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

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Book First: Waterloo


The narrator summarizes the story of the rise and fall of Napoleon. He describes the Plain of Waterloo, known at the time as the Plateau of Mont St. Jean. In June 1815, Napoleon was lined up for battle against the English, but heavy rain prevented him from moving his artillery until late in the day. This gave an advantage to the English who were able to hold out a bit longer although they were outnumbered.

By 4:00 in the afternoon, the English were nearly beaten . Napoleon ordered his cavalry to move forward for an intended charge, but, unknown to him, the road of Owain, which he had to cross, had caved in under the heavy rain. This created a deep ravine into which horses and men tumbled until the ravine was full. The remaining calvary crossed literally on the bodies made of their own forces. This was the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Thus, according to the narrator, the defeat of Napoleon was at the hand of God rather than any army.

The English infantry was badly decimated, but the delay caused by the rain allowed for the arrival of the Prussian reinforcements which created the turning point in the battle.

We are brought back into the story at the point when the battle is over and marauders are looting the bodies. One looter happens to be Thenardier who spots a ring on a hand under the pile of dead cavalry men. The body is alive, so Thenardier pulls him out from under the pile. The fallen soldier thinks Thenardier has intentionally saved his life and, after giving his name as Pontmercy, promises that he will remember Thenardier.


None Needed

Book Second: The Ship Orion


The story of Jean Valjean’s recapture is told. He was accused of being one of a band of armed robbers from the south and was condemned to death, but the king commuted the sentence to hard labor. The city of Montreuil-sur-mer along with the business Valjean had built up suffers economic collapse. Before being recaptured he was successful in hiding the profit he made from the factories; he buried the money in the ground in a secret spot in the woods. A common laborer named Boulatruelle sees him enter the woods and attempts to follow but loses him. Thereafter Boulatruelle takes every opportunity to dig holes in the forest in search of wealth he imagines is hidden there somewhere.

1823 is the time of the Spanish War. Valjean has been working on board the ship Orion which has been put into port for repairs. During the work, one of the sailors falls from the upper rigging and dangles above the sea by a rope. Valjean gets permission to rescue him, breaks the chain from his ankle with one blow of the hammer, and rescues the seaman. Immediately after, he appears to fall overboard himself and is presumed drowned.


It’s a mark of Valjean’s cleverness that he knows how to play the necessary ruse when the opportunity presents itself. After rescuing the seaman, he was seen to hesitate as if having difficulty climbing the rigging. Perhaps he was gauging his chances with the sea; perhaps he was ascertaining whether he could truly pull off an escape. At any rate, the trick is successful.

Book Third: Fulfillment of the Promise to the Departed


Montfermeil-at the Inn of the Thenardiers. It is Christmas evening. The Thenardiers are entertaining several men in their tavern. The three year old boy is crying in another room. Cosette sits on the crosspiece of the kitchen table knitting wool socks for the Thenardier children. She is in rags and wooden shoes herself.

We receive an image of the Thenardiers. M. Thenardier is boss of the home even though his wife outweighs him and gives the appearance of having control. His primary goal is to get rich. One of the guests complains that his horse hasn’t been watered. Cosette is forced to go out into the black night to fetch water-a task requiring her to enter the woods carrying a heavy bucket. The Thenardiess gives Cosette a 15 sous piece, telling her to get a loaf of bread at the baker’s on the way back. Terrified of the night, but even more terrified of her mistress, Cosette goes after the water. She stops for a moment to admire a doll in one of the shopping booths but hurries on at a threat from Thenardiess.

In the woods, Cosette reaches the spring and fills the bucket, but unknowingly drops the money in the spring. She is struggling to carry the heavy bucket back to town when a mysterious stranger lifts it away and carries it for her.

The stranger is Valjean who goes to the inn with her and soon realizes her identity. He watches her all evening, defending her against the Thenardiess, replacing the missing piece of money that had slipped out of Cosette’s pocket into the spring, and even going out to the Christmas booth to buy the doll Cosette had admired. In the night, he wanders about the tavern, finding Cosette in a tattered bed in a hole under the stairs. The Thenardier girls’ shoes have been placed in anticipation before the fireplace, and Thenardiess has place a new 10 sous piece in the shoes of each of her own daughters. Valjean drops a gold louis in Cosette’s shoe. In the morning, after paying an outrageous sum for his room, Valjean gives Thenardier another 1500 francs for Cosette and takes her away.


Valjean attracts the attention of the police because of a furtive look and yellow coat which he is wearing. Thus he is hardly off the boat before he is the object of search again, even though the police do not know his identity. He manages to evade them by cutting into the woods and turning in numerous directions, then heads for his spot in the woods where he has his money buried and finally to Montfermeil where he happens upon Cosette.

Cosette herself has been seriously abused. The narrator tells us that “fear was spread all over her,” he clothes were nothing but rags and bruises were visible on skin that showed through the holes of her clothes. The money that Valjean uses to replace the lost piece is actually a 20 sous piece, but Thenardiess takes it without comment, although she notices the difference quickly enough.

Thenardier is cagey enough the recognize the presence of a superior intellect in Valjean. He notices immediately Valjean’s interest in Cosette; the possibility of “grandfather” crosses his mind and is dismissed as a true relative would immediately make the connection known. The secrets that Valjean obviously possesses become something of a challenge to Thenardier, foreshadowing the conflicts that happen later on.

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