Free Study Guide for Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: "Les Mis"

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The novel contains multiple conflicts and subplots. The major conflict threaded through the book is between Valjean and Javert. Valjean has served his time and earned release from prison, but it is release with a yellow passport-meaning everywhere he goes, everyone from employers to landlords will know that he is an ex-con. This makes him suspect even when he is innocent of any wrong doing. Javert sees the law as an answer for everything, and no exception should be made regardless of how small the crime.

The situation is complicated when Valjean takes upon himself the care of Cosette, as he feels responsible for the death of her mother. With Cosette, Valjean learns to love and the bitterness of the years of injustice melt away. He thinks of himself as a convict and makes no excuses; his only reason for hiding and avoiding Javert is to protect Cosette and his fatherly relationship with her.

Additional minor conflicts occur between Marius and his Grandfather, between Marius and Valjean, and between Valjean and Thenardier.


The major plot involves Jean Valjean who is released from prison, and through the kindness of Father Myriel, becomes a new man. He gets a new name via association with Myriel and his obvious kindness and generosity to others and gradually builds a successful and prosperous life for himself with a renovation of the jet-work industry in Montreuil-surmer. One of his employees is-although unknown to him-fired by the head mistress because of an illegitimate baby. Fantine goes from one occupation to another, finally becoming a prostitute.

A minor incident takes place in the streets, and Fantine is arrested by Javert. Valjean, who has become known as Mayor Madeleine, forces Javert to release her and takes her into his own house when he hears her story. Fantine is in extremely poor health, however, and dies without ever seeing her child again, even though Valjean had promised to get the child.

Meanwhile, another man has been arrested and mistakenly identified as Valjean. Valjean appears in court, revealing the truth and losing both his business and his position in Montreuil-sur-mer. Although he is arrested, he breaks out long enough to hide his fortune. He spends additional time in prison, working aboard a ship. Eventually he escapes again and retrieves Cosette from the evil Thenardiers whom Fantine had trusted to take care of the child.

Then begins 10 years of hiding, moving from place to place, always staying just ahead of Javert. Seven or eight happy years are spend in a convent where Valjean works with the gardener and Cosette attends a girls’ school.

Feeling that Cosette must have opportunity to experience all of life, they leave the convent when she is about 15. Valjean is nearly betrayed and recaptured due to the insidious if somewhat unwitting deeds of the Thenardiers.

While Valjean is continuously on the lookout for people who might have guessed his identity and makes their home always in out of the way places, Cosette becomes aware of her own femininity and beauty. She and Marius spot each other and fall in love.

Marius is a college student who has been raised by his grandfather after the old man had disowned his son-in-law for supporting Napoleon. Marius discovers the truth about his father shortly after his death and enmity develops between himself and his grandfather. With little income, Marius in unable to marry Cosette and prevent Valjean from taking her away again, and his grandfather refuses to give consent for a marriage to someone he assumes is beneath him.

In Paris, politics, work issues, and various unsatisfactory conditions are gradually bringing a faction of workers and college students to the point of revolt. An insurrection takes place; Marius joins in hoping to die since he will not be able to have Cosette. Valjean joins the insurrection because he believes he is losing Cosette’s love and because, although he hates him bitterly, he intends to try to protect Marius for Cosette.

When the barricades are finally overtaken, Valjean rescues Marius and escapes through the city sewers. Marius is unconscious and does not know who rescued him. When his health returns, he insists once again on marrying Cosette, and this time the grandfather relents. Old wounds are at least partially healed. As Javert is also dead, it would seem that Cosette, Valjean, Marius and his grandfather could all form one happy family. Cosette and Marius marry, but Valjean reveals the truth of himself to Marius who gradually banishes him from even seeing Cosette.

The Thenardiers are a continuous nuisance and occasionally a real threat throughout the book, but in spite of Thenardier’s intention to bring harm to Valjean, he actually reveals the truth of Valjean’s history to Marius.

Valjean dies in the end, but it is with contentment after a joyful reunion with Cosette. He is content to know that Cosette and Marius have “forgiven” him, although it seems as though Valjean himself is the one who has the right to be on the forgiving end of things.

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Les Miserables by Victor Hugo Free BookNotes Summary

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