Les Miserables Summary: Victor Hugo achieved great fame in France for his story The Hunchback of Notre Dame which he published in 1831 and which was an instant triumph.
When Victor Hugo published Les Misèrables in 1862 it too became a huge hit with the public. It is a tale of woe and angst, love, loss and redemption set in France in the early 1800s against a backdrop of revolutionary fervour. The name Les Misèrables means The Unfortunate Ones or The Wretched.
Now Les Misèrables is about to become successful with a whole new raft of fans as its has been made into a Hollywood blockbuster.
The novel is in five volumes and is one of the longest novels ever written, 1900 pages in the French version,and contains the longest sentence ever written – 800 words.
We give you here a very short synopsis of Les Misérables – it’s a long book with lots of twists and turns, subplots and lengthy forays on religion, politics, and society.
The book’s main character Jean Valjean is a man to whom life has not been kind. He serves 19 years on the chain gang for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her children and is embittered by years of hardship. He steals from the Bishop of Digne and is astonished when the Bishop lies to save him from imprisonment. The Bishop tells him he must repent of his bad ways and change his life. However Valjean’s bad habits get the better of him and he steals money from a child. He repents and tries to find the boy to return the money but it is too late, the theft has been reported and he is once again a wanted man. He vows to change his life at that moment.
Hunted by a ruthless policeman named Javert for breaking parole, Valjean avoids detection and capture for years. He changes his name to Monsieur Madeleine, becomes a factory owner and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer in the north of France.
He discovers that one of his workers Fantine, has an illegitimate child and she is fired. The child, a daughter named Cosette, lives with a family named the Thenardiers in Montfermeil, Paris. Fantine is a sad soul and, desperate for money she sells everything she has including her hair and teeth. She eventually succumbs to prostitution to provide money to keep Cosette with the family she believes care for her. After a fight, Fantine is arrested by policeman Javert but Monsieur Madeleine the Mayor arrives and insists she be taken to hospital where he promises the dying Fantine that he will find and protect her daughter Cosette (the name of the waitress whom Victor Hugo met in Montreuil-sur-Mer when he visited in 1837).
All goes awry when the Mayor rescues a man pinned beneath a cart (an event that Victor Hugo witnessed in Montreuil-sur-Mer when he visited). The policeman Javert recalls the unusual strength of the escaped convict Valjean and eventually this leads him to the Mayor/Valjean who is returned once more to the chain gang. He once again escapes after saving the life of a fellow convict and is reported as missing. He makes his way to Montfermeil to find Cosette and fulfil his promise to Fantine. He discovers Cosette with the Thenardiers where she is abused and treated as a slave, and pays them to let her go.
Nine years later, Jean Valjean lives in Paris and makes friends with a young student called Marius who falls in love with Cosette. The Thenardiers’ daughter Eponine is in turn in love with Marius.
The streets of Paris are full of revolutionaries and barricades are set up in the streets, fights break out and Eponine is killed. Valjean arrives to try to find the injured Marius and finds himself in a position to dispose of his arch enemy Javert but he lets him go.
Marius is cared for by Cosette and they are married. Valjean’s destiny is complete and he tells Cosette of her mother and his own history before dying saying “C’est bon de mourir comme cela” (“How sweet it is to die like this”).
Click here for more about how Montreuil-sur-Mer and its inhabitants inspired Victor Hugo to write Les Misérables.
Click here for a short biography of Victor Hugo
Click here to learn more about the film locations for Les Misérables.