Chapter 1 In early October, 1815, a man travelling on foot enters D----, and the inhabitants stare out their windows at him uneasily because of how wretched he looks (though he’s strong and robust, a little younger than 50 years old). He carries only a soldier’s knapsack, wears a long beard, and is dusty all over. No one knows where he came from. He looks like he’s been walking all day, and seems exhausted. He walks past the town hall, where he salutes the gendarme stationed outside. The gendarme watches him pass and then enters the town hall himself.
This, our first impression of the protagonist of Les Misérables, is a bit anticlimactic: he enters the scene as a nameless, wretched figure slowly making his way into the town. This introduction is important, however, as Hugo wants us to keep in mind that anyone can become wretched, and that you never know what kind of person is dressed in rags, and for what reason.
The man continues to an inn owned by the wealthy Jacquin Labarre, whose partner hotel in Grenoble was well-known and acclaimed. The man asks for food and lodging, and says he has money to pay for it. As he is warming himself by the fire, Jacquin Labarre scribbles a note and sends a servant child off to the town hall with it. The child returns with a reply, and Jacquin stands up and tells the man he cannot serve him. The man protests, and after a back-and-forth, Jacquin says that the man is Jean Valjean, and that he had suspected something upon his arrival. “Go away!” he says. Jean Valjean, head down, walks down the street, with all the passersby behind him looking on with fascination and disgust.
Initially, Jean Valjean seems to be met with cordial warmth and hospitality in his visit to D---. However, it soon becomes clear that this hospitality is contingent on the visitor conforming to certain social expectations. An ex-convict isn’t in prison anymore, but he may as well be, it seems. He’s now an object of a kind of schadenfreude (rejoicing in another’s suffering) on the part of the villagers, and is refused shelter, as well as any warmth or emotional support.
Jean Valjean approaches a public house, where men are drinking. He’s initially welcomed in to the fire, but one of the men at the table is a fishmonger who had been at Labarre’s inn earlier. He makes a sign to the tavern-keeper and they exchange a few words. Then the tavern-keeper lays his hand on Jean Valjean’s shoulder and tells him to leave. Valjean knocks at the prison door, but is told he must leave unless he gets himself arrested.
Jean Valjean’s second attempt is similarly thwarted. He goes back out from the fire into the cold, moving from light into darkness in a shift that will be contrasted by the upward journey that Hugo wants to show. Even the prison isn’t open to Valjean now—he’s in a position of the greatest vulnerability, or darkness.
At one little street, he peers through the bright-lit pane of a single-story house, and sees a merry-looking man dancing a child on his knees, while a young woman next to him is nursing another child. Jean Valjean pauses, perhaps hoping he’ll find some pity here. He knocks and asks if he could pay for a bit of food and lodging. The peasant says he wouldn’t refuse, but asks why he hasn’t been to either the inn or Labarre’s. Suddenly, he asks if he’s the man—and the woman rises and cowers with her children behind her husband. He tells Valjean to clear out and violently closes the door.
Again, light and darkness make a powerful contrast here, where light stands for happiness, family life, and safety. But all of these, while they seem so physically close, remain unattainable and inaccessible for Valjean. In fact, for these people Valjean seems to threaten the cozy, stable, safe family life that they’ve created, as the wife cowers behind her husband.
As night falls, Valjean catches sight of a hut in one of the gardens bordering the street. He climbs over the fence and finds a bed of straw within the hut, but then hears a growl and realizes it is a dog’s kennel. He turns back into the street and continues, his head drooping, towards a black horizon framed by a whitish arc of clouds atop the sky, which creates a gloomy, foreboding, effect. He passes through the Cathedral Square and shakes his fist at the church.
Even the dog in his kennel turns Valjean back out onto the street. As often happens in Hugo’s writing, the physical environment symbolizes and strengthens the mental and emotional state of the characters. The cloudy, gloomy atmosphere reflects the state of Valjean’s soul.
As Valjean rests at a street corner, an old woman comes out of the church. She asks what he’s doing, and he answers angrily that he’s sleeping. He says he has been a soldier, and in response to her question, he says he can’t go to the inn since he has no money. The woman gives him the four sous in her pocket, and, pointing to a small, low house down the street, asks if he’s knocked at that door. It’s the Bishop’s home.
By the time of this exchange, Valjean no longer has any hope that anyone will show him mercy or kindness, so he’s rude in turn to the woman. Finally there seems to be a possibility that he’ll be shown better treatment, but given Hugo’s emphasis on paradox, this life-saving shelter appears as a small, shabby house.
Chapter 2 That evening, the Bishop of D--- is working on a manuscript about religious and personal duty. Meanwhile, Madame Magloire and Mademoiselle Baptistine prepare the table for dinner. Madame Magloire is small, plump, and looks more like a peasant, whereas Mademoiselle Baptistine is regal-looking, gentler, and calmer. Madame Magloire has heard rumors about a suspicious vagabond wandering about the town. As the Bishop comes into the room for dinner, she begins the entire story over again, saying that there will surely be some kind of catastrophe in town tonight. At the moment she is saying that they need to start locking their doors, they hear a loud knock. The Bishop says, “Come in.”
This brief sketch reminds us of the characters of Madame Magloire, who here stands for the town’s beliefs and prejudices, and the Bishop, who listens to her with a benign but firm perspective, refusing to align himself with the preconceived judgments that other townspeople are all too willing to indulge in. Hugo is adept at the cliffhanger, although his process of making two distinct narratives converge takes away some of the surprise factor for the reader—if that’s what he was aiming for at all.
Chapter 3 Jean Valjean enters, lit up by the fire on the hearth and frightening the two women. He declares that he is a convict who has spent the past 19 years in the galleys. He’s been walking for four days on the way to Pontarlier. He’s been turned out everywhere because of his yellow passport. He details how he’s been treated and then says he has money and is very hungry: he asks if he may stay. The Bishop immediately tells Madame Magloire to set another place. The man advances and repeats that he’s a convict, showing his yellow passport, and saying he had been imprisoned 5 years for burglary and 14 for multiple attempted escapes. He is a dangerous man, he says, but the Bishop merely tells Madame Magloire to make the bed in the alcove, and he tells Valjean to warm himself by the fire.
Here light takes on a malevolent aspect, allowing the two women in the household to “see” Valjean clearly—though this instance of light perhaps only prefigures, for Hugo, Valjean’s future transformation. Valjean’s attitude has become hopeless, and almost combatively so. He has grown convinced of the antagonism of everyone who approaches him, and the idea of mercy, or even refraining from judgment, is alien to him. That he repeats that he’s dangerous, and a criminal, only underlines how hopeless he himself sees his case to be.
Jean Valjean’s face is filled with doubt and joy. He stammers that he hasn’t slept in a bed in 19 years, and he was sure he’d be expelled. The Bishop says he won’t charge him anything, but asks how much he’s made in 19 years: at the answer, 119 francs, 15 sous, he sighs. Jean Valjean says he once saw a bishop in the galleys, but he said Mass far off, and it was difficult to hear or understand. He says the Bishop doesn’t despise him, though he didn’t conceal who he was. The Bishop says this isn’t his house, but that of Jesus Christ, and that anyone who suffers is welcome.
Valjean’s previous experience with people of the clergy makes a stark contrast to what the Bishop has tried to do in establishing a close, horizontal, compassionate relationship with people rather than speaking to them from on high. The Bishop clearly thinks that the greater injustice is not Valjean’s initial crime, but the fact that he has been given such a small amount for 19 years of labor.
The Bishop tells Jean Valjean that he is deserving of pity, and that God rejoices at a repentant sinner. As they sit down to dinner, the Bishop notes that something is missing—Madame Magloire hadn’t laid out the whole six sets of silver, as was usual for them when they had guests. She immediately does so.
Madame Magloire may not explicitly contradict the Bishop’s wishes, but she is far more wary than the Bishop is of welcoming a known thief into her home. The Bishop thinks there’s no reason not to use their nicest silverware.
Chapter 4 The narrator transcribes a passage from one of Mademoiselle Baptistine’s letters to explain what happened at the table. Jean Valjean says that this is too good for him, but notes that others who refused to host him would eat better than the Bishop. Valjean cannot see how his host could be a bishop. The Bishop merely tells him that Pontarlier, Valjean’s destination, is good country. The Bishop had found work there when his family was ruined during the Revolution. He describes the cheese-dairies of the place, while Valjean seems to perk up as he eats. The Bishop is careful not to mention anything that might remind Valjean of his past.
From his initial taciturn and gloomy air, Valjean now becomes more talkative and cheery, even as he contrasts the Bishop’s relatively simple household to others in the town. Rather than explaining himself, the Bishop merely does all he can to make Valjean feel at home, talking about the future rather than the past, and making comparisons to his own personal history and the way he started out.
Chapter 5 The Bishop leads Valjean into the alcove, crossing through his bedroom first, as the house’s layout makes necessary. After thanking him, Valjean suddenly exclaims at how the Bishop isn’t afraid to lodge him in his house, and he laughs horribly. The Bishop says it’s the concern of God. He blesses Valjean and descends to the garden, walking and meditating on mysteries.
Once again, Valjean falls back into the self-loathing that had characterized his initial outbursts against the Bishop, telling him why he shouldn’t offer Valjean a shelter. This moment recalls the Bishop’s attitude towards Cravatte: he believed internal sin was far more dangerous than external.
Chapter 6 Jean Valjean awakens in the middle of the night. He is originally from a poor peasant family in Brie. His parents had died when he was young, and he was brought up by an older sister, who had seven children before her husband died. Valjean then spent his life working to support his sister and her children, often going without food so that the children could eat. He worked as a laborer, but one particularly difficult winter he was without work and even bread. One Sunday evening in 1795, Valjean broke the window of a bakery and ran off with a loaf of bread. He was pronounced guilty at trial and condemned to five years in the galleys. He wept as he was led off to Toulon with a chain around his neck.
Here the narrator fills in some of Jean Valjean’s past. We learn that he was not an evil individual from birth, but rather suffered through great misery, not even based on his own choices, and was forced from an early age to take on the burden of others as well. The narrator portrays Valjean’s history sympathetically, showing how material desperation can lead to crime, and how the legal punishment can then seem far more criminal than the initial crime itself.
In Toulon, Jean Valjean became only “number 24,601,” and no one troubled himself about his sister or the children. Even Valjean gradually forgot them. In his fourth year of captivity, he heard a rumor that someone had seen his sister in Paris with only her youngest child with her. She was a folder and stitcher at a printing office working long hours, and since the child wasn’t allowed in, he had to stand in the cold winter air in the school courtyard for an hour each day, unless an old porter took pity on him and allowed him to catch some sleep in her den. Valjean never again heard anything about his family.
Being identified as a number rather than as a name is a significant deprivation of dignity. In the galleys, one’s own name, identity, family, and past are no longer considered valuable or even necessary. The narrator also shows how Valjean’s conviction led to even greater suffering on the part of his family, particularly his sister’s child. The suffering of children will be a recurring motif in the book, representing the peak of injustice.
Near the end of the fourth year, Jean Valjean’s comrades helped him escape. He wandered for two days before being captured. He escaped three more times, and had years added to his sentence each time. He was finally released in October 1815 after 19 years—just for stealing a loaf of bread. He had entered sobbing, and emerged gloomy and impassive.
Valjean’s desperation leads him to take ever more risky and dangerous steps, which exacerbate rather than resolve his situation. The narrator shows how prison, far from reforming people, actually only hardens them into true criminals.
Chapter 7 The narrator states that it’s important to look into Valjean’s soul, since society creates such men. He was not perfect, but withdrew into himself and put himself on trial. He recognized that he was not innocent, and should not have stolen, but he also asked himself whether the law hadn’t been abused in the severity of his judgment. He wondered how society could have the right to keep the poor forever between not enough work and too much punishment. Ultimately, he condemned society and began to hate it. Human society had only harmed him, and he had come to believe that life is war and full of hate. He attended the school in the galleys, believing that he could strengthen his hate through intelligence. Thus the more he learned, the darker his soul became.
The narrator takes us through Valjean’s own moral questioning, showing again how prison can transform someone from an imperfect but average person into someone with a hardened heart. The questions Valjean poses to himself are initially hesitant—he is willing, at first, to accept some blame for the situation—but over time, and largely due to his punishment, he loses this sense of balance and fairness and turns against society entirely. Now society is not something to be reformed but rather something to be fought against.
But the narrator stresses that Valjean was not evil, and asks if man, created good by God, can be turned wicked by man. Some might, in studying Valjean, do away with all hope that his soul might be good deep down. The narrator notes that Valjean himself had little idea of how he arrived at a point of such darkness. His multiple attempts at escape were impetuous, not based on reason.
The narrator again returns to one of the book’s major moral questions: what it means to be good or evil, and if this can be changed. It also asks how people arrive at such a point, and who might be to blame for this journey from light to darkness, as it were.
Jean Valjean had enormous physical strength, the strength of four men, and became notorious for this, as well as for his ability to climb vertical surfaces. He grew glum and quiet in prison, vaguely aware that there was such a thing as civilization, a distant splendor that only made his own life blacker. In general, through his time in the galleys, he became slowly capable of evil action, both instinctive and premeditated—a very dangerous man. Upon his release he had not cried for nineteen years.
Valjean’s physical strength will be crucial later in the book, but for now, we can note how the galleys taught him to use this quality for evil rather than for good. Valjean’s lack of tears represents the gradual hardening of his soul against moral improvement or goodness—both qualities that, ironically, he had shown before entering the galleys.
Chapter 8 The narrator compares Valjean to a man fallen overboard, sinking and rising again to the surface, his shouts and suffering going unheeded. He feels he is being pulled into the abyss, but continues to struggle and swim, his strength slowly ebbing. God and men seem to be nowhere, and he is paralyzed by the cold of the sea. The sea is the “social night” created by unfair justice. The sea is full wretchedness.
Again, the narrator points to night and darkness as emblematic of emotional and mental turmoil, and the temptation of evil. This evocative simile shows Valjean to be a man who’s not entirely consistent with himself but rather someone who struggles internally with who he is.
Chapter 9 Jean Valjean had been overwhelmed by the idea of liberty, but soon realized that a convict’s yellow passport is no guarantee of true liberty, and he felt deeply bitter. The 171 francs he had calculated that he had earned in the galleys were reduced for taxes and days off to 109, and he felt robbed. He attempted to join various labor teams, but was denied each time once he handed over his yellow passport.
The narrator paints a disapproving picture of the ex-convict’s place in society. Rather than reforming people, as prisons are supposedly meant to do, they trap convicts into a system from which they cannot emerge, as they are never able to redeem themselves for their crimes even after they are released.
Chapter 10 We return to the Bishop’s house, where Jean Valjean is awakened by his overly comfortable bed—he isn’t used to it. He feels troubled, and his thoughts continually return to the six sets of silver forks and spoons placed on the table. They haunt him, and he knows they’re worth double what he made in nineteen years in the galleys. After remaining still and thoughtful, he suddenly sits up and puts his shoes on. After a few more moments, he takes them off again. Then the clock strikes half past three. He rises again, listens for any noise, and then grabs his knapsack and slips downstairs, through the Bishop’s open door.
After a long flashback in which the narrator explains how Valjean has arrived at this moment, we return to a scene in which Valjean’s conscience is once again tormented and split against itself. Because of the narrator’s earlier explanations, we’re meant to sympathize with Valjean’s torments rather than condemn him for being tempted to betray the Bishop’s generosity.
Chapter 11 Valjean slowly pushes open the door, shuddering at the noise of the hinge. His blood pumping, he imagines the household descending on him. But all is silent, and he slips into the Bishop’s bedroom. The Bishop’s face is illuminated and seems satisfied, hopeful, and content—almost divine. These emotions terrify Valjean and his uneasy conscience. He is vaguely aware of something sublime about the Bishop’s face, and he seems torn. But after a few moments, taking off and then replacing his cap, Valjean steps rapidly past the bed, opens the cupboard, seizes the silverware basket, and returns to the oratory. He opens the window and jumps into the garden, then leaps over the wall and flees.
We don’t know what is illuminating the Bishop’s face, but this light underlines once again his goodness and clear conscience. Rather than being healed by such illumination, Valjean finds it excruciatingly painful, just as a sudden light shone into the darkness can cause pain and blindness. Valjean continues to struggle internally with what to do, but the social and moral system he learned in the galleys wins out, so that he leaves like a thief and not through the front door.
Chapter 12 The next morning, Madame Magloire rushes into the garden to inform the Bishop that the silverware has been stolen. The Bishop calmly tells her that he had been wrong to keep the silver for so long; it belonged to a poor man far more than to him. As he eats breakfast, a group of gendarmes arrive with Jean Valjean, who is hanging his head. But the Bishop asks why they’ve brought him back: he had given the silverware to Valjean as a gift. He tells the gendarmes to release Valjean, but before they do, he tells Valjean that he’d forgotten the silver candlesticks: the Bishop hands them to Valjean, who’s trembling. Then he tells Valjean that he must never forget that he’s promised to use this money to become an honest man. He’s bought back his soul and now gives it to God, he says.
Madame Magloire seems to feel vindicated by the theft, as if it proved that she was right to judge and condemn Valjean. But the Bishop wants again turns this judgment on its head, condemning himself instead for his desire to keep the silverware rather than giving it to someone in greater need. Throughout this exchange, Valjean is physically overwhelmed: he trembles and gasps at the Bishop, whose mercy he simply cannot wrap his head around. Valjean never actually promised what the Bishop says he did—this is a way for the Bishop to ask Valjean to reform.
Chapter 13 Jean Valjean hurries out of town, feeling vaguely angry. He is simultaneously touched and humiliated. In the midst of his raging thoughts, he sees a small Savoyard (from Savoy) boy singing and walking along the path, playing with coins in his hand, including a 40-sou piece. He tosses up the coins and that piece rolls towards Valjean, who places his boot over it. The child, who says he’s named Gervais, asks for his money. Valjean drops his head and remains silent, and Gervais grows increasingly distraught. Troubled, Jean Valjean doesn’t respond to his pleas, until suddenly he yells at the boy to take off. The boy runs off, sobbing.
Valjean now finds himself in emotional turmoil. He’s set himself against society, but now finds that a member of that society—a clergyman, no less—has saved him. However, Valjean still reflexively retains the criminal instincts and resourcefulness that he’s learned over 19 years in the galleys. As he drops his head, this bodily memory jars with the new way of life he’s just glimpsed (from the Bishop), but the former, reflexive reaction wins out this time.
The sun has just set, and Jean Valjean begins breathing irregularly. He steps forward mechanically and catches sight of the 40-sou piece shining on the ground. He asks himself what it is and recoils, finally seizing it and standing back up, shivering like a terrified wild animal. Valjean runs after the child and shouts out his name. The landscape is deserted and an icy wind is blowing. Valjean sees a priest on horseback, and asks if he’s seen a small child. Valjean gives the priest several five-franc coins, saying it is for the poor, and then asks wildly again about Gervais before declaring that he’s a thief and must be arrested. The priest merely sets off again in alarm.
Valjean looks at the money piece as if he doesn’t know what it is or what he’s done. This is another piece of evidence for the idea that his theft from little Gervais was no more than a knee-jerk reaction based on almost two decades of learning this certain kind of skill. It’s through looking at the evidence itself that Valjean seems to be shaken out of his reverie and is suddenly able to understand what he’s done.
After running off in Gervais’ direction, Valjean wanders all night calling out to him, and finally breaks down and cries for the first time in 19 years. When he had first left the Bishop’s house, he had hardened himself against the priest’s words, perceiving indistinctly that the words were the greatest attack of his life, and if he yielded he would have to renounce the hatred that had defined him for so long. This possibility filled him with anxiety. He could not have said why he robbed Gervais, except that it was the part of him that remained an instinctual beast, while his intelligence was still struggling. Only afterward did he realize that he had just done something of which he was no longer capable.
Valjean’s tears serve to represent the first step towards softening his heart and allowing himself to glimpse another kind of relationship between himself and society at large. If the Bishop had judged and condemned him, his own carefully cultivated judgment of society would not have changed, but now he’s forced to come to terms with how he lives. The paradox of doing something of which he is no longer capable suggests Valjean’s excruciating tension between intelligence and animal reaction.
Now Valjean sees himself properly, and he is horrified. He compares the vision of himself to that of the Bishop, and he himself seems to shrink and then vanish in the Bishop’s magnificent light. As Valjean weeps, light enters into his soul, and he is able to examine his life that now seems to him horrible. No one knows where he goes after this, but the narrator confirms that someone did see him later that night kneeling in front of the Bishop’s residence in prayer.
Earlier the Bishop’s illumination had been almost painful for Valjean to see. Now it is excruciating in a different way, in that it contrasts so strongly against his own darkness. Still, the narrator’s words suggest that Valjean can now access some of the Bishop’s light, which allows him to “see” himself and his life more clearly.