Les Miserables is the story of four people-Bishop Myriel, Valjean, Fantine, and Marius-who meet, part, then meet again during the most agitated decades of 19th-century France. It also tells the story of the 1832 revolution and describes the unpleasant side of Paris. The novel is in essence a plea for humane treatment of the poor and for equality among all citizens.
A Part I-Fantine
The year is 1815 and Napoleon has just been defeated at Waterloo. Bishop Myriel lives a quiet life as a just man, who is especially sympathetic toward the poor, bandits, and convicts. One day a strange man asks for shelter at his home and, with his usual compassion, the bishop gives him room and board. This man is Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison after serving a lengthy, unjust sentence, during which he tried to escape numerous times. Valjean is angry, hurt, and revengeful. His soul has “withered” and all but died. The bishop urges him to replace anger with goodwill in order to be worthy of respect: “You have left a place of suffering. But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner, than over the white robes of a hundred good men. If you are leaving that sorrowful place with hate and anger against men, you are worthy of compassion; if you leave it with goodwill, gentleness, and peace, you are better than any of us.”
Valjean listens. Nevertheless, he decides to rob the good bishop. During the night, he runs away with the bishop’s silver. He is caught and brought back to the bishop who tells the police that he himself gave Valjean these precious objects. Later Bishop Myriel tells Valjean, “you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and I give it to God!” Valjean is stunned. After he steals a coin from a little boy, he has an epiphany: “he could see his life, and it seemed horrible; his soul, and it seemed frightful. There was, however, a gentler light shining on that life and soul.”
Fantine is a seamstress unjustly fired once her employer learns about her scandalous past. Abandoned by her lover, she is hungry, destitute, and unable to care for her daughter, Cosette. First she sells her hair, then her teeth before finally prostituting herself. At this stage of the story, Fantine has “endured all, borne all, experienced all, suffered all, lost all, wept for all. She is resigned, with that resignation that resembles indifference as death resembles sleep.” She leaves Cosette when her daughter is two years old to the care of the Thenardiers, who run a tavern in the outskirts of Paris. Cosette is poorly treated by the couple and their two daughters. The Thenardiers view Cosette as if she is their domestic slave all the while demanding more and more money for Cosette’s care. Fantine must continue selling her body to pay for Cosette’s keep.
Valjean assumes a new identity, Mr. Madeleine, becomes a good citizen, a rich industrialist, and ultimately mayor. Valjean saves Fantine from the police headed by Javert once he discovers she was fired from the very factory under his care. He wants to redeem her, but it is too late. Fantine is sick and dies very soon.
At the same time, Champmathieu is falsely accused of being Valjean by the police officer Javert, whose lifelong goal is to find the escaped convict Valjean. Javert was a “formidable man” whose mother was a fortune-teller and whose father was in the galleys. “His stare was cold and as piercing as a gimlet. His whole life was contained in these two words: waking and watching.” After a long night of hesitation-to accuse Champmathieu would save him from Javert, to keep silent would send an innocent man to death-Valjean decides to confess his true identity to save the wrongly accused man: He declared that his life, in truth, did have an object. But what object? to conceal his name? to deceive the police? was it for so petty a thing that he had done all that he had done? had he no other object, which was the great one, which was the true one? To save, not his body, but his soul. To become honest and good again. To be an upright man! was it not that, above all, that alone, which he had always wished, and which the bishop had enjoined upon him!… To deliver himself up, to save this man stricken by so ghastly a mistake, to reassume his name, to become again from duty the convict Jean Valjean; that was really to achieve his resurrection, and to close for ever the hell from whence he had emerged! to fall into it in appearance, was to emerge in reality! he must do that! all he had done was nothing, if he did not do that! all his life was useless, all his suffering was lost. He had only to ask the question: “What is the use?”
When the unyielding Javert arrests him, Valjean escapes, beginning a long hunt.
B Part II-Cosette
He does not go too far. Fantine has told him about Cosette. He goes to the Thenardiers’ and saves the little girl from her terrible life. They settle in Paris, where they constantly have to hide from Javert’s eye. They finally find shelter in a convent, the Petit-Picpus, where they spend five happy years of redemption: Everything around him, this quiet garden, these balmy flowers, these children, shouting with joy, these meek and simple women, this silent cloister, gradually entered into all his being, and his soul subsided into silence…. His whole heart melted in gratitude and he loved more and more.
C Part III-Marius
Marius is a young student, and like many other young men of his generation, he is passionately interested with Napoleon: “Napoleon had become to him the people-man as Jesus was the God-man.” In Paris he meets a group of young radical students, the Friends of the ABC, who are very much like him and who convert him to republicanism: “my mother is the republic.” One day, he spots in a park a young girl, walking with her father. “She was a marvelous beauty. The only remark which could be made … is that the contradiction between her look, which was sad, and her smile, which was joyous, gave to her countenance something a little wild.” He sees her again the next day, and the following until, six months later, he falls in love with her. It is the fifteen-year-old Cosette.
D Part IV-Saint Denis
Cosette has noticed Marius and falls in love with him, but she does not want Valjean to know about it. One day Marius writes to her and they secretly meet: “these two hearts poured themselves into each other, so that at the end of an hour, it was the young man who had the young girl’s soul and the young girl who had the soul of the young man.” Valjean suspects nothing until he accidentally intercepts one of Marius’s letters.
E Part V-Jean Valjean
Insurrections and barricades. Marius is an active participant. Workers and republican students are on the barricades, opposing the police and the army of the monarchy. Many of the revolutionaries are killed in the struggle. Valjean discovers Marius and Cosette’s love, but still saves Marius’s life on the barricades. He carries the wounded and unconscious young man through the Paris sewers. He has one last confrontation with Javert, his old nemesis, who is at his mercy. He decides to let him go. Moved by this gesture and appalled at himself, Javert kills himself: “Terrible situation! to be moved! To be granite, and to doubt! to be ice and to melt! to feel your fingers suddenly open! to lose your hold, appalling thing!… The projectile man no longer knowing his road, and recoiling!” Still, many died, including Gavroche, a little Parisian boy whose courage inspired the fighters of the barricades.
Cosette restores Marius to health, and they decide to get married. On the wedding day, Marius meets Valjean who tells him who he really is, a convict still hunted by the police and that Cosette does not know anything about his unsavory past. However, Valjean does not tell Marius that he saved his life during the insurrections. Marius wants to help him win his pardon, he refuses: “I need pardon of none but one, that is my conscience.” Marius decides to stay silent, but he is horrified by the revelations. Valjean stops visiting the young couple. Soon, Marius learns that he was saved by him and, accompanied by Cosette, rushes to Valjean’s home. It is too late, Valjean is dying. He is buried under a blank stone.