, July 25, 1823, notes the arrest of an individual known as Monsieur Madeleine who revitalized the jet and black glass industry with the invention of a new manufacturing process. Prior to his arrest, Valjean withdrew more than half a million francs, money which was honestly earned through his business, from Laffitte’s Bank. Police were unable to determine where he had hidden the money. The second article appeared in the Journal de Paris on the same date. It reports that Jean Valjean had been appointed mayor and had established a profitable business under an assumed identity. After his...

(The entire section is 2143 words.)

Marius: Summary and Analysis

The Grand Bourgeois - Summary
New Characters:
M. Gillenormand: an elderly bourgeois gentleman

Mademoiselle Gillenormand the Elder: oldest daughter of Gillenormand

Lieutenant Théodule Gillenormand: Mademoiselle’s nephew

M. Gillenormand is 90 years old. He treats his 50-year-old daughter like a child and sometimes beats his domestics. He is “truly a man of another age — the genuine bourgeois of the eighteenth century, a very perfect specimen, a little haughty.”

Gillenormand’s daughters are ten years apart in age. The younger daughter is happy, gay, and married to the man of her dreams. The other, Mademoiselle the elder, remains unmarried. Ever modest, she...

(The entire section is 4458 words.)

St. Denis: Summary and Analysis

Eponine - SummaryMarius, having watched the entire scene, leaves the house just after Javert and goes to Courfeyrac’s. Courfeyrac has moved from the Left Bank to the Rue de la Verrerie, a neighborhood where there are more revolutionists. The following morning, Marius returns home, pays his rent, and leaves without leaving a forwarding address. Ma’am Bougon thinks he is involved with the criminals who were arrested the previous night. Marius leaves for two reasons. One is that it is the place where he first encountered “a social deformity perhaps more hideous than the evil rich man: the evil poor.” The other is that he does not want to be involved in a trial. He does not want to have to testify against Thénardier....

(The entire section is 3642 words.)

Jean Valjean: Summary and Analysis

War Between Four Walls - Summary
Enjolras tells the men they should leave the barricade if they do not wish to continue fighting, but they are surrounded by soldiers who will shoot anyone who tries to leave. Enjolras takes Combeferre into the basement room, and they return with four National Guard uniforms which can be worn to get out safely. Five men step forward. They debate which of them will take the uniforms but reach no conclusion. Unexpectedly, a fifth uniform is thrown on the pile by Jean Valjean who has easily passed through the streets wearing it. Marius recognizes him at once as M. Fauchelevent. He is invited to stay, but Enjolras warns him that they will all die.

The five men leave and the...

(The entire section is 5453 words.)