Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Jean Valjean (zhah[n] vahl-ZHAH[N]), a convict of unusual strength, originally sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family. Attempts to escape have kept him in the galleys for nineteen years before he is released in 1815. Police Inspector Javert is sure he will be back, for his passport, proclaiming him an ex-convict, keeps him from getting work. He stops at the home of the bishop of Digne, who treats him well despite Jean’s attempts to rob him of some silverware. Eventually, calling himself Father Madeleine, a man with no previous history, he appears in the town of M. sur M. His discovery of a method for making jet for jewelry brings prosperity to the whole village, and the people elect him mayor. Then his conscience forces him to confess his former identity to save a prisoner unjustly arrested. Again he escapes from the galleys and from Inspector Javert, until he is betrayed by a blackmailer. In the end, he dies peacefully, surrounded by those he loves and with his entangled past revealed. His final act is to bequeath to Cosette the bishop’s silver candlesticks, which he had kept for years while trying to deserve the bishop’s confidence.
Fantine (fahn-TEEN), a beautiful girl of Paris whose attempts to find a home for her illegitimate daughter Cosette have put her into the power...
(The entire section is 1419 words.)
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Les Miserables is the story of four people: Bishop Myriel, Valjean, Fantine, and Marius, who meet, part, then meet again during the most agitated decades of nineteenth-century France. It also tells the story of the 1832 revolution and describes the unpleasant side of Paris. The novel is in essence a plea for humane treatment of the poor and for equality among all citizens.
The year is 1815 and Napoleon has just been defeated at Waterloo. Charles Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, is a kind and generous man who gives Jean Valjean aid when everyone else refuses him. Searching for a place to spend the night, the ex-convict finds that he is a branded man and no inn will let him stay. His last resort is the home of the bishop, who takes him in and treats him as an honored guest. After Valjean steals the silverware and is caught by the police, the bishop protects him by insisting that the silver was actually a gift. Afterward, he says to Valjean, "[You] no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God." The bishop's selfless act inspires Valjean to change his life.
The chief protagonist, Valjean, is an ex-convict who struggles to redeem himself morally and to find acceptance in a society that rejects him as a former criminal. Valjean's redemption through his many trials is the central plot of Les Miserables. The child of a poor...
(The entire section is 1678 words.)
The chief protagonist, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict who struggles to redeem himself morally and to find acceptance in a society that rejects him as a former criminal. Valjean's redemption through his many trials is the central plot of Les Miserables.
The child of a poor peasant family, he loses both his parents as a young child and moves in with an older sister. When her husband dies, Valjean supports her and her seven children by working as a tree pruner. Unable to feed the family on his earnings, he steals a loaf of bread from a baker and ends up serving nineteen years in prison for his crime. Finally free, he finds that he cannot find lodging, work, or acceptance in the outside world. As an ex-convict he is at the bottom of the social order.
But Valjean has a transforming experience when he meets the Bishop of Digne, who accepts and shelters him regardless of his past, even after Valjean tries to steal from his household. Here Valjean learns the lesson of unconditional love, a reason for living that sustains him through all of his trials. And they are many. He lives on the run from two forces: the justice of the law, represented by Javert, a police detective who doggedly pursues him, and his own conscience, which leads him to make difficult choices between what is right and what is easiest.
Valjean starts a new life as the mayor of Montreuil sur Mer. He is the savior of this manufacturing town,...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Inspector Javert is nearly as renowned a character as Jean Valjean, perhaps due to the dramatized versions of Les Miserables, which have tended to present the novel as more of a detective story than a morality tale. Javert serves as Valjean's nemesis throughout the novel, continually threatening to expose his past and bring him under the control of the law. In his exaggerated, nearly fanatical devotion to duty and his lack of compassion, Javert represents a punitive, vengeful form of justice.
Hugo suggests that Javert's "respect for authority and hatred of revolt" are rooted in his past, for he was born in a prison. As if to compensate for this fact, he has spent his life in faithful service to law enforcement. When Valjean saves Javert by helping him escape from the revolutionaries, Javert's rigid system of behavior is upset, for he realizes that Valjean, a criminal who has not yet been officially punished, has performed an act of great kindness and courage. Javert previously would have overlooked such an act and arrested the criminal, but his realization proves more than he can bear. Unable to resolve his inner conflict, Javert drowns himself in the Seine River.
(The entire section is 199 words.)
Bahorel is a student and a member of the ABC Society, a secret revolutionary group of students and workers. But he has no respect for authority and is a real troublemaker, liking nothing better than a good fight.
The unmarried sister of the Bishop of Digne, she lives with him and runs his household. She is a gentle, respectable woman who does good works.
Bishop of Digne
See Charles Myriel
A member of the ABC Society, Bossuet is a law student. He is cheerful but unlucky; everything he undertakes seems to go wrong.
Combeferre is a member of the ABC Society, a student, and a philosopher of revolution. He has a scientific mind and dreams of the inventions of the future and how they will benefit the human race.
Cosette is the illegitimate daughter of Fantine, a Parisian "grisette" (working woman) whose lover, Felix Tholomyes, abandons her when she is pregnant. Valjean rescues Cosette from the Thenardiers, and she becomes the love of his life and the motivation for his goodness. She is raised and educated in a convent. When she and Valjean move out into the real Paris, she turns into a beautiful young Parisian woman and falls in love with Marius Pontmercy.
A member of the ABC Society, Courfeyrac becomes Marius's friend and takes him in.
(The entire section is 1980 words.)