How does one determine and summarize the plot of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When deciphering, analyzing, or summarizing the main plot of a work of fiction, what you want to keep in mind is the plot structure. The plot structure refers to things like the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Being able to pick out the parts of the plot structure will help you be able to easily spot what points are important in the plot so that you can summarize it. We won't have space to cover all of the above, but here are a few things to get you started.

The exposition is the moment when the characters and storyline are introduced. Specifically, the exposition is really only given in the narrative and not in the dialogue that helps paint the story. Hugo definitely uses a great deal of exposition. Most importantly, he uses exposition to introduce the two most important characters, the Bishop of Digne and Jean Valjean. The book is really a story about Jean Valjean as the main character and his story of redemption; however, all of his character development is due to the Bishop of Digne, making him a central figure as well. The Bishop of Digne impacts Valjean's character development by being the only one willing to show mercy to him as an ex-convict and treat him with respect and dignity. The Bishop also shows him compassion and mercy by not charging him with theft and even giving Valjean all of his silver to become a new man, as the Bishop phrases it:

Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God. (Vol. 1, Bk. 2, Ch. 7)

The rising action refers to the moments in the plot that lead up to the climax. The novel is definitely a huge book and there are therefore many moments of rising action, however, here are a few of moments of significance: 1) when Valjean meets Fantine; 2) when Valjean rescues Cosette, taking her under his care; 3) when Marius meets the members of the ABC; 4) when Marius meets Cosette.

The climax is the most emotionally intense moment of the story. It is also the moment when we begin to see how the resolution will take shape, the moment the resolution becomes inevitable. Since this is mostly Valjean's story of redemption, the moment of climax really takes place when, after her marriage to Marius and after Valjean begins to stop coming to see Cosette believing he is too impure to be in her life, Marius finally learns exactly just what a saint Valjean is and how he was genuinely good as Father Madeleine and sacrificed himself to save Marius's life. At this point, Marius brings Cosette to see Valjean who has fallen ill due to heartbreak, but it is too late for Valjean. He is dying; however, he is dying happy. Plus, he now knows that he has been fully forgiven for his past and fully redeemed.  

rosebelle | Student


Thénardier’s daughter Eponine, who is in love with Marius, helps Marius discover Cosette’s whereabouts. Marius is finally able to make contact with Cosette, and the two declare their love for each other. Valjean, however, soon shatters their happiness. Worried that he will lose Cosette and unnerved by political unrest in the city, Valjean announces that he and Cosette are moving to England. In desperation, Marius runs to his grandfather, M. Gillenormand, to ask for M. Gillenormand’s permission to marry Cosette. Their meeting ends in a bitter argument. When Marius returns to Cosette, she and Valjean have disappeared. Heartbroken, Marius decides to join his radical student friends, who have started a political uprising. Armed with two pistols, Marius heads for the barricades.

The uprising seems doomed, but Marius and his fellow students nonetheless stand their ground and vow to fight for freedom and democracy. The students discover Javert among their ranks, and, realizing that he is a spy, Enjolras ties him up. As the army launches its first attack against the students, Eponine throws herself in front of a rifle to save Marius’s life. As Eponine dies in Marius’s arms, she hands him a letter from Cosette. Marius quickly scribbles a reply and orders a boy, Gavroche, to deliver it to Cosette.

Marius makes a full recovery and is reconciled with Gillenormand, who consents to Marius and Cosette’s marriage. Their wedding is a happy one, marred only when Valjean confesses his criminal past to Marius. Alarmed by this revelation and unaware that it was Valjean who saved his life at the barricades, Marius tries to prevent Cosette from having contact with Valjean. Lonely and depressed, Valjean takes to his bed and awaits his death. Marius eventually finds out from Thénardier that Valjean saved Marius’s life. Ashamed that he mistrusted Valjean, Marius tells Cosette everything that has happened. Marius and Cosette rush to Valjean’s side just in time for a final reconciliation. Happy to be reunited with his adopted daughter, Valjean dies in peace.


rosebelle | Student

Jean Valjean, after spending nineteen years in jail and in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread and for several attempts to escape, is finally released, but his past keeps haunting him. At Digne, he is repeatedly refused shelter for the night. Only the saintly bishop, Monseigneur Myriel, welcomes him. Valjean repays his host's hospitality by stealing his silverware. When the police bring him back, the bishop protects his errant guest by pretending that the silverware is a gift. With a pious lie, he convinces them that the convict has promised to reform. After one more theft, Jean Valjean does indeed repent. Under the name of M. Madeleine he starts a factory and brings prosperity to the town of Montreuil. Then he met Fantine, a worker in his factory who has an illegitimate daughter who’s she have left in the care of Thenardier. Fantine soon turned into a prostitute and was caught by a inspector Javert, but through the help of M. Madeleine, she was send out of jail. She catches a fever, however, and her health deteriorates dangerously. Death is imminent and M. Madeleine promises to bring her daughter, Cosette, to her.

One night, Madeleine have faced a serious problem that he have to confess his true identity as Jean Valjean. After his confession, he was been arrested by Javert in front of Fantine who is suffering and this shocking event causes the death of Fantine. Valjean have escaped and people believe that he have died because of drowning. He was then reached Montfermeil where Cosette, daughter of Fantine, lives. He saves Cosette and takes her away from the guardianship of Thenardier.

In Paris, he lives like a recluse in a dilapidated tenement, the Gorbeau House, in an outlying district. In spite of his precautions, however, Javert manages to track him down. Valjean is forced to flee abruptly. After a hectic chase and imminent capture, he finds a miraculous refuge in a convent. With the cooperation of the gardener, Fauchelevent, a man whose life he has saved in the past, Valjean persuades the prioress to take him on as assistant gardener and to enroll Cosette as a pupil. Valjean and Cosette spend several happy years in the isolation of the convent.

Marius Pontmercy is a young man who lives with his wealthy grandfather, M. Gillenormand. One day, Marius sees Cosette at a public park. It is love at first sight, but the protective Valjean does his utmost to prevent Cosette and Marius from ever meeting. After Valjean leaves, Thénardier announces a plan to rob Valjean when he returns. Alarmed, Marius alerts the local police inspector, who turns out to be Javert. The ambush is foiled and the Thénardiers are arrested, but Valjean escapes before Javert can identify him.




muallen126 | Student

Les Miserables is about a man, Valjean, that is paroled after serving 19 years in prison. He is shunned by most because of this past. Valjean is befriended by Bishop Digne, only to steal from him. When he is caught by police, Digne not only lies to police so that Valjean is released, but Digne gives Valjean two candlesticks. After this Valjean vows to be a good person.