A Structure

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’s primarily concerned not so much with narrating a story, but with critiquing society and presenting his notions of reform.

B 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 traveller, 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 faint-hearted 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.

C Setting

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 Garden 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 Thenardier, an innkeeper who gets 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 Thenardier’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.

D Symbolism

The novel employs symbolism, the use of one object to represent another, on a grand scale. Paris stands in for the world. 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 leitmotivs, or recurring themes, woven through the text add depth and meaning.

E Romanticism

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 Miserables 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.