Les Miserables by Victor Hugo summary



Les Miserables by Victor Hugo summary


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Les Miserables by Victor Hugo summary


Les Misérables Introduction

Author -- Victor Hugo                             Setting (place, time) -- Rural France and Paris.  1815 -- 1830’s
Main Characters --
            Jean Valjean -- Ex-convict, still pursued by law, strives for moral perfection.  Foster father to Cosette.
            Javert -- Incorruptible policeman.  Social conscience of France.  Sees no gray, only black and white.  Life’s             obsession to track down Valjean.
            Cosette -- Illegitimate daughter of Fantine.  
            Marius -- Idealistic young student revolutionary.  Falls passionately in love with Cosette.
            Eponine -- Older daughter of Thenardier.  Spoiled as child.  Later poor, ragged, petty thief.  (loves Marius)
Brief Plot Summary --  Ex-convict, hardened by prison life, has life-changing encounter with Bishop. Valjean becomes a good person and spends life helping others while Javert relentlessly pursues him, complicating his life.


Themes --      (The fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.)

  • The Importance of Love and Compassion; the different forms of love (unrequited, parent to child, romantic, unconditional love for mankind)
  • Social Injustice in Nineteenth-Century France
  • The Long-Term Effects of the French Revolution on French Society
Social destruction, victimization of poor, social evils
Social reformation.  Man’s ability to change and overcome adversity.


Motifs -- (Recurring structures, contrasts, symbols, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.)

  • The Plight of the Orphan
  • Resurrection
  • Light and dark
  • Disguises and Pseudonyms
  • Significance of doors
  • Social commentary
  • Animal motifs (snakes, insects, birds)


Distinguishing Characteristics
            Hugo’s writing style; long complicated sentence structure with  much detail. Les Misérables employs Hugo’s style of imaginative realism and is set in an artificially created human hell that emphasizes the three major predicaments of the nineteenth century. Imaginative realism is a literary style that combines realistic elements with exaggerated symbolism. In this style, each character represents a significant social issue of the time. 

Each of the three major characters in the novel symbolizes one of these predicaments: Jean Valjean represents the degradation of man in the proletariat, Fantine represents the subjection of women through hunger, and Cosette represents the atrophy of the child by darkness. In part, the novel’s fame has endured because Hugo successfully created characters that serve as symbols of larger problems without being flat devices.


The Age of Enlightenment: A Change in Thought

The Enlightenment was a shift in Western Thought during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. People began to look at the world in a new way, putting aside old beliefs. The Enlightenment began in Europe, but spread quickly to America and was the driving force behind the American Revolution.


Old Beliefs: Held from the Middle Ages through the early 17th Century.

  • Man is inherently sinful because of the concept of original sin.
  • Nature is unknowable- the wilderness is filled with evil.
  • Emphasis on God- people must always strive to do the right thing; all work must be for the glory of God.


New Beliefs: Reflected by Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and John Locke.

  • Man is basically good because God is a rational being, and a rational God would not condemn all mankind for the sins of Adam and Eve.
  • Nature is logical- man can understand nature and God by studying the world around us.
  • God is like a clockmaker- He created the world and “wound it up,” and lets it run as he watches. God only watches and does not interfere in the world. This frees man to expend his efforts on creative and non-spiritual pursuits.

The French Revolution

            In the 18th century, France was undergoing social and economic changes that undermined its old society, in which a very small minority of land-owning nobles, powerful churchmen, and absolutist kings had held total sway over the vast majority of French peasants and commoners. Facing a financial crisis in the 1780s, King Louis XVI consulted the Estates- General, a legislative body made up of three groups of French society. The Third Estate, made up of commoners, promptly demanded fundamental changes toward creating a new constitution and limiting the monarchy. When the First and Second Estates, consisting of the clergy and nobility respectively, objected to losing their privileges, the Third Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly.

            Revolutionary fervor boiled over on July 14, 1789 as Parisians stormed the Bastille prison, sparking violent peasant uprisings throughout the country. In 1791, the king and Marie Antoinette were foiled in their attempt to escape to Austria, a move which cast doubt on their loyalty to France as Austria declared war to quell the revolution. Under the threat of treason and foreign invasion, the National Convention became the new national government in 1792, when it abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. Louis XVI was convicted of treason and guillotined; Marie Antoinette later met the same fate. The moderate Girondins, then the radical Jacobins rose to power, culminating in the rule of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in which thousands of suspected traitors were sent to the guillotine. After Robespierre’s death, the Directory was formed, which achieved some stability but had only tenuous control of the country. Napoleon, a powerful military general, staged a coup in 1799 and became the dictator and later emperor of France. His defeat at Waterloo in 1815 resulted in the official restoration of the French monarchy. While Napoleon made attempts at reform; it would take repeated conflicts between rich and poor throughout the 19thcentury to make the liberal ideals of the French Revolution a reality.



1780s — France is nearly bankrupt.

1792 — National Convention is established and the monarchy is abolished.

1788 —The Estates-General convenes.

1793 — Louis XVI, and later Marie Antoinette, are guillotined.

1789 —The Third Estate declares itself the National Assembly

1793–1794 —The Reign of Terror results in thousands of deaths.

1789 —The Third Estate issues the Tennis Court Oath.

1794 — Robespierre is guillotined.

1789 — Bastille prison is stormed on July 14th.

1795 —The French Directory, made up of five directors, takes power.

1789 — March of the Women to Versailles.

1799 — Napoleon overthrows the Directory.

1791 — Royal family attempts to escape to Austria.

1804 — Napoleon declares himself the Emperor of France.

1792 — France declares war on Austria.

1814 —The French monarchy is restored; Louis XVIII becomes king.

1792 — Mobs attack the Tuileries Palace.

1815 — Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo.


Victor Hugo

            Victor Hugo was born in 1802 in the French town of Besançon. His father was a general in Napoléon’s army, and much of his childhood was therefore spent amid the backdrop of Napoléon’s campaigns in Spain and in Italy. At the age of eleven, Hugo returned to live with his mother in Paris, where he became infatuated with books and literature. By the time he was fifteen, he had already submitted one poem to a contest sponsored by the prestigious French Academy.

             France’s 1830 July Revolution opened Hugo’s creative floodgates, and he began producing a steady stream of work, most notably the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831). Hugo also began to cultivate his interest in politics and was elected to France’s National Assembly after the revolution of 1848. As Hugo grew older, his politics became increasingly leftist, and he was forced to flee France in 1851 because of his opposition to the monarch Louis Napoléon. Hugo remained in exile until 1870, when he returned to his home country as a national hero. He continued to write until his death in 1885. He was buried with every conceivable honor in one of the grandest funerals in modern French history.

            Hugo began writing Les Misérables twenty years before its eventual publication in 1862. His goals in writing the novel were as lofty as the reputation it has subsequently acquired; Les Misérables is primarily a great humanitarian work that encourages compassion and hope in the face of adversity and injustice. It is also, however, a historical novel of great scope and analysis, and it provides a detailed vision of nineteenth-century French politics and society. By coupling his story of redemption with a meticulous documentation of the injustices of France’s recent past, Hugo hoped Les Misérables would encourage a more progressive and democratic future. Driven by his commitment to reform and progress, Hugo wrote Les Misérables with nothing less than a literary and political revolution in mind.


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Les Miserables by Victor Hugo summary


Study Guide: Les Miserables

The Characters: Questions/Discussion Ideas

* What is Hugo’s view of human nature? Is it naturally good, flawed by original sin, or somewhere between the two?


* Describe how Hugo uses his characters to describe his view of human nature. How does each character represent another facet or Hugo’s view?


* Discuss Hugo’s undying belief that man can become perfect. How does Jean Valjean’s life illustrate this belief?


* In the end, what does Jean Valjean prove with his life?

* Javert is a watchdog of the legal process. He applies the letter of the law to every law breaker, without exception. Should he have applied other standards to a man like Jean Valjean?

* Today, many believe, like Javert, that no mercy should be shown to criminals. Do you agree with this? Why?


* What does Javert say about his past that is a clue to his nature?


*What finally destroys Javert? Hugo says he is “an owl forced to gaze with an eagle.” What does this mean?


* Discuss the Thenardiers as individuals living in a savage society who have lost their humanity and become brutes. Are there people in our society who fit this description?

* Compare Marius as a romantic hero with the romantic heroes of other books, plays, or poems of the romantic period


* What would Eponine’s life have been like if she had not been killed at the barricade?


The Universal Story: Questions/ Discussion Ideas


  1. Les Misérables is one of the most widely read novels of all time, and the show has been received with immense success around the world. How do you explain its great appeal to so many different kinds of audiences over more than 130 years?


  1. Relate the themes of Les Misérables to events occurring in your community, England, or the world today. After ready or seeing Les Misérables, describe how it has changed the way you think about these events.


The Homeless and the Poor: Questions/ Discussion Ideas


  1. In the story of Les Misérables, what reforms does Victor Hugo indirectly or directly advocate to fight social injustice?


  1. Each of the characters in the story deal with the problem of Les Misérables in a different way. Describe how each of these characters see the poor:
    • Jean Valijean
    • The Bishop of Digne
    • Javert
    • Enjolras
    • Thénardier


Crime and Punishment: Questions/Discussion Ideas


  1. When we first met Jean Valijean, he has been in prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. The harsh punishment for theft in the 19th century was rooted in the belief that theft was a crime against the entire community and should be punishable by extreme means, no matter how petty the crime.
    • How do we think about theft in our society?
    • Should all crimes be punished the same way? Should the reason behind a crime have anything to do with the punishment?
    • Have you ever had anything stolen from you? How did it make you feel? Would it have mattered if someone had stolen from you to feed his/her family?


  1. When Valijean is released from prison, he is given a yellow ticket of leave, effectively branding him a criminal to all he meets, making it impossible for him to lead a normal life again.
    • How does our society treat people on parole, or ex-convicts? Are they able to lead normal lives again? Why or why not?
    • A great percentage of convicts released from prison end up back in jail soon after. Why is this, and what does it say about our “rehabilitation” system?


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