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.