Jean Valjean is a peasant pruner who ends up spending 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. When he is released from jai,l he is angry and bitter and, as a result, steals silver from a kind bishop. The bishop forgives him and puts him on a righteous path. The hero commits one more minor crime before dedicating himself to a Christian life, but his last theft puts him on the run from the law. Jean Valjean has high native intelligence and prodigious strength and stamina. The first quality helps him become a rich industrialist under an assumed name and also aids him in eluding the police. His strength and stamina help him escape from jail several times and save a young man from the barricades. His kindness and compassion allow him to help many people. His most important act is rescuing the orphan Cosette, who becomes his daughter and brings love into his life for the first time. Jean Valjean is also known by the aliases Father Madeleine, Monsieur Mayor, Ultimus Fauchelevent, and Monsieur Leblanc.
Monseigneur Bienvenu, originally from a Royalist family, becomes a bishop who gives all the wealth bestowed on him by the Church to the poor of his flock. When Jean Valjean comes to his door, he provides him with shelter and food. When the ex-convict steals a silver service (eating utensils) from him, he shields him from the law and additionally gives him silver candlesticks, telling him he has redeemed his soul for good. The bishop is the moral center of the novel, an embodiment of Christian love, compassion, and forgiveness. Jean Valjean learns to be a Christian by following the bishop's example and eventually "becomes" the bishop. Monseigneur Bienvenu is also known as Monsieur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel and Monsigneur Myriel.
Cosette is the illegitimate child of Fantine; from the time she is a toddler, she is fostered by the evil innkeepers, Thénardier and his wife. She is used as a servant and physically and psychologically abused by Madame Thénardier. After Cosette's mother dies, Jean Valjean rescues her and becomes her foster father, providing her with the love and material and emotional protection she has been missing. Cosette is a resilient child, and her ability to adjust to changing circumstances allows her to survive with the Thénardiers and accept her odd life with Jean Valjean on the run. She is by nature kind and loving and easily accepts her new father. As a young woman, she is passionate and steadfast in her love of Marius. Cosette is also known as Euphrasie.
Fantine is born during the French Revolution and is orphaned at a young age. She works in Paris as a seamstress until she meets an older student whom she falls in love with, innocently thinking he will love her back. Instead he leaves her when she gets pregnant. Fantine is a loving and responsible mother, but she must put her child, Cosette, in foster care so that she can work to support her. Many of her decisions are poor because they are made in desperation. As a member of the underclass, Fantine is constantly fighting to survive. When she loses her job in a factory, she falls deeper into poverty—first selling her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body—in an effort to support Cosette. Fantine dies before she is able to see her child again.
Marius Pontmercy is the son of a well-to-do bourgeois woman and a career officer who fights with Napoleon, but he is raised by his grandfather, a staunch Royalist. Marius has been kept away from his father and learns only after his father dies that he loved him. As a result he turns against his grandfather and becomes a Bonapartist and later a radical who fights on the barricades. Marius is an idealist with a pure heart, but he is also a rigid and hidebound bourgeois who unnecessarily clings to his beliefs even after they have proved to be unworkable or incorrect. Thus he continues to think he owes Thénardier a debt on behalf of his father, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and he rejects Jean Valjean when he discovers he is an ex-convict, despite all the evidence of his exemplary life.
Inspector Javert is a law-and-order man who believes the law is synonymous with justice. He comes from a lower-class background as the son of a gypsy and a convict. Since his low birth prevents him from advancing in bourgeois society, he decides he will become part of society by protecting it as a police officer. Javert wants to do what is "right" and holds himself to the same strict standard as everyone else, but he does not know the meaning of mercy, either for himself or others. He has taken the law as the "good" and cannot accept that the law does not work perfectly or is not always fair. Thus he mercilessly pursues Jean Valjean, whom he deems an enemy of the law.
Thénardier is the epitome of the worst values of the bourgeoisie. He is greedy, thinks of nothing but money, and will do anything to get it. He begins life in the lower middle class and falls into the criminal underclass due to his avarice and mismanagement of money. Thénardier is an archvillain—a dangerous sociopath without the ability to love even his own wife and children. Thénardier marries someone who is his equal in immorality, and together they abuse the child Cosette, throw out their eldest son, and sell their two younger sons to a perfect stranger. Thénardier also uses his daughters in the pursuit of his criminal schemes, which include robbery, extortion, and assault, and he makes it clear he would not stop at murder. Thénardier is also known by the aliases Jondrette, Fabantou, and Thénard.