Victor Hugo might be a great poetic writer, but he's also a man of facts. In some cases, readers can't stand the way he follows any thought to its conclusion, regardless of whether it's important to his plot. But hey, that's how you end up with a 1,200-page novel. At the very beginning of this story, for example, Hugo hits us with the following line:
Although it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell, we must nevertheless give some account of the rumours and gossip concerning [Bishop Myriel] which were in circulation when he came to occupy the diocese (126.96.36.199).
Oh well, that's just great. Exactly what this book needed: useless rumors. But okay, there's an important lesson to take from Hugo's tone. What he's really telling us here is that we should care just as much about people as we do about being entertained by plot. In the end, Victor Hugo wants his readers to walk away from this book feeling more sympathetic toward other people, especially the poor. And what better way to have sympathy for people than to focus on how deep and interesting they are?
Les Misérables is such a gigantic book that it actually covers several genres at once. For starters, it's an example of historical fiction because its second half is based on the June Rebellion of 1832.
On top of that, it's an example of realism because it delves (and we mean delves deep) into the unpleasant aspects of human life by focusing on the wretchedness and misery of the poor. But the key thing here is that we're not talking Naturalism, which would become all the rage in France a few decades later. But where naturalism is unrelentingly, crawl-into-a-hole bleak, realism leaves room for a little sentiment—like the sickly sweet love story between Cosette and Marius. Let's just say that if Hugo had been writing twenty years later, Cosette probably would have ended up dying of tuberculosis just like her mom.
Most English readers call Les Misérables by its original French name because it's not hard to figure out what it means in English – the Misérables. It can also be translated as "The Wretched," "The Poor," or "The Downtrodden." In other words, Victor Hugo wants to make sure we know that this book is about all the people who slip through the cracks of modern society. There's one passage in particular where Hugo refers directly to the book's title:
Certainly they appeared utterly depraved, corrupt, vile and odious; but it is rare for those who have sunk so low not to be degraded in the process, and there comes a point, moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single, fateful word. They are les miserable – the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the most fallen who have most need of charity? (188.8.131.52)
In this passage, Hugo asks us to have sympathy for those who are not as well off as ourselves. Our lizard brains might want to blame them for their own terrible circumstances. Our heads might fill with thoughts like, "lazy bum" or "get a job, loser." But how much good does that do? A big fat none.
Compassion, on the other hand, and a helping hand at the right time—those can make a big difference in a person's life.
We'll let Jean Valjean's gravestone do the talking for us:
"He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,/ He lived; and when his dear love left him, died./ It happened of itself, in the calm way/ That in the evening night-time follows day" (184.108.40.206)
In keeping with Valjean's humble life, he's buried in an unmarked grave in a lonely corner of a Paris cemetery. The lines that close the book, Hugo tells us, were scribbled anonymously on top of his gravestone. They suggest that Jean Valjean had a chance to live, love, and suffer, just like all human beings, and that there's something very peaceful and natural about this cycle of life and death, just as night always follows day.
Just to drive home the whole natural cycle thing, Hugo says that even these lines of poetry were eventually washed off Valjean's gravestone by wind and rain. No matter how much we like to think we'll leave behind a legacy when we die, we all end up in the same place—so we should spend the little time we have on earth loving and helping one another.
We begin this story in the area of Digne, which is where Bishop Myriel lives. Later, we move to the towns of Montfermeil and Montreuil-sur-mer. So far, so good. But Victor Hugo saves his most vivid and spirited descriptions of setting for Paris, which is the setting for the entire second half of this book. In earlier descriptions, Hugo might mention a passing detail about France's small towns and village. But once we get to Paris, we get descriptions like this:
Paris is a sum total, the ceiling of the human race. The prodigious city is an epitome of dead and living manners and customs. To observe Paris is to review the whole course of history, filling the aps with sky and stars. (220.127.116.11)
Hugo goes on like this for several chapters, giving us one of the most in-depth portraits of Paris you'll ever find in any book, except maybe Hugo's other books, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The guy even spends several chapters just outlining the Paris sewer system. Hugo's interest in Paris borders on obsession, so you can see why he would also be obsessed with the welfare of the people living in this city. He believes that Paris is the cradle of all human civilization, which is why it's so horrifying to him that most of the city's inhabitants spend their lives starving and freezing.
Just as important as the physical setting is the historical setting. Hugo is writing in 1862, which is just about thirty years after the student revolution he describes in the second part of the book. That means his book takes place during the first three or so decades of the nineteenth century. Romantic notions of, well, Romanticism aside, the nineteenth century was not a great place to live if you were anything other than wealthy. If you were born on the streets, that's where you stayed—and good luck getting a full belly, much less an education.
Fair enough—but 1862 is still the nineteenth century, and things weren't that much better in Hugo's time. So why set it half a century earlier? A few reasons, we think:
In other words, from a few decades down the road, it's possible to explain why historical events happened the way they did. You're not just narrating things as they happen; you're creating a story about why they happened—and what we can do to make them happen differently in the future.
The most challenging thing about this book is how many times you're going to be turning the page. But along the way, the prose is totally readable and mostly plot-driven. Yes, you're going to face some huge digressions where Hugo walks away from his plot for 10 to 15 chapters at a time. But stick with him and he'll always bring you back to the action.
When we say that Victor Hugo's tone is empirical, it means that he backs up everything he tells us about his characters with evidence. When he has no evidence to give, he makes no judgment, which is not a bad strategy to use on our own judgments on other people. Whenever we say a person is this or that, we should be able to give specific examples and hard evidence. When speaking of Bishop Myriel, for example, Hugo writes:
Amid the distractions and frivolities that occupied his life, did it happen that he was suddenly overtaken by one of those mysterious and awful revulsions which, striking to the heart, change the nature of a man who cannot be broken by outward disasters affecting his life and fortune? No one can say. All that is known is that when he returned from Italy he was a priest. (18.104.22.168)
As you can see from his passage, Hugo is constantly making us aware of how limited our knowledge of other people really is. Yes, our brains are usually tempted to jump to conclusions because we like to think we can size people up immediately. But when you actually hold yourself to hard evidence, you realize how little you can actually back up.
Now usually, you'd expect an empirical tone to sound scientific and rational. But Hugo does a great job of blending poetic and descriptive language with his empirical approach to characters. And when you get both together, you get a super rich style.
It's not exactly a symbol, Shmoopers, but this is the big one: you can basically sum up the whole of Les Misérables as a stand-off between justice and mercy. On one side, you have Bishop Myriel (and later Valjean), constantly ready to give people a second chance, to expect and hope for the best, and to treat people according to their individual situations rather than according to some abstract rule.
And then, on the other side, you have Inspector Javert and all the forces of law and justice—which, when you see how it's put into action, doesn't look nearly as just as it should. Justice means rigidity, harshness, and inflexibility. It means applying the same standards to poor innocent Fantine and the unredeemable Thénardier. And it means relentlessly pursuing a good man for a minor crime he committed decades ago.
In the end, of course, mercy wins, at least temporarily. So what's the lesson? Be excellent to each other. But we think there might be something bigger going on, too. It's hard to escape the fact that the absolute best guy in the book is a bishop, or that Valjean attributes his entire transformation to the work of God.
In fact, you could make a pretty good argument that the whole book is a narrative of Christian redemption. Mercy—i.e. New Testament values of forgiving prostitutes and tax collectors and what have you—is ultimately more powerful than Justice, i.e. Old Testament values of stoning prostitutes and sending plagues and so forth. In the end, Mercy destroys Justice, and we all live happily ever after. Except Valjean, of course, who has to sacrifice himself for his children to be happy, just like a certain New Testament figure we could name.
(PSA: You can take your finger off that "send" button, because this is Hugo talking, not us! We also know that saying "Hebrew Bible" is better than saying "Old Testament," but you can bet Hugo didn't.)
When Jean Valjean finally gets out of jail, he's handed a yellow ticket. Woohoo! Ticket to freedom!
Or not. It's more like a ticket to even more misery. That's because the Yellow Ticket is a symbol of social rejection. Jean Valjean is required to carry it with him at all times in order to show people that he is an ex-convict, or else he'll be in violation of his parole and go back to jail. The problem is that this ticket makes people turn him away wherever he goes. As Valjean says to Bishop Myriel, "This is my ticket-of-leave – yellow, as you see. That's why everybody turns me away" (22.214.171.124).
Talk about massively unfair. All he did was steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and he got thrown in jail for nineteen years because of it. Now that he's served his time and is out, the so-called free world seems to be worse than jail—because at least he could sleep and eat in jail. Thanks to that yellow ticket, Valjean sadly finds out "the meaning of liberty when it is accompanied by a yellow ticket" (126.96.36.199), which is not really liberty at all.
The yellow ticket symbolizes the terrible way society treats its outcasts. It shows us that "freedom" doesn't mean a whole lot if what it means is that you're free to starve and die. The thing to remember here is that, while Valjean has a literal yellow ticket, all of the book's outcasts have some sort of "yellow ticket" that keeps them outcast. It could be as obvious as an illegitimate child or as invisible as a pair of miscreant parents, but either way, the world will eventually find it out—and then kick you out to starve and die on the streets.
No wonder people are rising up in the streets.
These two candlesticks are two of the only valuable things that Bishop Myriel has in his entire house, apart from his fancy set of silverware. We hear about these candlesticks early on, as the book says that visitors to Myriel's house "found nothing remarkable in it except two candlesticks of an antiquated design on the mantelpiece, which were presumably silver" (188.8.131.52).
In this instance, the candlesticks show just how modestly the Bishop is willing to live in order to give financial help to the poor people of his region. Myriel takes this generosity to new heights when he forgives Jean Valjean for stealing his silverware and gives him the candlesticks as a present, so long as Valjean promises to use the money to start a good, moral life.
By the end of the book, we might have forgotten about the Bishop's candlesticks, but Jean Valjean sure hasn't. In the final scene of the book, Jean Valjean passes away in the light of two candles that are mounted in these candlesticks: "He lay back with his head turned to the sky, and the light from the two candlesticks fell upon his face" (184.108.40.206). The appearance of the candlesticks here suggests that Jean Valjean has succeeded in keeping his promise to Bishop Myriel and has lived a good life.
We're mostly avoiding the big elephant in the room a.k.a. the smash hit musical based on Les Mis. But there's a reason musicals are so popular: they really know how to get their point across. And in this case, we think we can't do much better than ol' Alain Boublil. In the tear-jerker opening number, Bishop Myriel gives Valjean the candlesticks, telling the ex-con that he has "bought your soul for God."
You can't get much clearer than that. The candlesticks are a symbol of Bishop Myriel's poverty and goodness, but they're also a symbol of Valjean's redemption. They're the literal price on his soul.
When Jean Valjean first visits Cosette in the Thénardier house, he is shocked to find what a terrible life Cosette has been living. One of the first things he does is give her an expensive doll as a present. But Cosette is so used to terrible treatment that the doll takes on an almost religious significance: "Cosette gazed at the miraculous doll with a kind of terror. Her face was still wet with tears, but her eyes, like the sky at dawn, were beginning to glow with a strange new brightness" (220.127.116.11).
The doll in this case symbolizes that transformation that's about to take place in Cosette's life. It's like she's seeing light for the first time, and it's so foreign she's afraid of it. How depressing.
As a child, Cosette becomes known in her neighborhood as "The Lark," but not for the reasons you might think (like freedom and beauty). In Cosette's case, "The Lark" refers to the fact that, like a lark, she always gets up earlier in the morning than everyone else. As the book says:
She was known locally as l'Alouette, the Lark. The village people, with instinctive symbolism, had thought it a suitable name for the apprehensive, trembling little creature, scarcely more than a bird, who was always first up in that house and out of doors before dawn. But this was a lark that never sang. (18.104.22.168)
This last line about how she's a bird that never sings helps symbolize how terribly oppressed she is, even as a young girl.
It's easy to miss, but the level of all-seeing power (or omniscience) that Victor Hugo claims in this book actually changes as we move from the early chapters to the later ones. In the early chapters, Hugo steps forward and claims that he, the author, is the narrator of this story. We see this claim in passages like this:
In another essay he examines the theological writings of Charles-Louis Hugo, Bishop of Ptolémais, a great-great-uncle of the present writer [Victor Hugo], in which he proves that a number of pamphlets published in the last century under the pseudonym of Barleycorn are to be attributed to this prelate. (22.214.171.124)
In these early stages of the book, Hugo admits to having limited knowledge of his characters and only knowing about them through historical documents and stories. When talking about Bishop Myriel, for example, Hugo claims, "As to the truth in general of the tales that were told about the early life of M. Myriel, no one could vouch for it" (126.96.36.199). As the novel carries on, though, Hugo starts diving in and out of character's minds like a dolphin playing in the ocean. Just look at some of his early descriptions of Thénardier and Inspector Javert and you'll see a clear difference from this early description:
He was cunning, rapacious, indolent and shrewd, and by no means indifferent to maidservants, which was why his wife no longer kept any. (188.8.131.52).
In this case, we find Hugo much more willing to straight up tell us what his character's mentality is like, rather than leaving it to us to decide from our own observations. It's almost as if the longer the book goes, the more Hugo wants to make sure that we sympathize with the right people and the right ideas.
The book is called Les Misérables, so it's safe to say that someone is going to start off in a state of wretchedness. In this case, it's Jean Valjean. Nobody trusts an ex-con, so the poor guy has a pocketful of money that he can't spend on food or lodging because no one will take him in. Seems like there's even less freedom outside prison than there is inside it. In a desperate move, he steals all of a bishop's valuable silverware, but gets caught by the police. It looks like he'll spend the rest of his life in prison.
Just when Valjean thinks his goose is cooked, something amazing happens. The bishop totally forgives him and lets him keep all the stolen silverware. In return, the bishop wants Valjean to promise him he'll become an honest man. In this sense, Valjean is "called" to a better life by the bishop, and he answers this call loud and clear.
Not long after his encounter with Bishop Myriel, Jean Valjean moves to a town called Montreuil-sur-mer and discovers a more efficient way of manufacturing jade glass. We won't bore you with the details, but the main point is that Valjean gets super rich and becomes a factory owner. Since he has been called to a higher purpose, though, he uses most of his new wealth to lessen the suffering of those who aren't as fortunate as him. Yup, everything looks pretty great at this point.
Just when you think Jean Valjean will live happily ever after, you realize that there are a thousand pages left in this book. Hugo throws a wrench into the gears of Valjean's success, ensuring that we've got enough conflict to last. A veteran police officer named Inspector Javert recognizes Valjean from his convict days and tosses him in jail for breach of parole. Turns out that you aren't allowed to get rich and change your identity if you're an ex con in 19th-century France. Jean Valjean manages to fake his death and escape, but he's going to spend the rest of this book fleeing from Javert.
After many years of running, Valjean finally gets an opportunity to be rid of Inspector Javert once and for all. He joins a citizens' revolt in the heart of Paris and notices that Javert has been taken prisoner by the rebels, who plan on executing him. Valjean volunteers to do the deed himself. Hooray! Free at last!
Except not really, because he lets Javert go at the last second because he still lives by the moral code Bishop Myriel taught him. Javert is so confused by this kindness that he commits suicide anyway, which puts Valjean in the clear because every other cop in the world thinks he's dead.
Once Valjean is in the clear, his adopted daughter Cosette marries a young man named Marius. Valjean comes clear about his criminal origins with Marius and walks away from Cosette's life because he doesn't want to taint her happiness with his checkered past. In the end, though, Cosette and Marius come to his bed while he's dying and tell him they love him. He takes this chance to say his last goodbyes and to instruct them to enjoy all the money he has given them. In this sense, Valjean reaches fulfillment in his final moments and makes sure that Cosette will live a happy and fulfilling life.
Meet Jean Valjean. He's a paroled convict just trying to make a new life for himself … and not having a great time of it. When he steals the silverware from a too-good-to-be-true Bishop Myriel, it looks like his short-lived freedom is over. But—in the first of many surprises Hugo lays on us—it turns out that the Bishop is willing to forgive Valjean and even let him have the silver if he promises to become a good, honest man.
Which he does, with one exception: in order to build a new life, Valjean discards his parole papers and takes a new name, soon becoming rich and saint-like enough to rescue a dying prostitute and promise to save her daughter. Everything is going swimmingly until Valjean has to be true to his new self by revealing his true identity in order to save a man falsely accused of being, well, him. Die hard cop Inspector Javert is soon on his trail, while Valjean runs off to make good on his promise to save Fantine's daughter Cosette.
Whew. Got all that? Good, because this whole Valjean-on-the-run situation will drive most of the action for the rest of this book.
Valjean manages to track down Cosette and make off with her, but their little adopted family doesn't live in peace long before Javert tracks them down. Valjean is barely able to elude Javert by sneaking Cosette into a convent and living there with her for the next few years.
Once they're out, Valjean takes on yet another new identity and tries to fly under the radar. But Cosette has to ruin it all by growing up, getting pretty, and falling in love with a young man named Marius. Valjean is so worried about the attention this will bring that he decides to take Cosette and move to England to be rid of the French police once and for all.
Oh, did we mention that this whole time there's been a student-led revolt growing on the streets of Paris? Yep, (some of) the people of Paris are fed up that France is slipping back into the aristocratic ways that were supposed to have been guillotined off with the French Revolution a few decades ago. So, when Marius hears about Cosette's move to England and decides that life isn't worth living, he runs off to join a revolt that has broken out in the heart of Paris. Fortunately, Valjean finds out just in time what he's done and decides to go rescue him.
As the rebellion hits its climax, Marius is conveniently shot through the shoulder and passes out as the French army slaughters all of his rebel buddies. Lucky for Marius, Jean Valjean carries him into the Paris sewer system. Just when it looks like they'll make it, Inspector Javert catches them. Is this finally it for Valjean?
Nope. Javert lets them go because Valjean saved him from being killed by French rebels a little earlier in the book. Unfortunately, this merciful actions confuses by-the-book Javert so much that he kills himself by jumping off a bridge, since that's the only logical response to having your life saved by a convict.
Fittingly, the "falling action" of this book begins right after Inspector Javert literally falls off a bridge. Valjean is in the clear, but now that Marius and Cosette are married, he feels obligated to tell Marius about his criminal past. When he does, he gets himself banished from Cosette's life. Nice, Marius. Valjean sees little reason for living without Cosette, so he stops eating and slowly wastes away.
Marius eventually finds out that Valjean was the one who saved him from the French army, thanks to some inexpert manipulation from Villain #2, the innkeeper Thénardier who abused Cosette when she was little and keeps showing up at the most inopportune times.
Enlightened, Marius grabs Cosette and runs to Valjean's bedside. Too late! Jean Valjean dies. In his final moments, though, Cosette and Marius tell him how much he's meant to them. He also gets one last chance to tell them to love each other always. The final lines of the book tell us that Valjean ends up buried in an unmarked grave, which shows just how humble he was, even in death.
Ex-con Jean Valjean has some trouble finding lodging or food, since no one's willing to serve an ex-con. Lucky for him, he comes across the house of the nicest man in all the land, a dude named Bishop Myriel. Myriel gives him everything he needs, including all of the expensive silverware in his (the bishop's) house. In exchange, he makes Valjean promise to use the money from the silverware to make himself an honest man. It's an offer Valjean can't refuse, and he goes on to get super rich.
Now that he's rich, Valjean devotes his life to helping others. He meets a poor prostitute named Fantine and stays by her side while she dies of illness. He also promises her that he'll take care of her daughter Cosette, who's living with a stepfamily in a nearby town. It's going to be tough for Valjean to make good on this, though, because a policeman named Inspector Javert tracks him down and tosses him in jail for the rest of his life.
Just kidding! You're not getting off that easily. Jean Valjean escapes from prison, takes on a new name, and tracks down Cosette, adopting her as his own child (or grandchild, depending on the story he tells). Unfortunately, Valjean soon bumps into Javert and has to go on the run again. He hides with Cosette inside a convent and lives there for the next few years. During these years, Cosette goes from being a child to a beautiful young lady, after a couple of years in an awkward adolescent phase.
Once Valjean and Cosette leave the convent, Cosette falls in love with a young man named Marius. When Valjean finds out about the relationship, though, he gets scared that he'll lose Cosette and decides to move with her to England. Marius finds out, decides that life isn't worth living, and joins his friends in a doomed political revolt. It's not looking good for our star-crossed lovers. Are we headed toward a happy ending, or is this going to be a three-hankie tragedy?
Jean Valjean intercepts a farewell letter from Marius to Cosette and decides to join the revolt to keep Marius safe. When he gets there, he finds that the rebels have taken Inspector Javert prisoner and plan on executing him. Valjean volunteers to do the job, but he fakes Javert's death and lets him go. Not long after, Marius gets shot and Valjean saves him by sneaking him into the Paris sewer system. Inspector Javert is so confused by Valjean's kindness to him (and by his own decision to be merciful and let Valjean take Marius home) that he commits suicide.
Meanwhile, Marius returns to health and marries Cosette. Once they're married, Valjean tells Marius about his (Valjean's) criminal past. Marius suspects that Valjean murdered Javert, so he decides not to let Valjean hang around Cosette much anymore. Valjean takes fatherly love seriously and starts slowly wasting away.
At the very end of the book, Marius learns that Javert committed suicide and that Valjean is the man who saved him (Marius) from being killed by French soldiers. He takes Cosette and runs to Valjean's bedside. Too late! He says his last goodbyes and dies. Happily ever after? Guess it depends on who you ask.