Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face in the French flag

Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables is a novel that tells the story of Jean Valjean’s struggles to escape his criminal past and provide for his adopted daughter, Cosette.

  • Once released from prison, Valjean attempts to steal silver candlesticks from a priest. He is caught, but the priest gives him the candlesticks as a gift.
  • Valjean becomes a wealthy mayor of a small town. He is forced to flee when Javert, a police inspector, finds him and grows suspicious.
  • Cosette falls in love with a revolutionary who is injured in a fight. Valjean carries him to safety but continues to be plagued by his past until the day he dies.


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Last Updated on March 8, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

Summary of the Novel

Les Misérables takes place in the period following Napoleon's reign and the French Revolution. It tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a former prisoner who was incarcerated for nineteen years after stealing a loaf of bread. After receiving guidance from a bishop to start over, Jean changes his name and relocates, ultimately becoming a successful manufacturer and well-respected member of society. However, the police inspector Javert remains doubtful of him, and only when Jean's conscience compels him to disclose his real identity does he need to escape.

The remainder of the novel takes place in Paris, where Jean regularly changes his place of residence and takes on different aliases to evade capture. After making a vow to his mother, Fantine, who is on her deathbed, Jean saves a young girl named Cosette from the cruel Thénardier family and becomes her guardian. They spend numerous years living in a convent, where Cosette matures into a lovely young woman. Ultimately, Jean departs from the convent to allow Cosette to experience a more ordinary existence.

Cosette develops romantic feelings for Marius, a youthful attorney who becomes part of a group of revolutionaries manning a barricade. Marius is unaware that Jean is also present at the barricade; when Jean gets hurt, he disregards his own safety and, having spared the life of his persistent foe, Javert, he takes Marius through the sewers of Paris to a place of safety, reuniting him with his loved ones and Cosette.

Despite facing great difficulties, Jean strives to live by the bishop's guidance and become a virtuous individual. Only when he is lying on his deathbed, after Cosette and Marius have been wed, does he find the courage to confront his past and confess everything. It is only then that he is able to find peace.

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