Last Updated on March 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1419
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 of money-mad M. Thénardier. Unable to meet his demands for more money after the foreman of Father Madeleine’s factory fires her upon learning of her earlier history, she turns prostitute, only to have M. Javert arrest her. By this time, she is dying of tuberculosis. Father Madeleine promises to look after eight-year-old Cosette.
Cosette (koh-ZEHT), Fantine’s daughter, who grows up believing herself the daughter of Father Madeleine. She is seen and loved by a young lawyer, Marius Pontmercy; but Valjean, fearing he will be compelled to reveal her story and his own if she marries, plans to take her away. Cosette hears from Pontmercy again as she is about to leave for England with her supposed father. She sends him a note that brings his answer that he is going to seek death at the barricades.
Felix Tholomyes (fay-LEEKS toh-loh-MYEHS), a carefree, faithless student, Fantine’s lover and Cosette’s father.
M. Javert (zhah-VEHR), a police inspector with a strong sense of duty that impels him to track down the man whom he considers a depraved criminal. Finally, after Valjean saves his life at the barricades, where the crowd wants to kill him as a police spy, he struggles between his sense of duty and his reluctance to take back to prison a man who could have saved himself by letting the policeman die. His solution is to drown himself in the Seine.
Marius Pontmercy (mahr-YEWS poh[n]-mehr-SEE), a young lawyer of good blood, estranged from his aristocratic family because of his liberal views. His father, an army officer under Napoleon Bonaparte, had expressed a deathbed wish that his son try to repay his debt to Sergeant Thénardier, who had saved his life at Waterloo. Marius’ struggle between obligations to a rascal and his desire to protect the father of the girl he loves sets M. Javert on Jean Valjean’s tracks. A farewell letter from Cosette sends him to die at the barricade during a street revolt. After he has been wounded, Valjean saves him by carrying him underground through the sewers of Paris. Eventually, Marius marries Cosette and learns, when the old man is dying, the truth about Jean Valjean.
M. Thénardier (tay-nahr-DEEAY), an unscrupulous, avaricious innkeeper, a veteran of Waterloo, who bleeds Fantine of money to pay for the care of Cosette. Later, he changes his name to Jondrette and begins a career of begging and blackmail while living in the Gorbeau tenement in Paris. Jean Valjean becomes one of his victims. He even demands money to let Valjean out of the sewers beneath Paris while Valjean is carrying wounded Marius Pontmercy to a place of safety.
Mme Thénardier, a virago as cruel and ruthless as her husband.
Eponine Thénardier (ay-poh-NEEN), their older daughter, a good-hearted but pathetic girl. Marius Pontmercy first meets her when she delivers one of her father’s begging, whining letters. In love with Marius, she saves his life by interposing herself between him and a musket during the fighting at the barricade. Before she dies, she gives him a letter telling where Cosette can be found.
Azelma (ah-zehl-MAH), their younger daughter.
Little Gavroche (gah-VROHSH), the Thénardiers’ son, a street gamin. He is killed while assisting the insurgents in the fighting at the barricade.
Charles François Bienvenu Myriel
Charles François Bienvenu Myriel (frah[n]-SWAH byeh[n]-veh-NEW meer-YEHL), bishop of Digne, a good-hearted, devout churchman who gives hospitality to Jean Valjean after the ex-convict’s release from the galleys. When Valjean repays him by stealing some of the bishop’s silverware, the old man tells the police that he had given the valuables to his guest and gives him in addition a pair of silver candlesticks. His saintliness turns Valjean to a life of honesty and sacrifice.
Father Fauchelevent (foh-shehl-VAH[N]), a bankrupt notary turned carter, jealous of Father Madeleine’s success in M. sur M. One day his horse falls, and the old man is pinned beneath his cart. The accident might have proved fatal if Father Madeleine, a man of tremendous strength, had not lifted the vehicle to free the trapped carter. This feat of strength, witnessed by M. Javert, causes the policeman to comment significantly that he has known only one man, a galley slave, capable of doing such a deed. Father Madeleine’s act changes Father Fauchelevent from an enemy to an admiring friend. After his accident, the old man becomes a gardener at the convent of the Little Picpus in Paris. Jean Valjean and Cosette, fleeing from the police, take refuge in the convent garden. Old Fauchelevent gives them shelter and arranges to have Valjean smuggled out of the convent grounds in the coffin of a dead nun. Later, he helps Valjean to get work as a workman at the convent.
Little Gervaise (zhehr-VEHZ), a young Savoyard from whom Jean Valjean steals two francs. The deed arouses his conscience, and he weeps because he cannot find the boy to return his money. This is the crime of which Champmathieu is later accused.
Champmathieu (shah[n]-mah-TYEW), an old man arrested for stealing apples. When he is taken to the departmental prison at Arras, a convict there identifies him as Jean Valjean, a former convict, and he is put on trial for the theft of two francs stolen from a Savoyard lad eight years before. After a struggle with his conscience, Jean Valjean appears at the trial and confesses his identity. Champmathieu, convinced that all the world is mad if Father Madeleine is Jean Valjean, is acquitted. Javert arrests Valjean as the real culprit, but his prisoner escapes a few hours later after pulling out a bar of his cell window.
M. Gillenormand (zheel-nohr-MAH[N]), the stern grandfather of Marius Pontmercy. A royalist, the old man never became reconciled with his Bonapartist son-in-law. He and his grandson quarrel because of the young man’s political views and reverence for his dead father. Turned out of his grandfather’s house, Marius goes to live in the Gorbeau tenement.
Théodule Gillenormand (tay-oh-DEWL), M. Gillenormand’s great-grand-nephew, a lieutenant in the lancers. He spies on Marius Pontmercy and learns that his kinsman is a regular visitor at his father’s tomb.
Courfeyrac (kewr-fay-RAHK) and
Enjolras (ehn-zhohl-RAH), friends of Marius Pontmercy and members of the friends of the A.B.C., a society supposed to be interested in the education of children but in reality a revolutionary group. Both are killed in the uprising of the citizens in June, 1832, Courfeyrac at the barricades, Enjolras in the house where the insurgents make their last stand.
M. Maboef (mah-BEWF), an aged church warden who had known Marius Pontmercy’s father. A lover of humankind and a hater of tyranny, he marches unarmed to the barricades with the young friends of the A.B.C. He is killed during the fighting.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1678
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 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 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, rebuilding its industries and economy and sustaining the population with new jobs. But he lives on the run from his dogged pursuer, Inspector Javert, and in his first moral trial he has to give himself up to keep an innocent man from going to prison in his place. He escapes again and lives the rest of his life as a fugitive.
The harshness of the society in which he lives presents great obstacles to Valjean's moral redemption. Only the transforming power of love lets him overcome them. He loves a young girl, Cosette, daughter of the prostitute Fantine, and raises her as his daughter. Most of his good acts center on her welfare: saving the life of her lover, Marius; protecting her, whatever the cost to himself; even giving up Cosette after she marries, so that she will not be sullied by connection to an ex-convict. His love for her teaches him how to act in the world at large. In all of his actions he strives to be honorable and generous.
Valjean is especially kind toward Fantine, a Parisian "grisette" or working woman who falls in love with a student, Felix Tholomyes. Just after Felix breaks off their relationship, she gives birth to a daughter, Cosette. From that point forward her life is a downward spiral. She gives up her child to the mercenary Thenardiers and finds a job in her hometown, but is dismissed when her supervisor finds out about her past. She struggles to make ends meet, selling everything she has: her hair, her teeth, and herself (becoming a prostitute). Fantine represents society's cruelty to the poor and its degradation of poor women in particular. Only Valjean shows her any sympathy.
Valjean rescues Fantine's daughter from the Thenardiers, a family of innkeepers on the outskirts of Paris. The unscrupulous innkeeper and his wife took care of Cosette, but treated her poorly. Throughout the novel, Thenardier embarks on a life of crime, getting involved with the worst criminals in Paris. He and his wife attempt to entrap and rob Valjean, sending the couple to prison. After he escapes from prison, Thenardier helps Valjean from the sewers when Valjean is trapped there with Marius. Thenardier plays a central part in the plot. He does good in spite of his evil intentions, not knowing what the consequences of his own actions will be, much unlike his wife, who the narrator says is naturally cruel and scheming and offers her as an example of those who commit crimes not because they are driven to it, but because it suits them.
Saved from a life of servitude to the Thenardiers, Cosette, partially reared by Valjean in a convent, falls in love with Marius, a young law student. Marius also saves Valjean from a plot against his life by the innkeeper-turned-criminal, Thenardier. In turn, Marius is saved by Valjean while fighting on the barricade. He is the son of Georges Pontmercy, a colonel and war hero under Napoleon. But Marius's grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand, despises Georges and takes Marius into his own home to raise him.
Marius is at a stage of life where he doesn't know yet what he believes. His image of the world keeps opening up as he encounters new points of view. When he discovers his father's identity, he worships him as a war hero and adopts a pro-Napoleon stance opposed to his grandfather's royalism. He gets into a quarrel with Gillenormand and storms out of the house to make his way through Paris as a starving student. Marius falls in with a group of students, led by Enjolras, who share his republican beliefs. At first he is reluctant to give up his belief that conquest and war are the greatest ideals of a nation. But he begins to have doubts when the students present him with a new ideal, freedom: "Having so lately found a faith, must he renounce it? He told himself that he need not; he resolved not to doubt, and began despite himself to do so." When unrest stirs Paris in 1832 and his friends take up arms, he joins them on the barricades. But it is more out of desperation, because he fears he has lost Cosette, than out of political conviction. He is lured there by the voice of the street girl Eponine telling him that his friends await him.
The poor daughter of the Thenardiers, Eponine falls in love with Marius and becomes jealous of his love for Cosette. She is torn between wanting to help him and wanting to keep him away from Cosette. She courageously saves his life on the barricade by stepping between him and a bullet and dies in his arms. Her life is an example of poverty's degradation: "What it came to was that in the heart of our society, as at present constituted, two unhappy mortals [Eponine and her sister] had been turned by extreme poverty into monsters at once depraved and innocent, drab creatures without name or age or sex, no longer capable of good or evil, deprived of all freedom, virtue, and responsibility; soul born yesterday and shriveled today like flowers dropped in the street which lie fading in the mud until a cartwheel comes to crush them."
Eponine's brother Gavroche also has the same fate on the barricades of Paris. Gavroche is a Parisian urchin (street child), the son of the villainous Thenardiers. Lively and clever, he lives by his wits. He dies by them as well and proves his courage, getting shot by soldiers when he is teasing them on the barricade. His fate is interwoven with that of Marius, Cosette, and the Thenardiers. The novel presents him as an essential representative of Paris: "He had neither hearth nor home, nor any regular source of food; yet he was happy because he was free. By the time the poor have grown to man's estate they have nearly always been caught in the wheels of the social order and become shaped to its requirements; but while they are children their smallness saves them."
However, no one could be saved from the ruthless pursuit of Inspector Javert. Javert is nearly as renowned a character as Jean Valjean, perhaps due to the dramatized versions of Les Miserables, which have tended to cast it 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. With an exaggerated, nearly fanatical devotion to duty and a 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 recognition proves more than he can bear. Unable to resolve his inner conflict, Javert drowns himself in the Seine.
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