Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread in late eighteenth century France, escapes years later and, after accepting the hospitality of a charitable bishop, absconds with the latter’s silver. Under another identity, Valjean emerges as a village mayor who saves from the police a prostitute struggling to support her daughter Cosette. Pursued by the indefatigable Inspector Javert, Valjean confesses his true identity only when it appears that another man will go to prison in his place.
Valjean escapes again and assumes the care of the now-orphaned Cosette. When Cosette grows up to fall in love with Marius de Pontmercy, a young political activist who has drawn the pursuit of the same Javert, Valjean saves Marius’ life by carrying the wounded dissident through the sewers of Paris to safety. Valjean must endure yet more rigors, however, before his goodness is acknowledged.
This long novel teems with minor characters and digressions, some of them captivating. No reader of the book will forget Gavroche, the Parisian street boy who lives by his wits, or Hugo’s recapitulation of the Battle of Waterloo, though it is mere background to one relationship in the story.
While abounding in the farfetched coincidences and melodramatic scenes that nineteenth century readers relished more than their modern counterparts do, this 1862 novel avoids the sentimentality of its age. Furthermore, Hugo’s firm authorial presence, his talent for making history live, his sympathy for the downtrodden, and, above all, his conviction of the capacity of human goodness to triumph against great obstacles will continue to endear him to new generations of readers. The relentless Javert, the noble Marius, the sweetly devoted Cosette, and the impregnable Valjean remain as fascinating as ever.
Norman Denny’s translation for Penguin Books is an eminently readable modern English version of the novel.
Brombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Points out that in Les Misérables the most important reference to hell is its embodiment in the sewers of Paris, through which Jean Valjean carries Marius as the final part of his quest—through death to resurrection.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. The most sophisticated study of Hugo’s fiction to date. Notes Hugo’s use of digressive patterns and impersonal, realistic narration. Draws on a wealth of French criticism.
Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. An exhaustive study of Hugo’s use of image, myth, and prophecy. Notes—among other images and uses of myth—the Christological references to Jean Valjean, who finds redemption in saving others.
Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Indispensable starting guide to the works—drama, poetry, and novels—and life of Victor Hugo.
Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. Vol. 2. The Romantic Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Analysis of Hugo’s literary theory and its relation to other writers of European romantic works. Discusses Hugo’s careful placement of discursive essays throughout the novel.