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

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Grandparent/Grandchild Relationships

Crime vs. Punishment

Truth vs. Survival

Love and Forgiveness

Law vs. Humanity

The Meaning of Debt

Childhood Innocence and Courage


Refer to the overall analysis section for additional information regarding the themes.


The mood is somber. A tone of melancholy predominates, even when events are relatively happy.

Victor Hugo - BIOGRAPHY

Victor-Marie Hugo was born on February 26, 1802 in Besancon, France. His father, Joesph-Leopold-Sigisbert Hugo, was an officer and eventually a general under Napoleon. He lived with his mother after his parents separated and had literary ambitions even as a child. His family lived in Corsica, Elba, Italy, and Spain. At the age of 15, he placed honorable mention in a poetry competition and he gained a reputation as an outstanding poet and writer. By the age of 17, he had founded a magazine with his brother. He married Adele Foucher and published his first poetry collection at the age of 20.

His literary career was off and running at that point. He published Hermani in 1830, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, Ruy Blas in 1838. In 1841 Hugo lost his first daughter and husband to an accident. The incident marked the end of his first literary period. He became involved in politics and became increasingly liberal. He believed in free art, freedom in society and free speech. He supported Louis-Napoleon at first, but turned against him after 1851 and eventually went in to exile for 19 years in Brussels, Belgium.

From exile Hugo wrote severe literary attacks on the second empire. He also wrote Contemplations, a book that is often considered his best work. Toward the end of his exile he also wrote Les Miserables (1862) , Toilers of the Sea, and The Man Who Laughs.

Once the second empire had collapsed under the weight of its own errors, Hugo returned to France in 1870 and was given a prominent position in government, which he later resigned after his proposals were not acted upon. He suffered a stroke in 1878 and his declining health forced him to stop writing. His death, from pneumonia, on May 22, 1885 was a national occasion. His body “according to his own request,” was carried “on a pauper’s hearse” and lay in state at the Arc de Triumph where two million people honored him.


Les Miserables is a massive volume, which includes five sections that readers would generally recognized as books. It is a bit confusing, however, as each book is divided into chapters, which are themselves actually labeled “books.” Each chapter is further subdivided under pithy subtitles in the manner of a text-book. Many of these small sections are only a couple of paragraphs while others are several pages long. In general, the following chapter summaries refer to the entire chapter or “book,” although some longer subsections are dealt with individually as needed.

The novel is as much history and commentary as it is fiction. In fact, so much of the history of France along with the thoughts and feelings of the people at that time dominates the book that the fictional elements almost seem accidental. The craft, however, comes through as the characters eventually interact in ways that would, in real life, be unlikely between individuals of such diverse socio-economic elements.

The following list of titles and subtitles will be helpful in obtaining an overview of the overall structure:


Book First: An Upright Man
I. M. Myriel
II. M. Myriel Becomes Monseigneur Bienvenu
III. Good Bishop-Hard Bishopric
IV. Words Answering Words
V. How Monseigneur Bienvenu made His Cossack Last So Long
VI. How he Protected His House
VII. Cravatte
VIII. After Dinner Philosophy
IX. The Brother Portrayed by the Sister
X. The Bishop in the Presence of an Unknown Light
XI. A Qualification
XII. Solitude of Monsiegneur Bienvenu
XIII. What he Believed
XIV. What He Thought

Book Second: The Fall
I. The Night of a Day’s Tramp
II. Prudence Commended to Wisdom
III. Heroism of Passive Obedience
IV. Some Account of the diaries of Pontalieu
V. Tranquility
VI. Jean Valjean
VII. The Depths of Despair
VIII. The Waters and the Shadow
IX. New Griefs
X. The Man Awakes
XI. What he Does
XII. The Bishop at Work
XIII. Petit Gervais

Book Third: In the Year 1817
I. The Year 1817
II. Double Quarter
III. Four to Four
IV. Tholomyes is So Merry That He Sings a Spanish Song
V. At Bombarda’s
VI. A Chapter of Self-Admiration
VII. The Wisdom of Tholomyes
VIII. Death of a Horse
IX. Joyous End of Joy

Book Fourth: to Entrust is Sometimes to Abandon
I. One Mother Meets Another
II. First Sketch of Two Equivocal Faces
III. The Lark

Book Fifth: The Descent
I. History of an Improvement in Jet-work
II. Madeleine
III. Moneys Deposited with Laffitte
IV. Monsieur Madeleine in Mourning
V. Vague Flashes in the Horizon
VI. Father Fauchelevent
VII. Fauchelevent Becomes a Gardener at Paris
VIII. Madame Victurnien Spends Thirty Francs on Morality
IX. Success of Madame Victurnien
X. Results of Success
XI. Christus Nos Liberavit
XII. The Idleness of Monsieur Bamatabois
XIII. Solution of Some Questions of Municipal Police

Book Sixth: Javert
I. The Beginning of the Rest
II. How Jean Became Champ

Book Seventh: The Champmatheiu Affair I Sister Simplice
II. Shrewdness of Master Scaufflaire
III. A Tempest in a Brain
IV. Forms Assumed by Suffering During Sleep
V. Clogs in the Wheels
VI. Sister Simplice put to Proof
VII. The Traveler Arrives and Provides for his Return
VIII. Admission by Favour
IX. A Place for Arriving at Convictions
X. The System of Denegations
XI. Champmathieu More and More Astonished

Book Eighth: Counter Stroke
I. In What Manner M. Madeleine Looks at His Hair
II. Fantine Happy
III. Javert Satisfied
IV. Authority Resumes its Sway
V. A Fitting Tomb

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Ruff, Dr. Karen S. C., D. A.. "TheBestNotes on Les Miserables". . 09 May 2017