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Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo

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Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 24, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006


Paris is the capital of France, in whose mean—and mainly unknown—neighborhoods most of the novel is set. In setting most of his action in these neighborhoods, Hugo emphasizes how a great majority of honest and hard-working people (“les misérables”) live in overcrowded and dilapidated conditions. His criticism does not originate in class warfare but rather in a desire to help improve their unbearable situation. Many streets mentioned in the novel were destroyed or absorbed in other wider arteries during various urban renewals, especially under the Second Empire in the 1850s and 1860s—and later. Some simply have changed names to new appellations: for example, Rue Plumet has become Rue Oudinot.

The Rue Plumet House

The Rue Plumet house is Jean Valjean and Cosette’s new rented home in a good neighborhood. The furnished townhouse, with its solidly enclosed garden, is not only vast and almost elegant, it has a secret passageway offering escape if necessary. Since they want to be unnoticed, Valjean and Cosette never use the entrance on Rue Plumet, but use a side door to a back street. After discovering her address, however, Marius visits the sixteen-year-old girl, and both confess their love for each other as they kiss. The untended garden, which symbolizes the naïveté and free-spiritedness of Cosette, is now transformed into a wondrous place, alive with sheltering trees and perfuming flowers, that welcomes their innocent “idyll.”

Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire

Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire (rew day feey-doo-kal-VEHR) is a street in an upper-class district. Mr. Gillenormand (Marius’s grandfather) owns a mansion and private garden at No. 6. Beautifully furnished and appointed, it is the residence of a wealthy bourgeois who appreciates fine art and good books but who is reactionary in his politics. The mansion is so large that it can house seven people quite easily along with Marius’s office. (Valjean, though urged to move in, refuses.)

The “Bowels of Leviathan”

The “Bowels of Leviathan” is Hugo’s metaphor for the sewers of Paris. Beside their utilitarian purpose, the underground sewers hide Marius, who is being rescued by Valjean. They must wade through long tunnels filled with slime, as the latter intelligently follows the maze-like topographical pattern to secure their safe exit. In comparing the sewers to a Dantesque hell, Hugo stresses the subterranean presence of vice and of moral decadence in society and, thus, the need to redeem one’s soul (never an easy task—witness Valjean’s several struggles with his conscience) through goodness toward others and self-sacrifice.

Rue de la Chanvrerie

Rue de la Chanvrerie (rew deh lah shan-vrer-ee) is the area of the anti-Louis-Philippe insurrection (June 5–6, 1832). This Parisian street in the St. Denis district is the setting for the battle between the well-armed king’s soldiers and the poorly supplied democratic rebels fighting behind makeshift barricades. No wonder so many of them die (gloriously) and Marius is gravely wounded.


Montreuil-sur-mer (mon-TROEY-sur-mehr) is a town in northern France. Jean Valjean (alias Monsieur Madeleine) runs a glass bead factory that gives employment to many, including Fantine. Its distant location from Toulon, the naval port city on the Mediterranean and home of prison ships, also offers him a better chance to hide from the police. However, his past eventually catches up with him and he is sent back to Toulon, from where he later escapes.


Digne (deen) is a small city in southern France. Instead of a luxurious episcopal palace, Bishop Myriel’s house is small and modest and well reflects the prelate’s own modesty. Moreover, even the name of the city (digne means “worthy”) underlines the charity, generosity, and saintliness of Monsignor Bienvenu.


Waterloo is the...

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town in Belgium that was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous final defeat on June 18, 1815. Hugo shows a deep understanding and knowledge of both the strategy and tactics employed by the French and Anglo-Prussian armies. Thénardier allegedly performed an unselfish deed by rescuing Colonel Pontmercy during the battle.

Rue de l’Homme-Armé

Rue de l’Homme-Armé (rew deh luh-MAR-may) hosts another apartment (at No. 7) used by Valjean and Cosette. Since it is to be a hideaway and refuge for the escaped convict, it contains only the furnishings necessary for him and his young charge.

The Gorbeau Hovel

The Gorbeau hovel (GOR-boh) is one of Jean Valjean and Cosette’s numerous homes as they flee across Paris; later the Thénardiers and Marius will live there. As a typical tenement, it acts as a microcosm of lower-class French society, from criminals, young orphans, and prisoners on the run to neglected adolescents and impoverished students.


Montfermeil (mon-fer-MAYL) is a town east of Paris, where the Thénardiers operate an unsavory and ramshackle inn. Cosette, a foster-child in their care and Cinderella-like heroine, lives there, too. Valjean buries his treasure in the forest on the outskirts of this town.

The Petit-Picpus Convent

Petit-Picpus convent (peh-tee peek-PUH) is an estate inhabited by nuns. Although given a specific address (62, Petite rue Picpus), this fictional religious community, containing large gardens, a school, and a nunnery, represents a haven for Valjean and Cosette. For five years he is employed as gardener and general handyman while she attends its school.


Père-Lachaise (pehr lah-SHAYZ) is a famous cemetery in eastern Paris. Valjean is buried here away from the plots of the rich and powerful, his unkempt and nameless tombstone further accenting the anonymous character of this tragic Everyman.

Notre-Dame Bridge

Notre-Dame Bridge is a bridge across the Seine River, which is here at its most tortuous and fast-flowing. A so-called deranged Javert, unable to comprehend Valjean’s merciful generosity, purposely chooses this site to die by suicide.

Luxembourg Gardens

The Luxembourg Gardens are a Parisian park with beautiful grounds and a promenade. It is here that Marius and Cosette see each other for the first time and fall in love from afar.

Café Musain

Café Musain (kah-FAY mew-SAYN) is a Latin-Quarter drinking establishment whose back room serves as a meeting place for the A.B.C. secret society.

Historical Context

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Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that swept Europe and the United States in the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. This movement was preceded by the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason as the basis of social life. The Enlightenment also promoted universal, formal standards, dating back to Greek and Roman classicism, for greatness in art. The artists, philosophers, writers, and composers of the Romantic movement rejected these standards and instead valued the individual imagination and experience as the basis of art and source of truth. Nature, the state of childhood, and emotion, rather than logic or scientific investigation, were considered the primary sources of eternal truth.

Victor Hugo was one of the leading writers of the Romantic movement in France, and Les Misérables was one of its major works. The novel is Romantic in style and theme. It is written in a sweeping, emotional manner, taking the experience of the individual as the starting point for discovering truths about French society.


France in the nineteenth century was in a constant state of political and social unrest. In 1789, the newly formed National Assembly created a document called the “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” establishing the right to liberty, equality, property, and security, and adding that every citizen had a duty to defend these rights. After King Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793, a period of confusion and violence followed. Many people, the innocent along with the guilty, were executed in the aftermath of the Revolution.

With the bloody departure of the monarchy, the legislature appointed a five-man Directory to power in 1795. But conspirators, including Napoleon Bonaparte, staged a coup d’etat, or surprise overthrow of the state, in 1799. Napoleon became dictator and remained in power until he was completely defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This is when Hugo’s novel Les Misérables begins.

From 1815 until 1830, France was ruled by Louis XVIII and then Charles X under the Second Restoration. During this time the French used a constitutional monarchy where the king governed alongside an elected parliament. This was a comparatively tranquil and prosperous period, but it ended in the Revolution of 1830, when Charles X published ordinances dissolving Parliament, limiting voting rights to land owners, and abolishing freedom of the press. Charles was forced from the throne and replaced by Louis Philippe, the “citizen king,” who had fought in the French Revolution. This was a triumph for the middle class, but it left the working class and poor out in the cold.

The insurrection of 1832, the first Republican uprising since 1789, started to stir at the burial of Lamarque, a Revolutionary hero. Republicans shouted, “Down with Louis Philippe.” The barricades went up, and a violent clash ensued. The forces on the barricades, composed mainly of students and workers, lacked public support, and the rebellion was put down by government forces.

In 1848, a new wave of revolution swept across Europe, triggered by the political unrest of bourgeois liberals and nationalists, crop failures several years in a row, and economic troubles. In France, Louis Philippe was driven from his throne. After a bloody struggle between the working class and the middle-class provisional government in Paris, the Second Republic was established, with a mainly middle-class national assembly and Louis Napoleon, who was related to Napoleon I, as president.

Hugo was sympathetic to the 1848 revolution, became a representative in the assembly, and initially supported Louis Napoleon. However, in 1851 the president assumed control of France in a military coup d’etat, and in 1852 the population voted to disband the republic and reestablish the empire. Hugo was disillusioned with both the French people who were willing to exchange freedom for stability and with Napoleon III, who had traded in his republican opinions to become a dictator. Criticizing the government and Louis Napoleon publicly, Hugo was forced to leave France, first for Belgium and then for the Channel Islands. Les Misérables, which Hugo composed from the late 1840s to 1862 during his exile, integrated his feelings about the political situation, his memories of the barricades of 1848, and his republican ideals. The novel denounces the degradation of the urban working class and society’s mistreatment and neglect of the poor, especially women and children.


The continuing industrialization of France in the 1850s and 1860s created wealth for the country, but it also created unemployment as machines replaced manual laborers in many jobs. This in turn led to an increase in crime. Poor working women turned to sex work as a means of survival, working under the scrutiny of a Police Morals Bureau, which considered them corrupt. The character of Jean Valjean was drawn from a historical person, a petty thief named Pierre Maurin who spent five years in prison for stealing bread for his sister’s children. Hugo draws a clear distinction in the novel between those who choose crime because they are corrupt and those who are driven to it by poverty and desperation. On one hand, there is Thénardier, who is by nature “highly susceptible to the encroachments of evil.” On the other, there is Valjean, who stole only to save his family, and Fantine, who suffered for protecting her own child. The narrator blames society’s indifference and injustice for the situation of those who fall into the latter category.

Literary Style

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In some ways the novel is structured traditionally. It has a rising action, that is, the part of the narrative that sets up the problems that are to be resolved. This consists of Valjean’s life up to the point when he saves his enemy Marius by carrying him through the sewers of Paris to safety. The climax, or turning point, when the conflict reaches its peak, is the suicide of the police detective Javert. Caught between his rigid belief in the absolute power of law and his conclusion that he has a moral obligation to break the law and free his savior, Valjean, Javert solves his dilemma by killing himself. The denouement, or winding down of the story, which describes the outcome of the primary plot problem as well as resolving secondary plots, includes Marius’s recovery, the marriage of Cosette and Marius, the revelation of Valjean’s true story, and the young couple’s visit to Valjean’s deathbed.

But the narrative’s many departures from the main plot are important to the novel as well. The novel includes separate sections on the sewers of Paris, the criminal underworld, the convent, Parisian street slang, the Battle of Waterloo, revolutionary societies, and the barricades. Hugo is telling more than the story of one man; he is telling the story of Paris. His digressions, although they do not forward plot development, give the reader information about the novel’s themes, such as human rights, justice and injustice, class conflict, and the city. He is primarily concerned not so much with narrating a story but with critiquing society and presenting his notions of reform.

Point of View

The story is told from a third-person omniscient point of view. Omniscient narrators have a god’s-eye or all-knowing view, knowing more than their characters do. The narrator breaks in several times to equate himself with the author. For example, at the beginning of the Waterloo episode, the narrator says: “On a fine May morning last year (that is to say, in the year 1861) a traveler, the author of this tale, walked from Nivelles in the direction of La Hulpe.” And in describing Paris, he states: “For some years past the author of this book, who regrets the necessity to speak of himself, has been absent from Paris.” Although generally there is a distinction between the author and the narrator of a work, this device blurs the boundary. The novel is a vehicle of expression for the author’s social views. Whenever the narrator is not describing the actions, thoughts, and speech of the characters, the voice of authority emerges. This includes the discussion of Parisian street urchins, the sewers, the underworld, and the barricades. The narrator pulls back from the characters to look at the broader scenario. Here is a typical example of this device, describing the barricade: “And while a battle that was still political was preparing in that place that had witnessed so many revolutionary acts; while the young people, the secret societies, and the schools, inspired by principle, and the middle-class inspired by self-interest, were advancing on each other to clash and grapple . . . there was to be heard the sombre growling of the masses: a fearful and awe-inspiring voice in which were mingled the snarl of animals and the words of God, a terror to the fainthearted and a warning to the wise, coming at once from the depths, like the roaring of a lion, and from the depths like the voice of thunder.”


The setting for most of the novel is Paris around 1830, a character in its own right. The narrative devotes almost as much space to it as to the protagonist, Valjean. It is a dark, gloomy, and sinister place, full of plague-carrying winds and polluting sewers, rotting old districts and slums. Its secretive aspect is a blessing, though, for Valjean, who seeks refuge in dark corners. The narrow alleys lend themselves, too, to the building of barricades. The narrative also presents Paris as a microcosm, reflecting the world as a whole: “Paris stands for the world. Paris is a sum total, the ceiling of the human race. . . . To observe Paris is to review the whole course of history.” Paris also has its places of beauty and tranquility, such as the Luxembourg Gardens on a fair day, but even here discontent lurks, in the form of two hungry boys wandering in search of food.

The novel presents Paris in all its wretchedness and grandeur. The urban environment has power over those who live in it. Some characters, such as Thénardier, an innkeeper who becomes involved with the worst criminal elements of the city, are corrupted by Paris’s temptations and hardships. Others, like Gavroche, the street urchin who is Thénardier’s son, demonstrate courage and compassion in spite of their circumstances. For Valjean, Paris is both a refuge and a testing ground. Hugo ranges over many aspects of the city in his portrayal of it, from the convents to the argot, or slang, spoken on the streets, from the heart of the city to its half-tamed outskirts, from rooftops to sewers. The sewer system of Paris symbolizes the dark underside of the city, where its secret history is stored: “that dreadful place which bears the impress of the revolution of the earth and of men, in which the remains of every cataclysm is to be found, from the Flood to the death of Marat.” (Marat was a leader of the French Revolution who was assassinated.) Most of all, the citizens of Paris make up its character. The novel presents a sprawling picture of the people: criminals, orphans, students, the middle class, and others.


The novel employs symbolism, the use of one object to represent another, on a grand scale. Paris represents the world as a whole. Gavroche symbolizes the heroism of the average individual. The city sewers represent the seamy underside of Paris, filled with scraps of history, both good and evil, that have been discarded and forgotten, but not destroyed. The sewers also represent Valjean’s passage through hell to redemption. He carries Marius to safety on his back through their passages like a martyr bearing a cross. A pair of silver candlesticks, stolen from the Bishop, serves for Valjean as a symbolic reminder of where he has come from and how he should act. Such leitmotifs, or recurring themes, woven through the text add depth and meaning.


Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that put the individual mind at the center of the world and of art. Romanticism valued emotional and imaginative responses to reality, the individual’s interior experience of the world, which it perceived as being closer to truth. It evolved partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on restraint, simplicity, logic, and respect for tradition. Les Misérables is a characteristic Romantic work in both theme and form. In theme, the novel assaults the traditional social structure, glorifies freedom of thought and spirit, and makes a hero of the average individual, such as Gavroche the street urchin, who dies with courage on the barricade. In form, the novel values content over structure, offers passionate rhetoric rather than classical restraint, and ranges freely over many subjects.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables remains among the best loved novels of all time. Playing out the essential human drama and dealing with moral conflicts regarding truth, love, loyalty, and honor, it also paints a vivid picture of France during one of the most compelling periods in that nation’s history.

1. Investigate current prison conditions in the United States and compare today’s prison experience to Valjean’s as described in the novel.

2. Consider the ethical issues surrounding imprisonment that the novel raises in book 2, chapter 7 (“The Inwardness of Despair”). Does Hugo see prison as an effective means of punishing criminals? Does prison reform criminals or does it make them more violent? How does Hugo suggest prisoners should be treated? Use examples from the book to support your answers.

3. Investigate the economic, legal, and social definition of poverty in the United States today and compare it to the conditions of poverty in Paris as described in the novel.

4. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866, tells the story of Raskolnikov, a man who commits a brutal murder and then cannot escape either his own conscience or the detective who pursues him. Read the novel and explain how Raskolnikov’s situation is similar to Valjean’s and how it differs.

Literary Precedents

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As a child, Hugo often wrote poetry, claiming that he wanted to be the next Chateaubriand, a French writer considered to be a precursor of the Romantics. Eventually, Hugo became one of the leading Romantic writers of France. His other major works include the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, and the poetry collection Contemplations, released in 1856, which he wrote at about the same time as Les Misérables. Some critics consider the latter, written after the drowning death of Hugo’s daughter, his best poetry.


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Les Misérables has been adapted for film, television, and stage numerous times. Among the better adaptations are a 1935 film starring Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Rochelle Hudson, and John Beal. Directed by Richard Boleslawski, this adaptation is detailed and faithful to the novel, except for a changed ending. Considered a classic, the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Picture. A version directed by Glenn Jordan was made for television in 1978, starring Richard Jordan, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Cyril Cusack, Flora Robson, Celia Johnson, and Claude Dauphin. An animated version of Les Misérables appeared in 1979, produced by Toei Animation Company. Les Misérables was again adapted for the screen in 1998. This version starred Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes, and was directed by Bill August.

There are many French film adaptations of the novel. A version released in 1957 stars Jean Gabin, Daniele Delorme, Bernard Blier, Bourvil, Gianni Esposito, and Serge Reggiani. Directed by Jean-Paul LeChanois, the film is in French with English subtitles. A 1994 film version of the novel transposed its setting to early twentieth-century France. Directed, produced, and adapted by Claude Lelouch, the movie, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Boujenah, Alessandrea Martines, and Annie Girador, received a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film.

Les Misérables was also adapted for the stage as a musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, with the lyrics composed by Herbert Kretzmer. In 1995 the tenth anniversary concert in Royal Albert Hall, London, was released as a movie by Columbia Tristar Home Video. The musical was also available as a 1987 sound recording from Geffen. This version features the original Broadway cast.


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Brombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978. Points out that in Les Misérables the most important reference to hell is its embodiment in the sewers of Paris, through which Jean Valjean carries Marius as the final part of his quest—through death to resurrection.

Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. The most sophisticated study of Hugo’s fiction to date. Notes Hugo’s use of digressive patterns and impersonal, realistic narration. Draws on a wealth of French criticism.

Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1968. An exhaustive study of Hugo’s use of image, myth, and prophecy. Notes—among other images and uses of myth—the Christological references to Jean Valjean, who finds redemption in saving others.

Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Indispensable starting guide to the works—drama, poetry, and novels—and life of Victor Hugo.

Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950. Vol. 2. The Romantic Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Analysis of Hugo’s literary theory and its relation to other writers of European romantic works. Discusses Hugo’s careful placement of discursive essays throughout the novel.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Victor Brombert, Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel, Harvard University Press, 1984.

Cairns, Trevor. The Old Regime and the Revolution. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1980.

Chalfont, Lord, ed. Waterloo: Battle of Three Armies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Davidson, Marshall B. The Horizon Concise History of France. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1971.

Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. Abridged with an introduction by James K. Robinson. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1961.

Matthew Josephson. Victor Hugo, A Realistic Biography of the Great Romantic. Doubleday, 1942.

Kelly, Linda. The Young Romantics. New York: Random House, 1976.

Lewis, Gynne. Life in Revolutionary France. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.

Joanna Richardson. Victor Hugo. St. Martin’s Press, 1976.

Thibaudet, Albert. French Literature from 1795 to Our Era. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1967.

For Further Study

Elliot Grant, The Career of Victor Hugo, Harvard University Press, 1945. A very basic and useful study of Hugo’s main novels and poetry.

Richard B. Grant, The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narration of Victor Hugo, Duke University Press, 1968. Hugo described himself as a “prophet” among men, as a translator of myths. This book analyzes this theme by examining Hugo’s major novels.

Kathryn M. Grossman. Les Miserables: Conversion, Revolution, Redemption. Twayne, 1996. Aimed specifically toward students, this work praises the novel as a book that “enables us to escape into the adventures of others it brings us back to ourselves.”

John Porter Houston. Victor Hugo, Twayne, 1988. A good introduction to Hugo’s life and works.

Patricia Ward. The Medievalism of Victor Hugo. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. Hugo was fascinated by the mysteries and secrets of medieval times. Although Les Misérables cannot really be called a gothic novel, some of its episodes, like those in the sewers, belong to the genre.




Critical Essays