Jean Valjean redirects here. For the novel by Solomon Cleaver, see Jean Val Jean. For the musical theatre production, see Les Misérables (musical).

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Les Misérables (translated variously from French as The Miserable Ones, The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Victims) (1862) is a novel by French author Victor Hugo. Among the best-known novels of the 19th century, it follows the lives and interactions of several French characters over a twenty year period in the early 19th century that includes the Napoleonic wars and subsequent decades. Principally focusing on the struggles of the protagonist—ex-convict Jean Valjean—struggling to redeem himself, the novel examines the impact of Valjean's actions as social commentary. It examines the nature of good, evil, and the law, in a sweeping story that expounds upon the history of France, architecture of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, law, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love. Hugo was inspired by the real-life criminal/policeman Francois Eugene Vidocq, and split the personalities into the two main characters in his novel. Les Misérables is known to many through its numerous stage and screen adaptations, of which the most famous is the stage musical of the same name, commonly known as "Les Mis" (pronounced /Template:IPA/).

Plot summaryEdit

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Les Misérables contains a multitude of plots, but the thread that binds them together is the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, known in prison only by his prisoner number, 24601, who becomes a force for good in the world, but cannot escape his past. The novel is divided into five parts, each part divided into books, and each book divided into chapters. Each chapter is relatively short; usually no longer than a few pages. Nevertheless, the book in its entirety is quite lengthy by usual standards, well exceeding twelve hundred pages in unabridged editions. Within the borders of the novel's story arc, Hugo fills many pages with his thoughts on religion, politics, and society, including his three lengthy digressions, one being a discussion on enclosed religious orders, another being on argot, and most famously, his epic retelling of the Battle of Waterloo.

After nineteen years of imprisonment for stealing food for his starving family, the peasant Jean Valjean is released. However, he is required to carry a yellow ticket, which marks him as a convict. Rejected by innkeepers who do not want to take in a convict, Valjean sleeps on the street. However, the benevolent Bishop Myriel takes him in and gives him shelter. In the night, he steals the bishop’s silverware and runs. He is caught, but the bishop rescues him by claiming that the silver was a gift. The bishop then tells him that in exchange, he must become an honest man.

Six years later, Valjean has become a wealthy factory owner and is appointed mayor of his adopted town, having broken his parole and assumed the pseudonym of Père Madeleine to avoid capture by Inspector Javert, who has been pursuing him. Fate, however, takes an unfortunate turn when another man is arrested, accused of being Valjean, and put on trial, forcing the real ex-convict to reveal his true identity. At the same time, he meets the dying Fantine, who had been fired from her job at his factory and has resorted to prostitution. She has a young daughter, Cosette, who lives with a corrupt innkeeper and his selfish, cruel wife. As Fantine dies, Valjean, seeing in Fantine similarities to his former life of hardship, promises her that he will take care of Cosette. He pays off the innkeeper, Thénardier, to obtain Cosette. Valjean and Cosette flee for Paris. Once in Paris, they find shelter in a convent. Not allowed to search the convent, Javert is unable to find the pair.

Ten years later, as Cosette and Valjean are leaving the convent, angry students, led by Enjolras, are preparing a revolution on the eve of the Paris uprising on June 5–6, 1832, following the death of General Lamarque, the only French leader who had sympathy towards the working class. They are also joined by the poor, including the young street urchin Gavroche. One of the students, Marius Pontmercy, who has become alienated from his family because of his liberal views, falls in love with Cosette, who has grown to be very beautiful. The Thénardiers, who have also moved to Paris, lead a gang of thieves to raid Valjean’s house while Marius is visiting. However, Thénardier’s daughter, Éponine, who is also in love with Marius, convinces the thieves to leave.

The following day, the students revolt and erect barricades in the narrow streets of Paris. Valjean, learning that Cosette's lover is fighting, joins them in order to protect Marius. Éponine also joins to protect Marius, and ends up taking a bullet for him and dying happily in his arms. During the ensuing battle, Valjean saves Javert from being killed by the students and lets him go. Javert, a man who believes in absolute obedience of the law, is caught between his belief in the law and the mercy Valjean has shown him. Unable to cope with this dilemma, Javert kills himself. Valjean carries off the injured Marius, but many others, including Enjolras and Gavroche, are killed. Escaping through the sewers, he returns Marius to Cosette. Marius and Cosette are soon married. Valjean loses his strength to live, since Cosette no longer needs him. Marius is convinced Valjean is of poor moral character and steers Cosette away from him. Marius learns of Valjean's good deeds too late and rushes to Valjean's house, where he lies dying. Valjean reveals his past to the pair, and then dies.

Major themesEdit


Les Misérables is, among its many other themes, a discussion and comparison of grace and legalism. This is seen most starkly in the juxtaposition of the protagonist, Valjean, and the apparent antagonist, Javert.

In the beginning of the book when Valjean breaks away from prison after serving 19 years, all Jean Valjean knows about is the judgment of the law. He committed a crime, he suffered the punishment — although he feels that this is somehow unjust. In a way, his view at this point is similar to that of Javert, with the exception that Javert does think the punishment just. Nevertheless, both operate on a basis of deeds and rewards, or legalism: in the musical adaptation of the work, this is expressed very well in the solo "Stars", with the lines:

And so it has been, and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price

It is from the starting-point of legalism that the two worldviews start to separate. Valjean's first encounter with grace occurs after he has found himself rejected because of his status as an ex-convict, and is forced to take refuge with a bishop for the night (see synopsis). He runs off with the bishop's silver, is caught and returned, but the bishop not only says that the silver was a gift, but famously also gives him the two silver candlesticks from his table. This treatment that does not correspond to what Valjean "deserves" is a powerful image of grace.

Throughout the course of the novel, Valjean is haunted by his past, most notably in the form of Javert. It is therefore fitting that the greatest triumph of grace in the book is between Valjean and Javert. After Javert is captured going undercover with the revolutionaries, Valjean volunteers to execute him. However, instead of taking vengeance as Javert expects, he sets the policeman free. This can be seen as the ultimate triumph of grace in Valjean's life; however, the author also makes the point that legalism can become entrenched: Javert is unable to reconcile his black-and-white view with the apparent high morals of this ex-criminal and with the grace extended to him, and commits suicide.

Grace is seen as a positive moral force in Valjean's life. Whereas prison has hardened him to the point of stealing from a poor and charitable bishop, grace frees him to himself be charitable to others — as in the case of Fantine, accused of prostitution, and the innocent man falsely accused of being Jean Valjean (see the synopsis). It also teaches him to react differently to his mistakes: having ducked responsibility when Fantine is fired by his foreman, Valjean proceeds to try to right the wrong. Despite his selfishness in guarding Cosette and keeping her from Marius, when he reads Marius's last note to her he goes to the barricades to save Marius. The reforming nature of grace as opposed to the embittering nature of legalism is a major theme in Les Misérables and in other Hugo works.


English translationsEdit

At least four English translations of the novel exist, by:

  • Charles E. Wilbour. The first translation, published in 1862, only months after the French edition of the novel was released.
  • Isabel F. Hapgood. This version is in the public domain and is that offered by Project Gutenberg.
The 1887 edition printed by Thomas Crowell and Co, New York is complete in one volume with various pagings to each section plus a 2 page index and an additional 2 page advertisement in the back of the book including a full page for Anna Karenina. 7 1/2" X 5" Brown hardcover with gilt title on spine and light green flowered endpapers. Frontis illustration plus 4 additional plates by F Meaulle.
  • Norman Denny. Published 1976. This edition is considered to be unabridged; however, in Norman Denny's introduction, he states that several of the longer passages that did not directly relate to the plot were removed.
  • Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. Published on March 3, 1987 by Signet Classics, based on the Wilbour edition with updates, generally considered the most readable of current translations. Paperback ISBN 0-451-52526-4

Arabic translationsEdit

Several translations of the novel exist, notably by:

  • Munir al-Baalbaki — both abridged and unabridged copies (the latter in five volumes) exist. They were published for the first time in 1955 in Beirut, Lebanon.
  • Hafiz Ibrahim — an abridged translation which appears in two small volumes.


Film adaptationsEdit

Adaptations in other mediaEdit

In 1935, Solomon Cleaver published a short English-language adaptation titled Jean Val Jean. It remains a popular children's version of Les Misérables.

In 1937, Orson Welles wrote, produced and directed a seven-part series for radio. Welles himself narrated the story and played the part of Valjean. The series co-starred Martin Gabel as Inspector Javert, and featured his then wife Virginia Nicholson Welles as the older Cosette, with Gwen Davies (young Cosette), Alice Frost (Fantine), William Johnstone (Marius), and in other roles, Frank Readick, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, and Everett Sloane, many of whom would perform for The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

In 1980, a musical (see Les Misérables (musical)) opened in Paris which has gone on to become one of the most successful musicals in history. It was written by the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and the librettist Alain Boublil.

A versus fighting game, Arm Joe, was made in 1998 by a Japanese game developer known as Takase. The name is pronounced Āmu Jō, which is a pun on the title of Les Misérables in Japanese ("Ā, Mujō," meaning "Oh, Cruelty"). The game incorporates the major characters as they appear in the musical, namely Jean Valjean, Enjolras, Marius, Cosette, Eponine, Thénardier, and Javert—as well as a policeman, a robotic clone called Robojean, an embodiment of Judgement, and a stuffed rabbit.[1]

In 2001, BBC Radio 4 produced a 25-part radio dramatisation, with a cast of 27 featuring Joss Ackland narrating, Roger Allam as Valjean, and David Schofield as Javert. (Allam also originated the role of Javert in the English language version of the Boublil/Schönberg musical.)

In May 2001, François Cérésa published Cosette, or the Time of Illusions, a sequel to Les Misérables. Victor Hugo's descendants attempted to have the book banned, condemning it as a money-seeking enterprise and an attack on Hugo's work (more subjective offences aside, it is undeniable that Ceresa retconned a key scene in Hugo's novel to avoid the death of a character he wanted to use in his novel). Victor Hugo's heirs and the Société des gens de lettres lost the first trial [2] but won in appeal [3].

The plotline of Terry Pratchett's 29th Discworld novel, Night Watch, is inspired by uprisings such as the one in Les Misérables.

There has also been an Asian adaptation from a school located in Hong Kong. King George V School (King George the Fifth School) was the first ever school to perform 'Les Misérables' in Asia.

A Les Misérables adventure game [4] is due for release Christmas 2007.

Cultural referencesEdit


Jean Valjean's convict number was 24601. Popular myth states that the number was chosen by Hugo because it was the date that he was conceived (24th of June, 1801). It is only known that he was born on Feb 26, 1802, approximately 8 months later. As an homage to the novel, the number often appears in popular culture. Many characters, most notably Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, Oscar Bluth from Arrested Development, and the player character from the computer game System Shock, have the prisoner number 24601. The number has been referenced in many other instances.

Musical AdaptationEdit

The musical adaptation has also made a lasting impact on popular culture because of its immense popularity. Episodes from the television shows South Park, Family Guy, and Animaniacs have all parodied the musical.


  • During the American Civil War, many Confederate soldiers carried the book with them to read. Most could not pronounce the name correctly, so they would just say "Lee's Miserables", a reference to General Robert E. Lee.
  • The Australian alt-rock band TISM has a member called Les Miserables. 'Les' is pronounced as though his first name is 'Leslie'.


  • Many dates of Valjean's life coincide, almost exactly, with the dates in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Valjean's 19-year imprisonment is an example, it matches with the rise and fall of Napoleon (from 1796 to 1815); also Valjean's escape attemps are in the same years as some of Napoleons more important battles. Both are born in 1769, but Napoleon dies already in 1821, Valjean only in 1833. 1821 on the other hand, is the year the Bishop of Digne died.
  • Both Valjean's prison numbers refer to important dates in Hugo's own life: 24601 is the 24th of June 1801, presumably the date Hugo was fathered (This is untrue; see the above section on "Cultural References" for a rebuttal). 9430 is september/1843/abyss. In september 1843 Hugo lost his oldest daughter Leopoldine who drowned (as Valjean will later pretend to)
  • There is a story that Victor Hugo, wanting to know how sales of the novel were going, sent his publisher a telegram containing just one character: "?" He received a fitting response, also by telegram: "!" [5]

External linksEdit

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ca:Els miserables cs:Bídníci da:Les Misérables de:Die Elenden es:Los miserables fr:Les Misérables ko:레 미제라블 it:I miserabili he:עלובי החיים nl:Les Misérables ja:レ・ミゼラブル nn:Les Miserables pl:Nędznicy pt:Les Misérables ru:Отверженные (роман) sv:Samhällets olycksbarn zh:悲惨世界

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