Introduction to Les Misérables

Les Misérables is a sprawling, five-volume novel by Victor Hugo. First published in 1862, it soon became one of the most popular and influential novels of its time. The novel contains numerous plots, characters, and digressive essays, but it centers around Jean Valjean, a man who has spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister. After engaging in petty thefts, Valjean adopts an alter ego and becomes a well-to-do businessman. However, his past catches up with him, and he is pursued by the dogged police inspector Javert. The novel’s plot unfolds over the course of nearly two decades, mostly taking place in Paris.

Les Misérables is popular and acclaimed for a number of reasons, reflecting its capacious, multifaceted nature. For many, the novel is a stirring story with life-like characters. For others, it is a brilliant social novel that conveys the tensions of nineteenth-century French society. For still others, it is an innovative text whose immense scope and rich digressions represent a fresh approach to the novel form.

A Brief Biography of Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo (1802–1885) was a prolific writer of plays, poetry, essays, and novels. Today, he is most famous for his novels Les Miserables and Notre-Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo was declared a traitor to France and exiled by Napoleon III in 1851; although he was granted amnesty in 1859, he declined and chose instead to continue living in exile until 1870, when Napoleon III was replaced by the Third Republic. Hugo was somewhat of a chameleon and often changed his political views and religion over the years. He was also a strong political figure in France and was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate upon his return to his homeland.

Frequently Asked Questions about Les Misérables

Les Misérables

Jean Valjean's parole was, in some ways, as harsh as his prison sentence. As a paroled prisoner, Valjean was required to carry papers that identified him as a parolee and to show them to pretty...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 2:08 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

Jean Valjean is initially sentenced to five years for breaking a bakery window and stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry children. After four years, with the help of his fellow inmates, he...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 1:08 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

The revolution described in Les Misérables is one which Victor Hugo actually witnessed, which is sometimes known as the Second French Revolution. Fighting broke out in July 1830 and initially...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 12:07 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

Victor Hugo's novel arose out of many years of walking the streets of Paris and observing the plight of the poor. As social unrest grew across Europe over the course of the nineteenth century, Hugo...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 12:04 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

We first witness Jean Valjean stealing bread through the eyes of the baker. The baker, Maubert Isabeau, sees the bakery window being broken: An arm passed through a hole made by a blow from a...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 12:53 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

One might make a convincing case that Marius Pontmercy's best friend in Les Misérables is Eponine. She certainly cares for him more than anyone else in the novel, wishes for nothing better than to...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 7:20 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s book Les Misérables is set in France between the years 1815 and 1832. The events of the story take place in many parts of the country, notably in the capital city of Paris but also in...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 5:05 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

By the time he is shot to death, Gavroche is around eleven or twelve years old. From his infancy, Gavroche's parents view him as nothing more than another mouth to feed. Living on the streets as a...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 12:53 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

Eponine is the oldest daughter of Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, a pair of innkeepers with a penchant for swindling their guests out of money. During her early childhood, Eponine and her younger...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 12:35 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

As a small child, Cosette is forced to work at the Thénardier inn in Montfermeil. Cosette's mother, Fantine, is unable to care for her properly, due to being a single, unwed mother in a society...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 11:59 am (UTC)

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Les Misérables

I would say that two of the major themes of Les Misérables are compassion (particularly for the less fortunate) and justice. These are two values which Hugo seems interested in instilling among his...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 9:29 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

On Christmas Eve, 1823, Cosette is eight years old and living with Monsieur and Madame Thénardier in Montfermeil. The Thénardiers treat Cosette as an unpaid servant, and, on this particular...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 1:01 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

Les Misérables begins with a typically long and detailed character sketch of Monseigneur Myriel, Bishop of Digne. By the time Jean Valjean enters the story, the reader is familiar with the Bishop's...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 4:05 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

Aside from the protagonist, Jean Valjean, the best-known character in Les Misérables and its numerous musical, stage, and screen adaptations is probably Javert, a character who appears first as a...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 11:23 am (UTC)

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Les Misérables

In Les Misérables, Éponine falls in love with Marius Pontmercy, her neighbor in Paris, and she eventually confesses her love for him with her dying breath. Éponine is initially an unsympathetic...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 12:08 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

The innkeeper in Les Misérables is named Monsieur Thénardier. He is a petty crook who emerges as one of the major antagonists of the novel, and, along with his equally corrupt wife, is perhaps the...

Latest answer posted February 24, 2021, 12:27 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

The elephant in Les Misérables is a real place in Paris, called the Elephant of the Bastille. It was commissioned by Napoleon, but never completed. By the time of the novel, the unfinished...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 2:08 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

General Lamarque was a real historical figure who served under Napoleon and died in 1832. In the novel, he is depicted as a true champion of the people. His death, the narrator explains, is the...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 2:33 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

Fantine gives birth to Cosette in 1815, and they spend years together, destitute, until she begins to pay Monsieur and Madame Thénardier to care for the girl. This is a mistake, since they treat...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 4:33 pm (UTC)

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Les Misérables

When Fantine finds herself a single mother with a young child and without a means of support in the world, she has to make a hard choice: Either leave her child with other people, so that she can...

Latest answer posted February 23, 2021, 2:00 pm (UTC)

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Summary