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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1: Fantine

Les Misérables begins in 1815, in Digne, France, an obscure country town, with the story of a saintly bishop. Monseigneur Bienvenu takes his Christianity to heart and gives to the poor all the wealth allotted to him by the Church. Jean Valjean, a convict recently released from jail, shows up on Monseigneur Bienvenu's doorstep and is given food and shelter for the night. The convict is bitter and angry after having served 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. He ends up stealing the bishop's silverware but is apprehended by the police and brought back to the bishop. Monseigneur Bienvenu covers for the criminal, saying he forgot to take the silver candlesticks, which he then gives him. Privately the bishop tells Jean Valjean he is ransoming his soul and he is now charged with living a good life. Later in the day Jean Valjean steals a coin from a passing chimney sweep. He cries when he realizes what he has done and vows to make a new start.

The narrator next introduces Fantine, a young and beautiful grisette (working girl) in Paris who is seduced and left pregnant by a bourgeois student. She plans to move back to her hometown, but knows she won't be able to get work as the mother of an illegitimate child. Therefore, she boards her toddler with the Thénardiers, innkeepers with two young girls of their own.

When Fantine gets home, she finds the town has been transformed by an industrialist and philanthropist. This man, who is known as Monsieur Madeleine but is actually Jean Valjean, has been appointed mayor. She gets a job in his factory but is fired when the forewoman finds out about her daughter, Cosette. Meanwhile the Thénardiers use the money Fantine sends for her child for themselves while keeping Cosette in rags and abusing her. Fantine is soon forced by poverty into prostitution. While this is occurring, a police inspector, Javert, keeps his eye on Madeleine, suspecting he is the ex-convict at-large for stealing from the chimney sweep. Javert arrests Fantine for attacking a man in the street, and Madeleine orders her release. He begins taking care of her, since she is very ill. However, his ministrations are interrupted when he learns that another man identified as Jean Valjean has been arrested for a second offense, stealing apples, and will now be sent away for life since he is presumed to be an escaped convict. It's a case of mistaken identity, and Madeleine turns himself in to Javert.

Fantine dies before seeing her child, and Jean Valjean breaks out of jail, gets his money out of the bank, and buries it in the forest. This is the money he will live on during his life on the run.

Part 2: Cosette

Thénardier was once a scavenger at Waterloo who robbed the dead. He saved a colonel, Pontmercy, by pulling him out of a pile of corpses, and the man asked his name and expressed gratitude, thinking he was a sergeant and not a thief.

In the present, Jean Valjean is retaken by the authorities. Shortly thereafter he is on a crew of convicts working on a warship docked at Toulon, and he rescues a sailor and then escapes again by dropping into the sea. Everyone thinks he is dead. He disguises himself and travels to Montfermeil, rescuing Cosette by paying off Thénardier. The two move to Paris, but Inspector Javert picks up Jean Valjean's trail and goes after him. This time Jean Valjean hides in the garden of a cloistered convent and is rescued by an old man, Fauchelevent, whose life he saved while he was still a mayor in Montreuil-sur-mer; he was also responsible for getting this Fauchelevent the job in the convent. Fauchelevent now helps Jean Valjean get himself hired as assistant gardener and Cosette enrolled in the convent school.

Part 3: Marius

After some years Jean Valjean and Cosette leave the convent. Cosette grows into a beautiful young woman and catches the eye of a young lawyer, Marius. Three years prior, he had broken with his Royalist grandfather who raised him. Marius's father, Colonel Pontmercy, was forbidden from seeing his child—something Marius learns after his father dies. He also learns a man named Thénardier saved his father's life. The young man has become friends with some radicals who wish to overthrow the constitutional monarchy and are waiting for the right moment. When Jean Valjean realizes Marius is interested in his daughter, he separates the young lovers by disappearing with Cosette.

After this separation Jean Valjean and Cosette run into the Thénardiers while doing work among the poor. Now living in Paris, the Thénardiers, who go by the name Jondrette, are practically starving and have thrown out their oldest son, Gavroche, a boy of 11 or 12, leaving him to fend for himself in the street, while the two older girls, Eponine and Azelma, help their father with his various illegal schemes. Thénardier recognizes Jean Valjean and tries to steal from him, but Thénardier and a gang of thugs are arrested by Javert. Jean Valjean manages to escape.

Part 4: Saint-Denis and Idyll of the Rue Plumet

Marius, who lives next door to the Thénardiers, saw Jean Valjean during the robbery attempt, and he asks Eponine to track down Cosette. She agrees because she is in love with Marius, although he is unaware of her feelings. When Eponine finds her, Marius begins a relationship with Cosette by meeting her secretly in the garden at the front of the house in the Rue Plumet. The political situation is heating up, and Jean Valjean decides to move to England. On June 5, 1832, the uprising breaks out, and Marius's radical friends build a barricade. Cosette and Jean Valjean disappear again, and Marius goes to the barricade in despair, thinking he will lose his life for the Revolution if he can't be with Cosette. He fights bravely and is saved from a bullet by Eponine, who confesses her love and dies in his arms. Meanwhile Jean Valjean learns about the courtship between Cosette and Marius and goes to the barricade to save the young man.

Part 5: Jean Valjean

At the barricade Jean Valjean first saves Javert, who has been caught spying and sentenced to execution. When all of Marius's comrades fall, Jean Valjean carries Marius off, wounded and unconscious, into the sewers of Paris. He is coincidentally saved by Thénardier, who has a key to the sewer grate. He opens it up for a price and rips off a scrap from Marius's coat, thinking it may come in handy later. When Jean Valjean gets above ground, he immediately runs into Javert. The inspector agrees to allow him to carry the unconscious Marius to his grandfather's house, but then he lets him go. Javert feels it is both right to let Jean Valjean go and right to arrest him. He can't tolerate this moral dilemma and kills himself.

After Marius recovers from his wounds, he marries Cosette. Jean Valjean gives them a large dowry, and after the wedding reveals to Marius his true background. The young man is horrified and gradually pushes Jean Valjean out of Cosette's life. Jean Valjean begins wasting away and takes to his bed. One day Thénardier shows up at Marius's door in an attempt to extort money from him. Thénardier claims Jean Valjean murdered a young man, and he has a piece of his coat to prove it. Marius immediately realizes Jean Valjean saved him and rushes to his house with Cosette, but he is too late. Jean Valjean is dying. He reconciles with his daughter and son-in-law and he dies in peace, knowing he has kept his promise to the bishop.

Les Misérables Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Jean Valjean steals silver from the bishop.

Rising Action

2 The bishop sets Jean Valjean on the path of redemption.

3 Jean Valjean becomes an industrialist and philanthropist.

4 Jean Valjean saves Champmathieu and is rearrested.

5 Jean Valjean escapes and recues Cosette from Thénardier.

6 Jean Valjean and Cosette live in the Petit-Picpus convent.

7 Cosette and Marius fall in love at the Luxembourg Gardens.

8 Jean Valjean removes Cosette from Marius's reach.

9 Eponine tracks down Cosette for Marius at the Rue Plumet.

10 Cosette and Marius reunite, only to be separated again.


11 Enjolras's friends erect the barricade, and Marius joins in.

Falling Action

12 Jean Valjean rescues Marius and carries him through sewers.

13 Marius recovers, and he and Cosette marry.

14 After Jean Valjean reveals his history, Marius rejects him.


15 Reconciling with Marius and Cosette, Jean Valjean dies.

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