Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables book cover
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What happens in Les Misérables?

In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean spends nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. After release, he's plagued by a suspicious police inspector, Javert. Valjean and his adopted daughter Cosette face much hardship, but finally find peace at the end of the novel.

  • After Valjean is released from prison, he attempts to steal some silver candlesticks from a priest. To keep Valjean from being arrested, the priest gives Valjean the candlesticks as a gift so he can start his new life.

  • Valjean becomes a wealthy manufacturer and is elected the mayor of a small town. Later, he's forced to flee when Javert finds him and grows suspicious.

  • Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary who's injured in a fight. Valjean carries him to safety through the sewers, but continues to be plagued by his past until the day he dies.

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Summary

Summary of the Novel
Set in the post-Napoleonic era just after the French Revolution, Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict, who has just been released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Influenced by the bishop to begin a new life, Jean assumes a new name and moves to a new location where he becomes a respected citizen and makes a fortune in manufacturing. The police inspector, Javert, is suspicious of him, but it is not until Jean’s conscience prods him to reveal his true identity that he is forced to flee.

The rest of the novel is set in Paris, where Jean changes residences frequently and assumes a number of identities in order to avoid arrest. Fulfilling a promise to her dying mother Fantine, he rescues a young girl named Cosette from the evil Thénardier family and becomes her guardian. They spend many years in a convent where Cosette grows into a beautiful young lady. Eventually, Jean leaves this safe haven so that Cosette may have a more normal life.

Cosette falls in love with Marius, a young lawyer, who joins a band of revolutionists at a barricade. Unbeknownst to Marius, Jean is also at the barricade; when he is wounded, Jean, who has spared the life of his constant adversary Javert, risks his life to carry Marius to safety through the sewer system of Paris, returning him to his family and Cosette.

Against all odds, Jean struggles to follow the bishop’s teachings and become a good man. It is not until after the wedding of Cosette and Marius and he is on his deathbed that he is at last able to stop running from his past and reveal all. Not until then does he finally find peace.

The Life and Work of Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was the most influential and best known of the nineteenth century French poets. A poet, novelist, and dramatist, he was a leader of the Romantic movement in France. Born in 1802, Victor was a sickly child who was the youngest of three sons. His father was a soldier of the Revolution whose military career required the family to move often after Napoleon’s rise to power. After his parents separated when he was 16,...

(The entire section is 2,505 words.)