Les Miserable is an extremely difficult novel to summarize because of its length, many sub-plots, the large time span of events (basically the main story occurs during the restoration of Louis XVIII until the reign of King Louis-Phillipe), and many of its chapters are actually short collections of essays, which interrupts and transitions the main story during in between time jumps and setting relocations, but which otherwise are unrelated to the main plot and could be excluded from the novel without any deficiency.
Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, who breaks his parole in order to escape from the relentless shadow of social condemnation. After more than twenty years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry children and multiple attempted escapes from forced labor, he finds himself in a world that continues to fear and scorn him for being an ex-convict. The bishop Myriel, known for his good works and charity to the poor, gives Jean Valjean a place to stay and a meal when everyone else turns him away. After everyone heads off to bed, Jean Valjean’s resentment towards the world overcomes him and leads him to steal the bishop’s silver candlesticks. The police catch him and bring him back. However, the compassionate bishop spares him from prison by claiming the silver was actually a gift he gave Jean Valjean, hoping an act of mercy will encourage him to change his ways and live a righteous life. After much soul-searching, Valjean decides to become an honest man and live a Christian life helping the poor, following the example of the bishop. Valjean assumes an alias and becomes a successful businessman, whose good deeds promote him to the position of the town’s mayor. However, the local police inspector, Javert, suspects the truth about the mayor’s sordid past. Jean Valjean spends the rest of the book struggling to live a righteous life, find some happiness in a world that condemns him, and hide from the relentless Javert.
Intersecting this story is also the one about the tragic and hapless Fantine, a beautiful young woman, who is duped by a rich bourgeois student into a short-term love affair that produces an illegitimate child named Cosette. On the cusp of poverty, Fantine has no choice, but to leave her daughter with an unscrupulous innkeeper named Thernadier. Fantine’s luck only gets worse after she is dismissed from her job when someone learns about the existence of her illegitimate child and the only recourse left to her is prostitution. Eventually the kind-hearted Jean Valjean takes it on himself to recover Cosette and raise her as his own child. Cosette begins a new life with Jean Valjean and falls in love with a young idealistic student named Marius, all of which leads up to the events of the June Rebellion in 1832 in which students, workers, and dissidents participate in a failed insurrection against the regime of King Louis-Philippe in an attempt to establish a new republic.
Hugo hammers home the point with numerous examples that poverty leads to spiritual and social degradation. It is difficult to be a virtuous person when you’re poor and starving. Jean Valjean becomes a criminal due to starvation and poverty. Fantine becomes a prostitute because she cannot find a respectable job after her secret becomes known in town. The fate of Fantine and Jean Valjean reveals that it is hard to find a place in society once you’ve committed a social transgression, which then leads to further poverty, and creates a cycle of further degradation and inducement to crime. The prison system, far from correcting men, makes them worse and leads to recidivism, an issue not only of Hugo’s day, but one that still plagues our own. Hugo summarizes the major point of his novel as follows:
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hell on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
In this sense, Les Miserables can be seen as a cry to arms against the social injustices of poverty, the unfair social order in general, and harsh prison systems that merely degrade people further and fail to provide a solution to the problem of crime. What makes Jean Valjean remarkable is that he manages to overcome this cycle, suggesting that Hugo sees a possible solution to these problems in a kind of Christian humanism that emphasizes Christ’s teachings of helping the poor and one’s fellow man. Hugo isn’t content, though, to provide a simplistic worldview where adopting a Christian ethos forever transforms one into a righteous man.
After changing his ways, Jean Valjean faces numerous tests of conscience when his selfishness and happiness pits itself against selflessness and sacrifice. The first challenge occurs when a man named Champmatheiu is arrested on flimsy grounds and is falsely identified as Jean Valjean. Valjean must decide whether to let this man take his place in jail and continue to live safely under his new identity or confess the truth and go back to jail, but save an innocent man. The battle of conscience occurs again later in the novel when Cosette’s budding relationship with Marius threatens Valjean’s newfound happiness as her adopted father. In each of these instances, Valjean must sacrifice his happiness to either the ghosts of the past or the inevitable future. Valjean struggles to realize that material happiness of the moment is fleeting. The novel suggests that philosophers and Christianity are correct in that true happiness can only be found by being virtuous and possibly by reaching heaven as a reward for living such a virtuous life. There is no permanent happiness in this world for Jean Valjean, especially not with the type of unfair social system in place, but perhaps there will be in the next world and perhaps he can find happiness by helping others to be happy.
During these battles of conscience Valjean will often initially go through torturous rationalizations to convince himself the selfish action is actually the right one and justified. Hugo does a wonderful job at exploring the human capacity to rationalize our own immoral actions. In addition to these episodes of internal conflict for Jean Valjean, the character of Thernardier offers a powerful example of this sort of rationalization. In a scene, where Thernardier attempts to rob Jean Valjean, a tied-up Valjean accuses the former innkeeper of being a scoundrel, which leads Thenardier into an elaborate defense of his own actions.
“A scoundrel, is it? That’s what you rich call people like me. It’s true I’ve failed in business, I’m in hiding, I’ve no money in my pocket—so that makes me a scoundrel. I haven’t eaten for three days, so I’m a scoundrel! You keep yourselves warm with the best boots money can buy and fur-lined coats fit for an archbishop. You live in a first-floor apartment with a hall-porter, you stuff yourselves with truffles and asparagus at forty francs a bunch and green peas in January; and if you think the weather’s cold you look in the paper to see what the temperature is by Chevalier’s newfangled thermometer. But us, we’re our own thermometers, we don’t need to consult the newspaper to know how cold it is. We feel the blood freezing in our veins and we say, ‘’There is no G-d!’ And you come into the pig-sties we live in—pig-sties, that’s what they are—and call us scoundrels. But as under-gods, we’re going to chew you up, we’re going to make a meal of you! Let me tell you this, my fine-feathered millionaire, I was a man in a good way of business, once a licensed innkeeper, an elector, a respectable citizen—and I dare say that’s more than you can say. . . . And he talks to me as though I was a pickpocket! (683).”
Despite being only moments away from an attempted robbery, possibly even a murder, Thenardier’s words here reveal that he views his actions as justified and morally good. Even though his actions are reprehensible, he views himself as being a good guy and in the right. This is one of the ways Hugo complicates his narrative beyond being a polemic against the ill effects of poverty. Thenardier’s crime cannot be justified here as a response to the rich oppressing him; poverty isn’t an excuse for criminality, even if most crime stems from poverty and desperation. It is an ironic scene because Jean Valjean started as an impoverished worker who made his fortune later, while Thenardier owned an inn, which failed due to his mismanagement, and the reader meets him in the novel when he was a “licensed innkeeper” and supposedly upstanding citizen, but witnesses a man who is just as much a scoundrel. When Valjean committed his crime of stealing a loaf of bread it was for the sake of feeding his sister’s children, while Thenardier in the novel sells his own children to relieve his poverty. Hugo seems to be suggesting here that clearly some people are more naturally good than others prior to the exacerbating effect of social factors. Society is unfair and should be criticized, but just because it is unfair doesn’t excuse all bad behavior.