A Monsieur Mabeuf
An elderly churchwarden, he befriends Marius’s father Pontmercy, and Marius becomes friends with Mabeuf after his father dies. He is a gentle man whose main interests in life are his garden and his books, but he becomes very poor and has to sell all of his books. Impoverished and without hope in life, Mabeuf joins the rebels, courageously climbs to the top of the barricade to plant a flag, and is shot by the militia. His age and gentleness make his courage even more remarkable, showing that revolution can come in any form.
B Colonel Pontmercy
A hero of the Napoleonic Wars, he marries Gillenormand’s youngest daughter and has a son, Marius. The villainous innkeeper, Thenardier, drags Pontmercy to safety from the battlefield of Waterloo. Although Marius does not meet his father, Pontmercy watches him from afar in church and loves his son. He leaves Marius a note telling him to adopt the title of Baron (Napoleon gave it to Pontmercy on the field of battle); and to do Thenardier every good in his power. Marius worships his father as a hero and is strongly influenced by his political beliefs.
C Pere Fauchelevent
When Fauchelevent, an elderly carrier, gets caught beneath the wheels of his own cart, Valjean rescues him and afterward finds work for him as a gardener in a Paris convent. In doing so, Valjean risks giving away his identity to Javert, who is already suspicious, by showing his great strength. But Fauchelevent pays Valjean back by taking him and Cosette in when he is on the run from the police. Fauchelevent, an educated peasant, is both shrewd and good-willed. He recognizes his debt and finds the means to repay it.
D Felix Tholomyes
A wealthy, rakish student, he is Fantine’s lover for a while and then abandons her. Their affair ruins Fantine. She becomes pregnant and cannot earn enough to save herself and her child. The narrator says of the relationship: “For him it was a passing affair, for her the love of her life.”
E Madame Magloire
Madame Magloire is the personal maid of Mademoiselle Baptistine and the Bishop of Digne’s housekeeper.
F Mademoiselle Baptistine
The unmarried sister of the Bishop of Digne, she lives with him and runs his household. She is a gentle, respectable woman who does good works.
G Eponine Thenardier
The poor daughter of the Thenardiers, Eponine falls in love with Marius and becomes jealous of his love for Cosette. She is torn between wanting to help him and wanting to keep him away from Cosette. She courageously saves his life on the barricade by stepping between him and a bullet and dies in his arms. Her life is an example of poverty’s degradation: What it came to was that in the heart of our society, as at present constituted, two unhappy mortals [Eponine and her sister] had been turned by extreme poverty into monsters at once depraved and innocent, drab creatures without name or age or sex, no longer capable of good or evil, deprived of all freedom, virtue, and responsibility; souls born yesterday and shrivelled today like flowers dropped in the street which lie fading in the mud until a cartwheel comes to crush them.
H Monsieur Thenardier
The unscrupulous innkeeper and his wife take care of Cosette, but treat her poorly. He embarks on a life of crime, getting involved with the worst criminals in Paris, and attempts to entrap and rob Valjean. Although he ends up in prison, he escapes. He helps Valjean escape from the sewers when Valjean is trapped there with Marius. Thenardier plays a central part in the plot. He does good in spite of his evil intentions, not knowing what the consequences of his own actions will be.
I Madame Thenardier
The coarse wife of the innkeeper Thenardier, she takes in Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. But she treats her like a Cinderella, feeding and clothing her poorly and making her do the worst work in the household. She helps hatch a plot to entrap Valjean and steal his fortune, but instead ends up in prison. The narrator states that she is naturally cruel and scheming and offers her as an example of those who commit crimes not because they are driven to it, but because it suits them.
J Gavroche Thenardier
Gavroche is a Parisian urchin (street child), the son of the villainous Thenardiers. Lively and clever, he lives by his wits. He dies by them as well and proves his courage, getting shot by soldiers when he is teasing them on the barricade. His fate is interwoven with that of Marius, Cosette, and the Thenardiers. The novel presents him as an essential representative of Paris: He had neither hearth nor home, nor any regular source of food; yet he was happy because he was free. By the time the poor have grown to man’s estate they have nearly always been caught in the wheels of the social order and become shaped to its requirements; but while they are children their smallness saves them.
K Charles Myriel, Bishop of Digne
Myriel is a kind and generous bishop who gives Jean Valjean aid when everyone else refuses him. Searching for a place to spend the night, the ex-convict finds that he is a branded man and no inn will let him stay. His last resort is the home of the bishop, who takes him in and treats him as an honored guest. After Valjean steals the silverware and is caught by the police, the bishop protects him by insisting that the silver was actually a gift. The bishop’s selfless act inspires Valjean to change his life.
L Monsieur Gillenormand
Monsieur Gillenormand, Marius’s grandfather and caretaker, is a relic of the past. He had his heyday in the decadent Ancien Regime, the pre-Revolutionary monarchy, in which the nobility dominated France. He still looks back to those days with nostalgia and regret. Gillenormand believes that in modern times people lack the gift of living life to the fullest and enjoying all its pleasures. He raises Marius to believe that the Revolution “‘was a load of scoundrels.’” When Marius discovers that his father was a Revolutionary hero, it causes a bitter break between them.
Fantine is a Parisian “grisette,” or working woman, who falls in love with a student, Felix Tholomyes. Just after Felix breaks off their relationship, she gives birth to a daughter, Cosette. From that point forward her life is a downward spiral. She gives up her child to the mercenary Thenardiers and finds a job in her home town, but is dismissed when her supervisor finds out about her past. She struggles to make ends meet, selling everything she has: her hair, her teeth, and herself (becoming a prostitute). Fantine represents society’s cruelty to the poor and its degradation of poor women in particular. Only Valjean shows her any kindness.
Cosette is the illegitimate daughter of Fantine, a Parisian “grisette” (working woman) whose lover, Felix Tholomyes, abandons her when she is pregnant. Valjean rescues Cosette from the Thenardiers, and she becomes the love of his life and the motivation for his goodness. She is raised and educated in a convent. When she and Valjean move out into the real Paris, she turns into a beautiful young Parisian woman and falls in love with Marius Pontmercy.
O Marius Pontmercy
Marius is a young law student who falls in love with Cosette. He also saves Valjean from a plot against his life by the innkeeper-turned-criminal, Thenardier. In turn, Marius is saved by Valjean while fighting on the barricade. He is the son of Georges Pontmercy, a colonel and war hero under Napoleon. But Marius’s grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand, despises Georges and takes Marius into his own home to raise him.
Marius is at a stage of life where he doesn’t know yet what he believes. His image of the world keeps opening up as he encounters new points of view. When Marius discovers his father’s identity, he worships him as a war hero and adopts a pro-Napoleon stance opposed to his grandfather’s royalism. He gets into a quarrel with Gillenormand and storms out of the house to make his way through Paris as a starving student. Marius falls in with a group of students, led by Enjolras, who share his republican beliefs. At first he is reluctant to give up his belief that conquest and war are the greatest ideals of a nation. But he begins to have doubts when the students present him with a new ideal, freedom: “Having so lately found a faith, must he renounce it? He told himself that he need not; he resolved not to doubt, and began despite himself to do so.” When unrest stirs Paris in 1832 and his friends take up arms, he joins them on the barricades. But it is more out of desperation, because he fears he has lost Cosette, than out of political conviction. He is lured there by the voice of the street girl Eponine telling him that his friends await him.
P Jean Valjean
The chief protagonist, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict who struggles to redeem himself morally and to find acceptance in a society that rejects him as a former criminal. Valjean’s redemption through his many trials is the central plot of Les Miserables.
The child of a poor peasant family, he loses both his parents as a young child and moves in with an older sister. When her husband dies, Valjean supports her and her seven children by working as a tree pruner. Unable to feed the family on his earnings, he steals a loaf of bread from a baker and ends up serving nineteen years in prison for his crime. Finally free, he finds that he cannot find lodging, work, or acceptance in the outside world. As an ex-convict he is at the bottom of the social order.
But Valjean has a transforming experience when he meets the Bishop of Digne, who accepts and shelters him regardless of his past, even after Valjean tries to steal from his household. Here Valjean learns the lesson of unconditional love, a reason for living that sustains him through all of his trials. And they are many. He lives on the run from two forces: the justice of the law, represented by Javert, a police detective who doggedly pursues him, and his own conscience, which leads him to make difficult choices between what is right and what is easiest.
Valjean starts a new life as the mayor of Montreuil sur Mer. He is the savior of this manufacturing town, rebuilding its industries and economy and sustaining the population with new jobs. But he lives on the run from his dogged pursuer, Javert, and in his first moral trial he has to give himself up to keep an innocent man from going to prison in his place. He escapes again and lives the rest of his life as a fugitive.
The harshness of the society in which he lives presents great obstacles to Valjean’s moral redemption. Only the transforming power of love lets him overcome them. He loves a young girl, Cosette, daughter of the prostitute Fantine, and raises her as his daughter. Most of his good acts center on her welfare: saving the life of her lover, Marius; protecting her, whatever the cost to himself; even giving up Cosette after she marries, so that she will not be sullied by connection to an ex-convict. His love for her teaches him how to act in the world at large. In all of his actions he strives to be honorable and generous.
Q Theodule Gillenormand
Theodule is Gillenormand’s great-nephew and a lieutenant in the army. He is a vain young man and a favorite of his Aunt Gillenormand. He tries to become Gillenormand’s favorite when Marius is out of the picture, but he can’t replace Marius in the old man’s affections.
R Mademoiselle Gillenormand
Monsieur Gillenormand’s eldest daughter is a prudish, narrow-minded old woman who runs her father’s household.
Enjolras is a leader of the ABC Society, a secret revolutionary society composed of students and workers. Marius first meets him there and ends up fighting with him on the barricade. The only son of rich parents, Enjolras is a student of the Revolution and has “a nature at once scholarly and warlike.” He is indifferent to women and pleasure, but passionate about justice. Enjolras defines what he is fighting for in a speech on the barricade: “Citizens, no matter what happens today, in defeat no less than in victory, we shall be making a revolution. [… Equality] means, in civic terms, an equal outlet for all talents; in political terms, that all votes will carry the same weight; and in religious terms that all beliefs will enjoy equal rights. Equality has a means at its disposal-compulsory free education. The right to learn the alphabet, that is where we must start.”
Combeferre is a member of the ABC Society, a student, and a philosopher of revolution. He has a scientific mind and dreams of the inventions of the future and how they will benefit the human race.
U Jean Prouvaire
Prouvaire is a member of the ABC Society of students and workers. A wealthy student, he is interested in social questions, but is also a poet and lover with a romantic side.
A member of the ABC Society of revolutionaries, Feuilly earns his living as a fan-maker and is self-educated.
A member of the ABC Society, a revolutionary group of students and workers, Courfeyrac becomes Marius’s friend and takes him in.
A member of the ABC Society, a revolutionary group, Bahorel is also a student. But he has no respect for authority and is a real troublemaker, liking nothing better than a good fight.
A member of the ABC Society, a revolutionary group, Bossuet is a law student. He is cheerful but unlucky; everything he undertakes seems to go wrong.
A member of the ABC Society, Joly is studying medicine. He is something of a hypochondriac.
Although Grantaire belongs to the ABC Society, a revolutionary group of students and workers, he is a cynic and a hedonist and does not believe in the ideals of revolution. But he does believe in one thing: Enjolras, whom he regards with love and admiration.
AB Inspector Javert
Inspector Javert is nearly as renowned a character as Jean Valjean, perhaps due to the dramatized versions of Les Miserables, which have tended to cast it as more of a detective story than a morality tale. Javert serves as Valjean’s nemesis throughout the novel, continually threatening to expose his past and bring him under the control of the law. In this exaggerated, nearly fanatical devotion to duty and his lack of compassion, Javert represents a punitive, vengeful form of justice.
Hugo suggests that Javert’s “respect for authority and hatred of revolt” are rooted in his past, for he was born in a prison. As if to compensate for this fact, he has spent his life in faithful service to law enforcement. When Valjean saves Javert by helping him escape from the revolutionaries, Javert’s rigid system of behavior is upset, for he realizes that Valjean, a criminal who has not yet been officially punished, has performed an act of great kindness and courage. Javert previously would have overlooked such an act and arrested the criminal, but his recognition proves more than he can bear. Unable to resolve his inner conflict, Javert drowns himself in the Seine.