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.
The end of the eighteenth century was marked by massive social and political change as rebels took up arms in both America and France. The Industrial Revolution of the mid 1700s, based on scientific advances of the Enlightenment, ushered in the Age of Reason. People thought science would improve life for everyone.
The storming of the Bastille, a prison for political prisoners, on July 14, 1789, marked the beginning of the French Revolution. France became a constitutional monarchy based on the ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” set forth in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Two years later, the monarchy was overthrown and King Louis XVI sent to the guillotine. What followed was a Reign of Terror. Chaos prevailed and thousands died as royalists and rebels competed for power.
Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, seizing control of the army and declaring himself emperor. Although he was defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar when he led his army against the British in 1807, his campaigns in Europe gave him control of almost all of Europe. Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. Royalists rejoiced as monarchies were restored throughout Europe while radicals mourned the defeat of the principles of the revolution.
Literature reflected the dramatic events of the time, moving from an emphasis on science and the practical to an emphasis on the idealistic and the emotional. Writers of the Romantic Age focused on the concerns of the individual and the common man rather than on the needs of society as a whole. Reacting to the social evils of the ongoing Industrial Revolution, they placed a new emphasis on nature. Whereas writers of the past had seen evil as an innate part of man, Romantic writers believed in the inherent goodness of man.
Influenced by other Romantic writers, Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the events which followed. Many of the characters in the novel had real life models, including Pontmercy, who was patterned after Hugo’s father, and Marius and Cosette, who reflected Hugo himself and his wife. The bishop in the novel was modeled after Monsignore Miolles of Digne who also helped a criminal to escape.
In his preface, Hugo sets forth “three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night” which he attempts to address in the novel. Each of these conditions is represented by one of the characters, and Hugo uses them to comment on the social conditions of his day. Though its primary theme is society’s treatment of the unfortunate, the novel is also about redemption.
Master List of Characters
Jean Valjean—The protagonist. The plot centers around his life after he is released from serving a 19-year prison term. Also called Father Madeleine, Monsieur Madeleine, Monsieur the Mayor, Urbain Fabre, Monsieur Leblanc, and Ultimus Fauchelevent.
Jacquin Labarreh—The host of the inn La Croix de Colbas who refuses to serve Jean.
Madame la Marquise de R—— —The woman who meets Jean in Cathedral square. She gives him four sous and advises him to knock at the bishop’s door.
The Bishop of D——, Monseigneur Bienvenu—A truly Christian man, he offers Jean refuge and shows faith in him. A symbol of good, he influences the struggle raging in Jean’s heart between good and evil.
Madame Magloire—The bishop’s servant.
Mademoiselle Baptistine— The bishop’s sister who fears Jean but follows her brother’s lead and makes him welcome.
Maubert Isabeau—The baker in Faverolles who catches Jean stealing a loaf of bread from his shop.
Petit Gervais—A 12-year-old street musician. Jean meets him on the plain and steals a silver 40-sous piece from him. Regretting his action, Jean searches in vain for him for years.
The Thénardiers—Paris innkeepers paid by Fantine to raise Cosette. After they lose their inn, they move to Gorbeau House and assume the name Jondrette.
Eponine—The oldest daughter of Thénardier. She is in love with Marius but helps him to find Cosette. At the barricade she is mortally wounded when she deliberately stops a bullet intended for Marius.
Azelma—Thénardier’s younger daughter who eventually goes to America with him.
Fantine—Cosette’s mother who is unable to care for her child because she must find work in a factory.
Laffitte—The banker of M——sur M——.
Javert—The antagonist. A policeman in M——sur M—— who pursues Jean Valjean.
Father Fauchelevent—Jean jeopardizes himself by rescuing this old man when his horse and cart tip over on him. Fauchelevent later repays him by providing shelter in the convent.
Father Champmathieu—This peasant is arrested for stealing apples and incorrectly identified as Jean Valjean.
Brevet, Chenildieu, Cochepaille—The three convicts who testify against Champmathieu and swear he is Jean Valjean.
M. Baloup— Master wheelwright who employs Champmathieu but cannot be located to testify on his behalf.
Sister Simplice and Sister Perpétue—The nuns who care for the dying Fantine. Sister Simplice lies to Javert to protect Jean.
The old portress—Servant of Jean Valjean when he was the mayor.
The old landlady—The landlady of Gorbeau House. She is called Ma’am Bougon by Courfeyrac.
Cosette—The daughter of Fantine. Jean rescues her from the evil Thénardiers and raises her as if she were his own child. She falls in love with and marries Marius.
M. Gillenormand—The grandfather of Marius who raises him. He is an elderly bourgeois gentleman who is a royalist.
Mademoiselle Gillenormand the elder—The oldest daughter of Gillenormand. Never married, she lives with her father and nephew Marius and keeps house for them.
Lieutenant Théodule Gillenormand—Mademoiselle’s nephew who spies on Marius for her.
George Pontmercy—A brave and decorated soldier of the revolution who is one of Bonaparte’s colonels. Married to Gillenormand’s younger daughter, he agrees to give up their son Marius after her death so the child will not be disinherited.
Marius—Pontmercy’s son who is raised by his grandfather and aunt. Not until after his father’s death does he learn to love his father and understand his politics.
Abbé Mabeuf—The priest who is curé of Vernon. He befriends Colonel Pontmercy and tells Marius about his father.
Courfeyrac—A friend of Marius, he teaches him English and German and introduces him to the publisher who gives him a job. He is one of the revolutionists.
Touissant—Rescued from a hospital by Jean, this old woman becomes the servant of Jean and Cosette.
Gavroche—Thénardier’s son, one of the band of insurgents. His small stature allows him to move in and out of the barricade without being noticed.
Enjolras—One of the commanders of the insurgents.
Bossuet, Feuilly, Combeferre, Joly, and Bahorel—Some of the revolutionists at the barricade.
The portress—A servant in Jean’s building.
The physician— He attends to Jean.
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.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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 entire section is 1142 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1616 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Fantine: Summary and Analysis
The Fall - Summary
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
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.)