Victor Hugo

Les Miserables

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Les Miserables Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, is an epic historical novel that, though titled Les Miserables, which translates to “The Miserable [People],” is also a story about undying love set largely against the backdrop of the June Rebellion, also known as the Paris Uprising of 1832. The book begins in 1815, following Napoleon’s defeat by the British at Waterloo. A man named Jean Valjean has just been paroled from prison following an extended sentence that he received for stealing bread. Before Valjean leaves the prison, Javert—one of the guards—warns him against breaking his parole. But Valjean cannot find work as a prisoner, and after being taken in for a night by Bishop Myriel and resorting to theft again in order to survive, he is granted a second chance. He abandons his parole and becomes an upstanding member of society—and a mayor—under a new name, Monsieur Madeleine.

Meanwhile, Fantine—a factory worker who is trying to save money to care for her daughter Cosette—is fired. The factory where she worked belongs to Valjean, and it’s his foreman who puts Fantine out on the street. Fantine sells everything in her possession, including her hair, her teeth, and her body in order to pay for Cosette, who lives in Paris with an innkeeper named Thendardier, and his wife. Fantine gets into trouble with Inspector Javert—the same man who has been looking for the convict Valjean ever since he broke parole. Javert intends to arrest Fantine, who is by that time quite sick. Upon discovering that Fantine has sunk to this state after being fired from his factory, Valjean seeks to redeem her. At the same time, Valjean must be wary of Javert, who has already indicated that he suspects Valjean may be the convict he seeks.

Meanwhile, a man named Champmathieu, who resembles Valjean, is accused of his crime and arrested. Valjean finds out about this from Javert, and spends the night in torment over whether to let an innocent man go to prison for him. Ultimately, he decides that he must confess, and does just that. However, before Javert can arrest him, Valjean escapes, with his conscience now clear regarding Champmathieu. He is still riddled with guilt about Fantine, though, and so, after finding out where Cosette is, and after Fantine’s death, he travels to Paris to save the little girl. The Thenardiers treat her like a slave. After rescuing Cosette, Valjean brings her to the convent of Petit-Picpus, where they live happily for five years, Valjean raising Cosette as his daughter but never revealing his past to her.

In the third part of the story, Hugo introduces new characters and the events leading up to the rebellion. Marius, a student, along with his friends and fellow students, is intrigued by Napoleon, whom they revere as a man for the people. Seeking to free the French populace from aristocratic greed and royal rule, they form a group called the Friends of the ABC, which strives to ignite another revolution in France. One day, Marius comes upon the beautiful, now-fifteen-year-old Cosette, and after six months of seeing her day in, day out, he falls in love with her. She also falls for Marius, though she wants to hide their love from Valjean. They meet in secret and write to one another, keeping Valjean in the dark until he intercepts one of their letters.

Meanwhile, the rebellion has bubbled over. Members of the working class have joined the students to form barricades in the city, and are fighting against the police and the army. Many die in their attempt to take France back for the people. Despite the fact that Valjean doesn’t want to let Cosette go, he knows she loves Marius and so saves his life on one of the barricades, carrying his unconscious body through the sewers in order to get him to safety. Along the way, he encounters Javert, but lets him go in favor of saving Marius. Javert doesn’t want Valjean’s mercy, and so he takes his own life. The rebellion fails, and many are killed, including a small boy named Gavroche whose bravery inspires the freedom fighters.

After Cosette nurses Marius back to full health, they marry with Valjean’s blessing. Before the wedding, Valjean reveals to Marius who he is, but leaves out the part about having saved Marius’ life. Marius offers to help Valjean get pardoned. Some time after the wedding, Marius learns that it was Valjean who saved his life on the barricade. He and Cosette go to Valjean’s home to visit him, only to find him on his deathbed. Before Valjean dies, he tells them that the most important thing in life is to love. After his death, he is buried under a stone with no name.