Exposition (Initial Situation)
Bad Boy, Bad Boy
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.
You Say You Want a Revolution
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.
Happily Ever After, or Not
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.