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...
(The entire section is 3,097 words.)