80 pages 2 hours read

Victor Hugo

Les Miserables

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1862

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Les Misérables (in English, The Wretched or The Miserable Ones) is a novel by French author Victor Hugo, published for the first time in 1862. The story follows several characters through early- to mid-19th century France as they seek redemption for their sins and an escape from poverty. As well as being praised as one of the greatest novels of its time, Les Misérables has been adapted for many other formats, most notably a very successful musical of the same name. This guide uses an eBook version of the 2015 Penguin Classis edition, translated into English by Christine Donougher.

Plot Summary

Part 1: Fantine

In 1815, a peasant named Jean Valjean is released from the notoriously cruel prison, Bagne of Toulon. He served five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving family and another 14 years for a series of escape attempts. Valjean arrives in a town named Digne, but he is turned away from every inn or room because his passport reveals that he is a former convict. Only Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, is willing to allow Valjean into his home. He gives Valjean shelter for the night, but Valjean repays him by stealing silverware from the bishop’s house. The police catch Valjean with the stolen silver, but Myriel saves Valjean by insisting that the silver was a gift. He even hands Valjean a set of matching silver candlesticks. The police free Valjean. Myriel makes Valjean promise that he will sell the candlesticks and use the proceeds to become a better, more honest man in the future. Valjean struggles to give up his criminal past, but he knows that, if he is caught again, he will be sent back to prison for life.

After several years, Valjean adopts the fake name Madeleine and travels to a town named Montreuil-sur-mer. There, he devises a new manufacturing process for black beads which makes the town rich. Eventually, the people of Montreuil-sur-mer insist that he become their mayor. One day, Valjean saves a man named Fauchelevent who is trapped beneath a cart. His feat of strength rouses the suspicions of a local police inspector named Javert, who was a guard at Bagne of Toulon when Valjean was incarcerated there. Javert has only seen one other man strong enough to accomplish such a feat: the prisoner Jean Valjean.

Many years earlier, a poor young French woman named Fantine falls in love with a man named Tholomyès. Her friends also fall in love with his friends, though the young men quickly abandon the women and dismiss the relationships as youthful distractions. Fantine gives birth to Tholomyès's child. She names the girl Cosette and struggles to raise her alone. Fantine travels to her hometown Montfermeil, where she leave Cosette to be raised by a corrupt, unscrupulous innkeeper named Monsieur Thénardier and his cruel wife, Madame Thénardier. Unknown to Fantine, the Thénardiers abuse Cosette and force her to work in their inn. With Cosette in the care of the Thénardiers, Fantine works in Valjean's factory. When her co-workers discover that she is the mother of a child born out of wedlock, however, they conspire to have her fired.

Meanwhile, the Thénardiers demand more money to look after Cosette. Struggling to make ends meet, Fantine sells her front teeth and her hair. She becomes a sex worker but contracts a deadly, unknown illness. One evening, Javert arrests Fantine after an altercation with a man in the street. Before she can be sent to prison, Valjean intervenes. As mayor, he tells Javert to release Fantine. Valjean feels guilty that his own factory fired Fantine. He takes Fantine to hospital and promises her that he will bring Cosette to her. Javert visits Valjean to offer an apology: He wanted to reveal Valjean's true identity to the world, but the police have now arrested a different man whom they believe to be Valjean, who will be tried the next day. Valjean is torn between confessing his true identity to Javert and allowing an innocent man to be tried on his behalf. Valjean cannot allow an innocent man to suffer, so he goes to the trial and reveals himself as the true Valjean, thereby freeing the falsely accused man, Champmathieu.

Afterward, Valjean visits Fantine in the hospital. There, he is confronted by Javert. Valjean begs for time to allow him to track down Cosette and fulfill his promise to Fantine. Javert refuses. As Fantine asks for the location of her daughter, Javert sternly reveals Valjean’s true identity as a former convict. As Fantine processes this information in shock, she dies. Valjean kneels beside her bed, whispers to her, and then allows Javert to take him away to prison. Fantine is thrown into an unmarked public grave.

Part 2: Cosette

Valjean escapes from prison. He is captured again, and this time he is sentenced to death. His sentence is commuted by the King of France, and instead Valjean is sent back to the Bagne of Toulon for life. Valjean risks his life to save a sailor from certain death, and the crowd calls for him to be released. Instead, Valjean falls into the ocean and fakes his death. He is declared dead by the authorities. Valjean returns to Montfermeil on Christmas Eve. He meets Cosette while she is collecting water and returns with her to the inn. At the inn, he eats a meal while watching how badly the Thénardiers abuse the young girl. In contrast, the Thénardiers own daughters, Eponine and Azelma, are treated very well. After gifting Cosette a doll, Valjean tries to bargain with the Thénardiers to take Cosette away. Eventually, he pays Monsieur Thénardier 1,500 francs and leaves with Cosette. Valjean and Cosette travel to Paris, where they live together happily for a while until they are discovered by Javert. They escape from Javert and seek shelter in a convent. At the convent, Valjean receives help from Fauchelevent, whose life he saved many years before and who now works as a gardener at the convent. Valjean joins Fauchelevent as a gardener, and Cosette enrolls in the school at the convent.

Part 3: Marius

Civil unrest is spreading through many of the working-class communities in France. Revolutionary groups such as the Friends of the ABC plot uprisings against the government. Marius Pontmercy is a member of the Friends of the ABC. He is a young student who lives with his rich, royalist grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand. After learning more about his deceased Bonapartist father, Marius develops a newfound respect for him. Marius's new political views alienate him from his grandfather. He finds a note from his father, asking him to track down a sergeant named Thénardier who saved his life at the Battle of Waterloo. While Georges believed Thénardier to be an altruistic sergeant, he was in fact a craven opportunist who was looting dead bodies. After he accidently saved Georges's life, he claimed to be a sergeant to avoid punishment. Marius rebels against his royalist grandfather by moving out of the house. He attends law school and becomes more involved in radical politics. He respects Enjolras, the charismatic leader of the Friends of the ABC.

Marius walks in a park every day. There, he occasionally sees Cosette and falls in love with her. However, Valjean disapproves of the relationship and tries his utmost to prevent the two youngsters from ever meeting face-to-face. At this time, Marius lives next to a family named the Jondrettes. The Jondrettes are actually the Thénardiers, who have lost everything—including their inn—and moved to Paris. Marius takes pity on the impoverished Eponine and gives her money. He watches the family next door through a crack in the wall. When the family is visited by a philanthropist and his daughter, Marius recognizes the new arrivals as Valjean and Cosette. Valjean promises that he will help the family pay rent. Valjean does not recognize the Thénardiers, but they recognize him, and they plan to rob him. Monsieur Thénardier enlists a gang of murderous robbers known as the Patron-Minette to help him. Marius asks Eponine for the address where Valjean and Cosette live, not knowing that Eponine is in love with him.

Marius overhears the Thénardiers' plans and goes to Javert, who gives him two pistols. Javert tells Marius to fire one gun in the air if the situation becomes dangerous. In the meantime, Javert will gather his forces and raid the Thénardiers' house. While Marius watches, Valjean returns to the house with rent for the Thénardiers. He is ambushed by Monsieur Thénardier and the gang. Thénardier reveals his identity to Valjean, placing Marius in a difficult position: He still believes that Thénardier saved his father's life, so he does not want to surrender him to Javert, but he also wants to save Valjean. Thénardier demands money. Valjean denies his identity. Monsieur Thénardier sends his wife to collect Cosette, but she returns empty-handed, claiming that the address given to her by Valjean is fake. Valjean nearly escapes, and Thénardier decides to kill him. Marius intervenes, slipping a scrap of paper with Eponine's handwriting through the crack in the wall. Thénardier is confused. When he and the gang try to leave, however, they are arrested by Javert. Some members of the gang and the Thénardier family escape, as does Valjean.

Part 4: The Rue Plumet Idyll and the Rue St-Denis Epic

Eponine tracks down Marius. Even though she is in love with Marius, she shares Cosette's address with him. Marius spends several days watching the house on Rue Plumet. When he is finally able to meet Cosette, they fall in love, and he visits her each night. Meanwhile, Thénardier and the Patron-Minette gang escape from prison with the help of the Thénardiers' street urchin son, Gavroche. They try to burgle Valjean's house but find Eponine outside, pining for Marius. She threatens to alert the authorities unless they leave. They reluctantly abandon their plans. Cosette reveals to Marius that she and Valjean plan to move to England. Valjean, having discovered his adoptive daughter's relationship with Marius, worries for her. His move to England is an attempt to thwart the young lovers. His mind is made up when he notices Thénardier lurking in the neighborhood and then receives a threatening note. The desperate Marius begs his grandfather's permission to marry Cosette, but after an argument his grandfather refuses to grant permission. Marius tries to find Cosette, but Valjean has already moved them to a new temporary address ahead of their departure for England.

The following day, the students begin their political revolt against the government. Marius, unsure what to do, joins his radical friends. He reaches the barricades across the streets, armed with the two pistols given to him by Javert. The student revolution is in full swing when soldiers suddenly attack. A soldier tries to shoot Marius, but a man throws himself in the way, saving Marius's life. Marius grabs a keg of explosive powder and climbs to the top of the barricade. He loudly threatens to blow everyone up unless the soldiers retreat. The soldiers retreat, allowing Marius to climb down. Behind the barricade, the revolutionaries find Javert and recognize him as a policeman. They accuse him of being a spy and tie him up.

Marius spots the man who saved his life, dying on the street. Marius realizes that the man is Eponine in disguise. With her dying words, she says that she hoped that she would be able to die alongside him on the barricade. The narrator also reveals that Eponine is the author of the threatening notes which prompted Valjean to move to a new house. Eponine gives Marius a letter, and as she dies she tells him that she loves him. He kisses her on the forehead. When she is dead, he retreats to a tavern to read the letter. The letter is from Cosette. Marius writes a letter in response, but, unwilling to leave the barricades, he hands it to Gavroche to deliver to Cosette. In turn, Gavroche gives the letter to Valjean. Valjean is initially relieved that Cosette's lover may have been killed in the fighting, thereby solving a difficult problem for him. However, he eventually decides that he must fight on behalf the people. He ventures out into the street, prepared to fight alongside Marius and the students.

Part 5: Jean Valjean

Valjean rushes to the barricades. He saves a man's life as the fighting intensifies and is praised for his strength and fighting skill. Gavroche is shot dead while attempting to plunder more ammunition from the dead soldiers. Valjean volunteers to kill Javert. He leads Javert away, but—rather than kill Javert—he unties Javert and sends him away, shooting his pistol in the air to trick the revolutionaries into thinking that the prisoner is dead. The barricade collapses, and Marius is injured. Valjean carries Marius's body, escaping from the fighting through the sewers. When he reaches a locked gate, Thénardier appears but does not recognize Valjean. He assumes that Valjean is just another murderer, and that Marius is his victim, so he offers to open the gate in exchange for money. He rifles through the pockets of Valjean and Marius for cash, subtly stealing a piece of Marius's coat to later identify him. Thénardier takes 30 francs, opens the gate, and hopes that Valjean will distract the police from the former innkeeper’s crimes.

Passing through the gate, Valjean is stopped again. This time, Javert blocks his way. Javert is torn between doing his duty and sparing the man who spared his own life. To Valjean's surprise, Javert allows him to pass. The inspector believes that Marius is dying, and he accepts Valjean's desire to return the dying boy to his grandfather's house. After allowing Valjean to pass, Javert is so conflicted that he dies by suicide after throwing himself into the river.

At his grandfather's house, Marius recovers. His grandfather changes his mind and grants permission for Marius to marry Cosette. After their wedding, Valjean reveals the truth about his past to Marius. Worried by this revelation, Marius asks Valjean to stop seeing Cosette. When he agrees, Valjean becomes depressed and sick. Marius eventually learns from Thénardier that Valjean is the man who saved his life. He and Cosette rush to Valjean's bedside and reconcile before Valjean dies peacefully in his bed.