Les Misérables Additional Summary

Victor Hugo


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The title Les Misérables is Hugo’s revision of his original title, “Les Misères.” The choice is affinitive with Hugo’s Romanticism, as it indicates a preference of the concrete (the wretched ones) to the abstract (miseries), of persons to situations. The full connotative strength of neither title can be retained in literal English translation, and it is good that English translations of the novel appear under the French title. The word misérables supports the double sense of “those who are wretched” and “those who are to be pitied.” The second sense implies the possibility or presence of pitiers. The readers of the novel, then, may participate in the narrative as those who pity the pitiable. Pity is, etymologically, an act of pietas (piety). It is in this subjective inclusion of the reader in the artwork that Romanticism differs from classicism. With regard to Les Misérables, the reader’s pity is an experience of piety; and piety, in the full Latin sense of pietas (devotion, dedication, commiseration), is as much the theme of the novel as it is a manifestation of Hugo’s deep religious sensibility.

The story begins with an account of the exemplary piety of a Christian bishop, Monseigneur Myriel Bienvenu, who selects as the most beautiful name of God not Creator, Liberty, Light, Providence, not even God or Father, but the name given by Solomon, Miséricorde (compassion or pity). He is contrasted with men who dig for gold: He is one who digs for pity. To this seventy-five-year-old bishop, in the year 1815, comes Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who has spent nineteen years in prison. He is seeking lodging for the night, and no room has been found for him at the inns of the town. The priest offers him food, lodging, and trust. Valjean had been sentenced to prison, first for the theft of bread to feed his widowed sister and her seven children, and subsequently for four unsuccessful attempts to escape. Hardened by imprisonment and the reception given him by those who had either despised or exploited the former convict, he is capable now of crime for its own sake, as well as for survival. Checking his movement to murder the bishop as he sleeps, Valjean settles for stealing the household silverware. Apprehended and returned to the bishop, he is released, as the bishop, insisting the silverware was not stolen, adds a pair of candlesticks to the “gift.” Valjean’s receipt of mercy restores him to piety, the showing of mercy to others, although the first stage on his new journey involves his reflex theft of a coin from a boy, in his tearful remorse for which he undergoes repentance: He awakens to see a semblance of “Satan in the light of Paradise,” returns to the door of Monseigneur Bienvenu, and...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1815 in France, a man named Jean Valjean is released after nineteen years in prison. He had been sentenced to a term of five years because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, but the sentence was later increased because of his attempts to escape. During his imprisonment, he astonished others by his exhibitions of unusual physical strength.

Freed at last, Valjean starts out on foot for a distant part of the country. Innkeepers refuse him food and lodging because his yellow passport reveals that he is a former convict. Finally, he comes to the house of the bishop of Digne, a saintly man who treats him graciously, feeds him, and gives him a bed. During the night, Jean steals the bishop’s silverware and flees. He is immediately captured by the police, who return him and the stolen goods to the bishop. With no censure, the priest not only gives Valjean what he had stolen but also adds his silver candlesticks to the gift. The astonished gendarmes release the prisoner. Alone with the bishop, Valjean is confounded by the churchman’s attitude, for the bishop asks only that he use the silver as a means of living an honest life.

In 1817, a beautiful woman named Fantine lives in Paris. She gives birth to an illegitimate child, Cosette, whom she leaves with Monsieur and Madame Thénardier to rear with their own children. As time goes on, the Thénardiers demand more and more money for Cosette’s support, yet they treat the child cruelly and deprive her even of necessities. Meanwhile, Fantine goes to the town of M—— and obtains a job in a glass factory operated by Father Madeleine, a kind and generous man whose history is known to no one, but whose good deeds and generosity to the poor are public information. He had arrived in M—— a poor laborer, and through a lucky invention he was able to start a business of his own. Soon he built a factory and employed many workers. After five years in the city, he was named mayor and is now beloved by all the citizens. He is reported to have prodigious strength. Only one man, Javert, a police inspector, seems to watch him with an air of suspicion.

Javert was born in prison. His whole life is influenced by that fact, and his fanatical attitude toward duty makes him a man to be feared. He is determined to discover the facts of Father Madeleine’s previous life. One day he finds a clue while watching Father Madeleine lift a heavy cart to save an old man who had fallen under it. Javert realizes that he has known only one man of such prodigious strength, a former convict named Jean Valjean.

Fantine has told no one of Cosette, but knowledge of her illegitimate child spreads and causes Fantine to be discharged from the factory without the knowledge of Father Madeleine. Finally, Fantine becomes a prostitute in an effort to pay the increasing demands of the Thénardiers for Cosette’s support. One night, Javert arrests her while she is walking the streets. When Father Madeleine hears the details of her plight and learns that she has tuberculosis, he sends Fantine to a hospital and promises to bring Cosette to her. Just before the mayor leaves to get Cosette, Javert confesses that he has mistakenly reported to the Paris police that he suspects Father Madeleine of being the former convict, Valjean. He says that the real Valjean has been arrested at Arras under an assumed name. The arrested man is to be tried in two days.

That night, Father Madeleine struggles with his own conscience, for he is the real Valjean. Unwilling to let an innocent man suffer, he goes to Arras for the trial and identifies himself as Valjean. After telling the authorities where he could be found, he goes to Fantine. Javert arrives to arrest him. Fantine is so terrified that she dies. After a day in prison, Valjean escapes.

Valjean, some time later, is again imprisoned by Javert, but once more he makes his escape. Shortly afterward he is able to take...

(The entire section is 1616 words.)


(Epics for Students)

Les Miserables is the story of four people. Bishop Myriel, Jean Valjean, Famine, and Marius Pontmercy, who meet, part, then meet again...

(The entire section is 1487 words.)