Human Science

Commentary on the novel by Victor Hugo and films based on it

Cosette in Les Misérables

Les Misérables (translated variously from French as The Miserable Ones, The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, The Victims) (1862) is a novel by French author Victor Hugo, and 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—who seeks to redeem himself, the novel also examines the impact of Valjean's actions for the sake of 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.

Plot Summary

Volume I: Fantine


Jean Valjean was an illiterate tree-pruner and son of a tree-pruner from a small peasant family in Brie. Sluggish and insignificant in appearance, he was a man of enormous physical strength and agility. He was thoughtful but not gloomy position peculiar to affectionate natures. After both his parents had died, at age 25 he took his father’s place and he was left to care for his elder sister who had raised him, a widow with seven children aged one to eight. Often his sister took the meager food from his plate to feed the children. He possessed a gun and did a bit of poaching. In the winter of 1795 he had no work and the family had no bread. He stole a loaf of bread, was arrested for breaking and entering and sentenced to five years hard labor in the galleys. This horrible punishment seems to have been common at the time. Hugo sites statistics that four out of five thefts in London at the time have hunger as their immediate cause. Only once after four years he received word about his sister and her children. She was living in Paris with the youngest boy working in a printing office while the child attended school. At the end of the fourth year his turn came to escape, but he was caught after two days and sentenced to an additional three years in prison. Again he tried and failed in the sixth year and his term was extended by another five years. In the 10th year and 16th years he attempted once more and his term was again extended by three years each time bringing it to a total of 19 years.


As an ex-convict with a yellow passport, he is an outcast who cannot even get a room to sleep in. Refused all hospitality in a small town, hungry and exhausted, he is referred by an old lady to a pious bishop's house. This saintly man offers him food and a room within his own house taking no precautions for protection of himself or his valuables. Jean Valjean awakes in the night, steals the Bishop's silver plate and escapes. In the morning, police bring him back to the house in custody to return the plates. The Bishop pretends he has given the plates to Jean Valjean and tells him he forgot the silver candlesticks which he promptly gives to Jean Valjean as well. He tells Jean Valjean this silver must redeem his soul from evil. Jean Valjean leaves dazed by the first act of human goodwill towards him that he can remember. Near the next town a Savoyard, Little Gervais drops a silver coin at his foot. Jean Valjean refuses to return it to the boy, runs away frightened. Aroused from stupor, Jean Valjean realizes he has already violated the Bishop's command, feels deep regret and he unsuccessfully searches for the boy to return the coin. He finally comes to a town, M. sur M. just as a fire is blazing and rushes in to save some children. He is given a hero’s welcome and no one thinks to ask for his passport to verify his origins.


Jean Valjean develops an invention of a new manufacturing technique for glass bead, sets up a thriving business and became a prosperous and highly respected member of M. sur M. under a pseudonym, Madeleine. He spends large sums on charitable and welfare programs and is reputed as a saintly generous man throughout the district. Finally he is forced by public acclaim to accept the office as Mayor. His police inspector is Javert. A rigid law and order disciplinarian, who previously worked as guard at the galley in Toulon where Jean Valjean was interred, suspects the mayor is actually the convict Jean Valjean who has been missing for eight yrs after stealing the Bishop’s silver and a boy’s coin and failing to register with the police. Javert’s suspicion is confirmed one day when an old man is trapped and dying under his fallen cart and as a last alternative Jean Valjean risks his life to save him, demonstrating the incredible strength which Javert associated only with one other person, the convict Jean Valjean.


Fantine is a poor, beautiful, good girl orphaned without family to a life of extreme poverty in Paris who, desperate for companionship, takes a lover who leaves her with a small baby girl. The poor mother, unable to care for the child entrusts, it to a tavern keeper and his wife, the Thenardiers, agreeing to pay for the child’s support. The Thénardiers are mean and cruel and use the money provided by Fantine for their own purposes, keeping the baby Cosette in total deprivation as a servant. Unaware of this, Fantine has taken work in Madeleine’s factory in M. sur M. and sent almost all her earnings to the Thénardiers for Cosette’s upbringing. One day the mistress of the factory finds out that Fantine is an unwed mother. In order to preserve the other women from immoral influences, Fantine is fired from the job and isolated by the townspeople. She believes this has been done by the Mayor’s orders, though in fact he knows nothing of it. In utter destitution, Fantine is finally forced to sell her only two possessions, her beautiful hair and front teeth, to pay fictitious expenses demanded by the Thénardiers. She becomes a prostitute. One day she is accosted by a rich townsman and when she fights back Javert arrests her. Jean Valjean witnesses the events and Fantine’s life story forces Javert to release her and takes her home to be rescued. F is dying of her illness but feels redeemed by the warmth and goodness of the Mayor. Her one aspiration is to see Cosette. The Mayor sends money to the Thénardiers for Cosette’s return but they keep the money and the child. One day Javert tells Jean Valjean that the criminal Jean Valjean has been found in another town and is to go on trial. Javert confesses his suspicion of the Mayor and asks to be fired. Jean Valjean refuses. Jean Valjean is in extreme anguish whether to reveal his true identity to save the poor beggar thought to be himself or let the past die. Finally he goes to the court and reveals the truth and returns to Fantine. Javert comes to take him away and the fright of it kills Fantine. Jean Valjean escapes for a few days, long enough to withdraw and hide his bank fortune, before being caught and sent back to the galley at age 50+.

Volume II: Cosette

An accident on the galley leaves a sailor dangling from a rope ready to fall to his death. Jean Valjean risks his life to save the man then falls into the water himself and is believed drowned. He escapes, recovers his money and goes to the Thénardiers where he finds Cosette starved, terrified and treated like an animal. He pays them a large sum and takes Cosette, now 8yes old, to live with him in Paris. The old man and child fall deeply in love with one another, the first love either of them have ever known. After some weeks, Jean Valjean discovers Javert again on his trial and narrowly escapes seizure with Cosette taking refuge by climbing over a wall into a convent, the same convent where as Mayor he had arranged for the old man Fauchelevent to live after rescuing him from under the fallen cart. Cosette was in danger of freezing to death. In desperation Jean Valjean approached the old man in the garden. It was Fauchelevent who in gratitude to the Mayors earlier good deed offers to help and arranges for them to stay at the convent as his brother and his daughter. When Fauchelevent goes to ask the Mother for permission she commands Fauchelevent to bury a saintly nun who has just died under the convent altar in violation of law. Cosette attends the school and becomes happy. Jean Valjean finds his convent imprisonment a pure grace which drives hatred and bitterness from his being and brings humility. It completes the Bishop’s work, it is the sacred house of God to open to him.

Volume III: Marius

Pontmercy, was a cavalry officer with a highly distinguished career who Napolean Colonel and Baron for his heroism before he fell in battle at Waterloo. After the battle, Thenardier searches the dead to steal their possessions and takes a ring and wallet from Pontmercy’s body before realizing the man is still alive. He drags the body from the pile in which it is buried before running off to escape detection, thereby aiding in Pontmercy’s survival. Pontmercy’s wife had died and the upbringing of their son, Marius, had been taken over by his wife’s wealthy father, Gillenormand, a ninety year old monarchist who frowned on Pontmercy’s Bonaparist connections and had threatened to otherwise deny the child any inheritance. Thus, Pontmercy lived out his retirement in seclusion while Marius was prevented from any contact or knowledge of his father. Marius knows nothing of his father except the bad opinions of his grandfather. At his death Baron Pontmercy calls for Marius but he dies before Marius’ arrival. Pontmercy leaves a note asking Marius to find and reward Thénardier, the man who saved his life at Waterloo. Pontmercy never knew that Thénardier was robbing him on the battlefield and only inadvertently helped him survive. Marius encloses the note in a locket and wears it around his neck. Later in church Marius kneels in prayer at a place where an old man, Mabeauf, asks him to move. Mabeauf explains that he cherishes that spot because a man used to come regularly to observe a boy and old man in church. Marius learns that it was his father coming to secretly watch him and understands for the first time that his father really loved him. Secretly Marius studies Bonapartism which his grandfather distains. One day the old man finds out and is furious. Marius leaves the house and the inheritance at age 17. In the process, the locket is carried away by a servant with his old clothes and he concludes that his grandfather has taken in. He refuses several attempts by his aunt to send him money. Marius moves into Gorbeau House number 50-52, precisely the same house which JV and Cosette occupied when they first arrived in Paris and then fled to escape from Javert eight years earlier. Thenardier (Jondrette) now lives in Paris and occupy the very next room. Although he has never met his neighbors, the old woman who waited on Marius informed him that the family next door was being evicted for not paying their rent of 20 francs. Marius sent them 25 francs out of the last 27 he possessed without ever knowing it was Thenardier whom he was helping. Marius studies law and lives a meagre poor existence. He sees Jean Valjean and Cosette daily on the park, falls in love with C, tries to follow them, but they disappear from his life.


One day Marius learns that his neighbour who he doesn’t know will be evicted for not paying rent. He pays it with his last franc. Months later, the eldest daughter Eponine comes to him again asking money. He gives his last francs. Out of pity and curiosity to see his neighbour, he peers through a hole in the wall. Just then Jean Valjean and Cosette enter to give the family money and clothes and Jean Valjean agrees to return later with more. Marius overhears Jondrette, really Thénardier, plot to attack Jean Valjean on his return who Jondrette seems to have recognize. Marius runs to inform the police and to get help. He meets Javert who sets a trap. That night Jean Valjean comes and is caught by Jondrette and a bunch of ruffians who decide to kill him. Marius discovers that his neighbour is Thénardier, a criminal type who for years he searched for in gratitude for the help given to his father. Marius is paralyzed by the discovery and fails to set off the police signal. Thénardier is about to kill Jean Valjean when Marius slips a paper through the hole on which Eponine had earlier written “Police” to show she could write. The thugs decide to flee without time to kill Jean Valjean. As they attempt to leave, Javert comes. Jean Valjean escapes by the window.


Marius moves to his friends house. He sinks into the dreams of Cosette and stops work. Eponine is released from jail, finds out M’s address from Mabeuf and finds him. Marius promises her anything she wants in return for letting him where Jean Valjean and Cosette live. She does. Marius and Cosette rendezvous nightly in secret for a month deeply in love. Jean Valjean is unaware. One day Marius sees Eponine on the street. Despite his debt of gratitude to her, he feels a distaste for her lowness. The next day when he again sees her ahead of him, he changes his route to avoid meeting her. E follows him and discovers his meeting with C. That very day Cosette tells Marius that Jean Valjean plans to leave in a week for England to avoid the revolution. He carves his address on her wall. Marius goes to his grandfather to ask permission to marry. In his joy at M’s return, the old man makes an insulting proposal that Marius take Cosette as a mistress. Marius storms in pride. That night Jean Valjean discovers the address on the wall. Moments later a man (Eponine in disguise acting out of resentment for Marius’ slight) slips Jean Valjean a note ”Remove”. Jean Valjean and Cosette vacate the house for another address but Cosette gives a note to E for M. When Marius returns he finds an empty house. While in despair, a man (E in disguise) tells him to join the revolution barricade. He does. Marius arrives just as the old Mabeuf is climbing the barricade to restore the flag and be shot. Soldiers overrun the barricade. Marius fires Javert’s two pistols to save the life of little Gavroche (Thénardier’s son) and Courfeyrac his friend. Marius threatens to blow up the barricade with a powder keg. The soldiers retreat. During the attack a man (Eponine in disguise) saves Marius from being shot but is herself wounded. Before dying E confesses her love for Marius and gives the letter from Cosette in the belief Marius will soon die in the attack. Marius sends a letter to Cosette to tell her of his death through Gavroche. G leaves ready to return in time for the battle. Jean Valjean discovers a copy of Cosette’s letter to Marius by reading the reverse reflection on her blotter as it appears correctly in the mirror. Jean Valjean is filled with hatred and fear of losing Cosette. The primitive man in him emerges. He waits in the street and intercepts M’s letter from G. He is joyous at M’s announcement he will be dead soon. Then Jean Valjean dons a soldier’s uniform and heads for the barricade. He arrives, gives his uniform to a revolutionary so he can escape death in the attack, risks his life to get a mattress to protect the barricade from cannon shot. Before the last fatal attack of the soldiers, the revolutionary’s leader asks for someone to take charge of killing Javert. Jean Valjean volunteers. He takes Javert out of sight and tells him to run away. Javert, expecting Jean Valjean to kill him, is stunned in disbelief. He says,” You annoy me. Kill me.” Jean Valjean says “go”. He goes. He even tells Javert his home address where he can find him if he survives. In the attack Marius falls unconscious with wounds after fighting bravely and boldly like his father at Waterloo. Jean Valjean picks him up and escapes through the sewer system. He carries Marius for hours till he is exhausted and barely escapes drowning in the process. Finally he comes to a locked sewer gate opening on the river. He cannot move it and collapses in utter despair thinking it is the end for he has no strength to return in the other direction. Suddenly a hand is on his shoulder. Thénardier, whom he recognizes but who cannot see Jean Valjean’s face, has just escaped into the tunnel through the gate with a boy to avoid apprehension by Javert, who remains outside hoping he will r…… Thinking that Jean Valjean has stolen from Marius, Thénardier offers to open the gate for Jean Valjean in return for half of Marius’ money. Jean Valjean gives all the money, only 1⅓ frames. The gate opens. Once outside Javert grasps Jean Valjean but doesn’t recognize him. Jean Valjean tells him who he is and asks for a favour to let him take Marius home. Javert agrees. They leave M’s unconscious body at his grandfather’s. Then Jean Valjean asks to go home. Again Jav agrees. At Jean Valjean’s home, Javert remains downstairs and then disappears never to return for Jean Valjean. Javert is awakened by a great moral dilemma by Jean Valjean’s gesture of saving the life of one who hunted and prosecuted him. For the first time his mind is forced to think, to consider whether there is any greater authority than law. He senses that greater conscience in Jean Valjean, a mere galley slave , and is in total conflict. He must either turn in the man who saved him or violate law himself. He decides on the latter and commits suicide by jumping into the Seine. Marius gradually recovers consciousness and health. He is happily reconciled with his grandfather who is ecstatic at his return and finally bubbles over with previously unexpressed emotion. Jean Valjean brings Cosette to the house daily. Marriage is arranged. Marius makes a great effort to remember his escape from the barricade and to locate the man who saved him. He can do neither. Jean Valjean gives as dowry 600,000 Francs which he accumulated when he was Mayor. Marius says he would gladly give that money to find his saviour. Marius and Cosette are married blissfully and sincerely request Jean Valjean to live in Gillenormand’s house with them. Jean Valjean quietly declines. After the wedding Jean Valjean tells Marius that he is a convict and asks permission to visit Cosette once in a while. Marius offers daily visit but gradually over time he feels more distaste for Jean Valjean, an ex convict who Marius believes killed Javert at the barricade. Jean Valjean withdraws all intimate behaviour toward Cosette who is still very fond of him and puzzled by his formality. Jean Valjean insists on more formal behaviour with Cosette. He recognises several signs of M’s growing regrets about his daily visits to C. One day the fire hasn’t been lit in the meeting room. Another day the chairs are missing. Jean Valjean explains to Cosette it is on his instruction. Cosette relates to Jean Valjean some strange remarks by Marius about giving up the dowry from Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean understands. One day Cosette is not in the home when Jean Valjean comes. The next day Jean Valjean doesn’t come. Cosette sends word asking why she hadn’t seen him for a day. Jean Valjean notes she hasn’t said two days which in fact it was. He sends word he is going to travel, remains at home, refuses food and is dying. Thénardier comes to Marius to expose Jean Valjean as an ex-convict robber and the assassin of a young man in the sewer in the hope of getting money. Unintentionally, he makes Marius understand the whole truth of Jean Valjean, i.e., that he was Monsieur Madeleine the Mayor, that the inheritance is really his own, that he did not kill Javert, and that it was he who saved Marius’ life in the barricade and the sewer. Marius is filled with repentance. Marius and Cosette rush to Jean Valjean, shower him with affection and pleas for pardon. Jean Valjean dies, his prayer to see Cosette again fulfilled, and the truth of his saintliness fully revealed.



Jean Valjean (aka Monsieur Madeleine)

A poor man who steals bread for his starving sister and nieces. He is convicted, and upon being released from prison nineteen years later, is given a yellow ticket which identifies him as an ex-convict. After having his life turned around by the Bishop, he destroys his ticket and assumes a new identity. He becomes a Mayor named M. Madeline. He adopts and raises Fantine's daughter, Cosette. He dies at an old age.

Jean Valjean is an intensely physical man with a greater human potential beneath the surface that can only be brought out by an intense external pressure in the same manner that the great personality of the Count of Monte Cristo could emerge from the young sailor, Edmund Dantes, only under the pressure of betrayal, imprisonment and education by Abbe Faria.

Jean Valjean’s physicality is represented by his remarkable strength and agility and his blind repetitive attempts to escape from Toulon. Such physicality can only progress under the intense pressure of physical experience as in the galley.

Jean Valjean has the unformed (incomplete nature ) raw emotions of the physical (Level 2). He is not a man of developed vitality like Edmund who has the charm of youth and gradually acquires a deep insight into life and human nature. Throughout his life Jean Valjean never develops intimate human relationships with anyone. He confides in no one, depends on no one. No mention is ever made of a woman, romance or marriage. “He had never known a ‘kind woman friend’ or had time to fall in love. He never has a real friend. He rarely spoke and never laughed. The only relationship of any kind that he forged during his lifetime was with Cosette, a very intense attachment and possessiveness that is the first sign of the evolution of the physical into vitality.

Unlike Edmund Dantes, he does not have a developed mind. He does not think. He is simple and honest, not false or evil. Once in the galleys, he reflects on his own behavior and condemns it as blameworthy. But he also condemned society for such severe and unjust punishment. He became angry, exasperated, full of hatred and bitter resentment. He had never since infancy experienced a friendly word or kind gesture in his life, only suffering. Crushed by the weighty machinery of blind law and administration, he fell to thinking about his fate and the injustice of life. Physical suffering gave birth to mind in him. He passed through three stages of reflection -- reason, will and obstinacy – which led him to form an intense hatred of human law and society.

He is described as one who possessed a mind, he attended school in the galleys at age 40 and learns to read and write.

Bishop Myriel (aka Monseigneur Bienvenue; Bishop of Digne)

A kindly old priest who is promoted to bishop by a chance encounter with Napoleon. He convinces Valjean to change his ways, after Valjean steals some silver from him.

  • Javert: An obsessive police inspector who continuously hunts, tracks down, and loses Valjean. He goes undercover behind the barricade, but is unmasked. Valjean has the chance to kill him, but lets Javert go. Later Javert allows Valjean to escape. Unable to accept that a felon has shown him mercy, and that he in turn allowed that convict to go free, Javert commits suicide by jumping into the River Seine.

  • Fantine: A worker in Mayor Madeline's factory, she is unjustly fired by a foreman. Since she has no husband and must care for her daughter, Cosette, she begins working as a prostitute. She pays the Thénardiers owners of an inn, to care for Cosette. She later dies of tuberculosis.
  • Cosette: The daughter of Fantine, she is raised by Jean Valjean after her mother dies. She falls in love with Marius Pontmercy, and marries him at the end of the novel.
  • Marius Pontmercy: One of the main characters of the novel. In the first part is a "noble boy", then he joins the revolutionary ABC students and falls in love with Cosette.
  • Thénardiers: The thief, the bad poor. He raises Cosette in her first years.
  • Eponine: Thenardiers' daughter, is in love with Marius
  • Gavroche: Thenardiers' son and "Gamin de Paris", takes part in the revolution
  • Enjolras, leader of the revolutionary students.
  • Fauchelevent - Fauchlevent's life is saved by Valjean when Valjean is able to lift a carriage he is caught underneath. Fauchlevant later will return the favor by providing sanctuary for Valjean and Cosette at a convent, and by providing his name for Valjean's use.
  • Monsieur Gillenormand - Marius's grandfather. A Monarchist, he disagrees sharply with Marius on political issues, and they have several arguments. He attempts to keep Marius from being influenced by his father, an officer in Napoleon's army. While in perpetual conflict over ideas, he does illustrate his love for his grandson.
  • Mademoiselle Gillenormand - M. Gillenormand's daughter, she lives with her father.
  • Colonel Georges Pontmercy - Marius's father, and an officer in Napoleon's army. Wounded at Waterloo, Pontmercy erroneously believes his life is saved by M. Thénardier. He tells Marius of this debt.
  • Mademoiselle Baptistine - Bishop Myriel's sister. She loves and venerates her brother.
  • Madame Magloire - Domestic servant for the Bishop and his sister. She grumbles at the life of poverty the Bishop insists upon, and is fearful that he leaves the door open to strangers.
  • Sister Simplice - A nun who cares for Fantine on her sickbed.
  • Petit Gervais - A small boy who drops a coin. Valjean, lost in thought, puts his shoe over the coin, but doesn't hear the boy's protests. When he exits the reverie, and the boy is gone, he realizes what happened, and searches for the boy in vain.

Jean Valjean's Spiritual Development

According to spiritual tradition the soul chooses to be born in a particular set of conditions in order to make one essential progress during each lifetime. When that one lesson has been learned, it leaves the body to assimilate its experience and then reincarnate in a new life for a further progress. Rare souls can fulfill that lifetime mission and be reborn spiritually to make the progress of a second life in the same body. By that standard, Jean Valjean was a very rare soul indeed, for he acquired the experience and knowledge of four lifetimes in the span of a single birth. The story of his epic life forms that central narrative of Les Miserables, the greatest novel of France’s greatest author, Victor Hugo.

Les Miserables is a story of harrowing human travails culminating in sublime accomplishment. It is the inspiring tale of an impoverished woodcutter turned galley-slave named Jean Valjean, who rises in the eyes of those who really know him to the status of a saint. Jean Valjean grew up in rural France during the years preceding the French Revolution. After the death of his parents, at the age of 25 he was left to support his elder widowed sister and seven young children. Like so many other rural peasants, he suffered from the massive economic dislocation that accompanied the Revolution. Unable to find work to feed the family, he was caught stealing a loaf of bread and sentenced to five years hard labor in the galleys – not an unusual occurrence at a time when four out of five thefts in London had hunger for their motive. After four years he was caught attempting to escape from prison and his sentence was extended for three more years. On three more occasions his sentence was extended when he attempted unsuccessfully to escape. Finally he was released after 19 years in the galleys, bereft of human feeling, disillusioned with society, embittered and outraged against all mankind, more animal than man, a physical brute who has been socially ostracized and psychologically brutalized by years of hard labor. Yet even within the dreadful environment, his nature developed. His agile physical body pressed into relentless service acquired incredible strength. He went to prison school at the age of 40 and learned to read and write. This dull clay of unformed emotions sculpted by the humiliation of the galleys acquired an edge of intensity. A man who before he was imprisoned rarely spoke or looked at another person, even when eating with his own family, developed an inner voice that cried out silently at the injustice of humanity.

By the time he emerged from the galleys, Jean Valjean had forgotten all traces of his past life, but society mercilessly refused to forget his criminal past. Barred and spurned as an ex-convict, he was denied even paid room and board in the towns where he traveled – even so much as a place to sleep with the animals in the stables. Famished and exhausted, he was directed to the house of a saintly rural Bishop Myriel and his spinster sister. When this huge, dark specter of a man knocked at their door after sundown and explained that he was an ex-convict, the bishop’s sister hastened to turn him away, but the bishop insisted on inviting him in, offering him dinner on their best silver dishware and a bed for the night in the very next room.

Shocked that anyone would trust him in their home, he went to bed bewildered, then rose in the middle of the night, took one of the silver candlesticks from the mantel along with all the other silverware and ran off into the night. The next morning he was apprehended by the police and brought back to the bishop’s house for positive identification. When the police explained that the man was caught with precious silver, the bishop approached Jean Valjean and asked him why he had gone away with only one silver candlestick, when the bishop had asked him to take both. It is difficult to say who was more surprised, the police who were sure they had apprehended a thief or the thief himself who never in his life imagined that someone would protect him from the consequences of his own sins.

Reluctantly released by the police, Jean Valjean wandered off into the countryside, stunned by the bishop’s act of pure goodness which represented a starting contradiction of the ex-convict’s misanthropic view of humanity and the cruel injustice of life. With this single act, the bishop redeemed his soul from evil and made him repent his former bitterness. Jean Valjean emerged from the encounter with his former convictions deeply shaken. He resolved to become a man worthy of the bishop’s remarkable goodwill and generosity. In a single night, Jean Valjean gained an experience and took a decision that few people take during an entire lifetime of labored effort.

The reborn ex-convict arrived after nightfall at the town of M. sur M. where a fire had broken out in the town hall. Without thought, Jean Valjean rushed into the building and saved two children who belonged to the captain of police. Because of his heroic deed, he was welcomed by the townspeople without inquiry regarding his identity or his past. Now known as Monsieur Madeleine, he developed a formula for manufacturing low-cost glass beads, founded his own business and by this means raised the prosperity of the town and surrounding areas to unprecedented levels of prosperity. Within six short years after his release from the galleys, he rose from the ignominy of ex-convict to become the wealthiest and most respected member of the community, and was eventually forced at the insistence of the local people and the king to accept the position of mayor. He continued to live modestly, using his wealth to help the poor and nurse the sick, a expression of his deep determination to become a good man. By his acts of self-effacing goodness, he rose from social outcast to highly revered social leader with 600,000 francs in savings and came to be regarded by many as a saint.

So long as the soul aspires for progress, life continues to present challenges that compel its further evolution. Having exhausted the potential for social growth at this level, life confronted Jean Valjean with a moral dilemma that compelled him to choose between high social repute and true psychological purity. The next phase of his spiritual progress came in the form of two unlikely people – an impoverished woman turned prostitute named Fantine and a police inspector named Javert, who formerly worked in the galleys where Jean Valjean was a prisoner.

Fantine was an unwed mother who left her small daughter, Cosette, with an innkeeper named Thenardier near Paris, and came to M. sur M. seeking employment. She was given a job at Madeleine’s factory and sent most of her earnings to Thenardier for the maintenance of her daughter. When a woman supervisor at the factory discovered that Fantine was an unwed mother, she dismissed her in keeping with the owner’s effort to maintain very high morale standards in his establishment. No longer able to obtain respectable work, Fantine was eventually forced into prostitution in order to meet Thenardier’s increasingly exorbitant demand for money to take care of Cosette. Madeleine learned of her plight when Javert was in the process of unjustly arresting her. Finding that she was seriously ill, Madeleine arranged for her to be placed in his own hospital and given special care. In trying to save Fantine from the life of misfortune and social ostracism into which she has fallen, misfortune and social ostracism came to Jean Valjean through the instrumentation of Javert.

Since first coming to M. sur M., Madeleine had but two objectives – to conceal the secret of his real identity as an ex-convict and to live as a good man after the model of the bishop. Javert had long suspected that Monsieur Madeleine was none other than the former convict Jean Valjean who broke parole and stole a five franc coin from a small boy after being released from the galleys. But now Javert comes to the Mayor to confess and apologize for his unfounded suspicion, for he has just received a report that a poor woodcutter named Champmathieu has been apprehended in a nearby town of Arras, identified by witnesses as the real Jean Valjean, and scheduled for trial the following night. When Madeleine hears this news, his initial response is jubilation and gratitude to God for finally putting an end to his fears of discovery. Once Champmathieu is convicted as Jean Valjean, Madeleine will be free forever.

If only things were so simple. Life offered Jean Valjean safety and respectability, but his own conscience would not permit him to allow another man to suffer for his sins. After a tormenting night of internal debate, he traveled to Arras and revealed his true identity to the court. The following morning, Javert came to arrest him and return him to the galleys. Fantine died after securing a pledge from him to take care of her daughter Cosette. The sacrifice of all he had accomplished is complete. He has given up social respectability in deference to truth and once again become an outcast. True to his promise to the bishop, his soul has committed itself to truth and goodness at any cost.

Shortly after returning to the galleys, Jean Valjean saves the life of a man and then falls into the sea where he is presumed to have drowned. In fact, Jean Valjean survived the fall, escaped and went to the town where Thenardier was keeping Cosette. Using a small part of his great fortune to compensate the inn-keeper for raising the child, he took Cosette away with him to Paris where to begin the third phase of his life’s odyssey, as the elderly father living with his young daughter in a poor section of the city. In order to escape Javert, who is now working in Paris and comes once again to suspect his true identity, Jean Valjean escapes with Cosette to a convent where he lives the next eight years as a gardener named Fauchelevent.

When Cosette comes of age, they leave the convent and establish a household in a quiet, respectable neighborhood in Paris. Although still anxious that his true identity may one day be discovered, Jean Valjean experiences the joy of human relationship for the first time in his life. He has come to love the orphaned Cosette as his very own child and cherishes with delight every moment they spend together. He asks for nothing more in life than the affectionate companionship of this now lovely young woman who feels a deep attachment to him as her own father.

Having surrendered a paradise of social respectability for the ignominy of the galley, he has now gained a paradise of human affection and asks for nothing more. His mind and heart ask for nothing more, but his soul aspires for further progress. It comes in the form of a young man lawyer named Marius who falls in love with the beautiful Cosette whom he observes strolling in the park every day with her father. For long Jean Valjean does not suspect that the two young people have spotted each other and exchanges silent vows of attraction. When he does come to suspect that Marius is taking undue interest in their daily walks, he fears Marius may be an agent of the police, never suspecting the true motive for his attentions.

Later Cosette and Marius are able to secretly rendezvous each evening in the solitude of the garden at her house and exchange innocent vows of love for one another. When he comes to suspect discovery, Jean Valjean urgently vacates the house with Cosette before she has time to inform Marius of her departure or her destination. Heartbroken at the thought she has abandoned him, Marius joined the band of idealistic youth who raised an insurrection against the monarchy in 1832 and fought street battles to the death with the national guard.

Jean Valjean discovers the depth of the two lovers’ feelings for one another and is faced with another great dilemma. If he allows Marius to be killed in the insurrection, which is the certain result for all who heed its call, then Cosette will be his again and he can hope for many more years of blissful solitude loving her as his own daughter. But Jean Valjean’s conscience once gain prevails. He cannot bring himself to sacrifice the happiness of Cosette for his own selfish desire to possess her. He rushes to the barricade to save Marius. When Marius is shot during the final storming of the barricade, Jean Valjean scoops up his unconscious body and escapes with him through the sewers of Paris, an effort that very nearly costs him his life. He then deposits Marius safely at home without ever informing anyone that it was he who saved Marius from certain death.

Once Marius recovers from his serious wounds, Jean Valjean arranges for the marriage of Marius and Cosette. He informs Marius that he is not Cosette’s true father, but rather a former convict who has taken charge of the child when her mother died. He gives to Marius the 600,000 francs that he had earned in M. sur M., explaining that this money actually belongs to Cosette. Cosette is blissfully happy being married to the man of her dreams, a Baron and member of the French aristocracy.

Sensing Marius’ repulsion at the thought of an ex-convict as his father-in-law and frequent house guest, Jean Valjean makes the last and grandest of his sacrifices. He stops coming for his daily visits to Cosette and sends word that he will be away for some time on business. In fact, he confines himself to his small room attended only by a housekeeper, stops eating, falls ill and is approaching death – death from self-imposed abandonment, death from a broken heart.

On his death bed Jean Valjean voices one last prayer to the God who has filled his life with endless challenges for progress. He prays that he may see Cosette once more before he dies. Even before he voices that prayer, God has already heard and answered it. Marius has learned that it was Jean Valjean who saved him at the barricade and risked his own life to carry him home through the sewers. He has discovered also that Jean Valjean is none other than the highly revered Monsieur Madeleine, former mayor of M. sur M. who renounced his high social position to save a poor woodcutter from the galleys and that the 600,000 francs which Jean Valjean gave to Cosette was not her money at all, but the money earned by him while making M. sur M. so prosperous. Through these revelations, Marius discovers that his father-in-law is not an ex-convict, but a saint.

He and Cosette rush to Jean Valjean’s house and knock at the door just as the dying man is voicing his last prayer to God. When they enter and approach his bed filled with love for his self-effacing hero, gratitude for his selfless generosity and remorse for their own indifference and neglect, Jean Valjean’s heart is filled with sublime joy and he passes away in an ecstasy of thanks-giving for requited love.

Thus, in a single lifetime a soul has journey from Sudhra to outcast to prosperous Vaishya, then renouncing all he has gained outwardly for the sake of his conscience, he lives as an affectionate father forging the first real human relationship of his life. Again he surrenders his most precious possession, Cosette, for the sake of her own happiness and even risks his own life to make her happiness possible. Conscious of his imperfections and unworthiness, he withdraws to leave the lovers in the purity of the love. Finally when he has given up all his possessions, his status and his claims on other people and expects nothing more, life comes back to recognize and honor in him what none have seen before – the true goodness and purity of a his saintly soul.

Thus, in a single lifetime a man lived four lives, each life culminating in a greater challenge demanding that he elevate and purify his consciousness and reverse the central motive of his being. Each reversal opens up unprecedented opportunity and brings with it achievement and fulfillment unimaginable at an earlier stage. To the outer world, Jean Valjean’s life was one of great suffering. To a man who started out with nothing, his life was a grand adventure of self-discovery, greater consciousness and joy.

Key Events

Fantine and Tholomyes

Fantine is orphaned, uneducated and innocent. She falls in love with a wealthy young man little realizing that for him it is only an amusing fling. Ultimately she gets pregnant and he abandons her. She is good hearted but unconscious and unaware of social realities.

Fantine meets the Thenardiers

Abandoned by her lover after giving birth to his child, impoverished Fantine has left Paris with Cosette to seek employment in M. sur M., her place of birth, which happens also to be the place where Jean Val jean has built a new life for himself. She knows she cannot take her child with her, since an unwed mother will be scorned by society, so she looks for someone to take care of Cosette. She sees Madam Thenardier sitting in front of her inn watching the play of her two small, lovely girls, and decided to ask the woman to take in Cosette.

Why of all people, is she drawn to such selfish, evil-minded and cruel people? The one thing the two women have in common is that both mothers feel genuine pride and affection for their girls. Fantine also shares the desperate need for money which prompts Thenardier to take in Cosette as a way to immediately get money to pay a pressing bill that is due. They are bound by their common poverty and pride in their children.

But in other ways the are so very opposite. Fantine is kind-hearted, innocence, gentle and naive. The Thenardiers are hard-hearted, crafty, violent and ruthless. Both have failed in life and fallen. While their temperaments differ, they share a very low consciousness which is in harmony.

We can say that Fantine's error was due to ignorance. Actually in spite of her suffering, Cosette does survive her life with the Thenardiers and see happier days. Ironically, it is Thenardier who has saved Marius' father after the Battle of Waterloo and so he is responsible for the life of Marius who ultimately marries Cosette. Cosette is repaid for the brutal treatment she received in this manner.


Fauchelevent is a peasant and ex-notary, whose business was in the earlier stages of decline. He was one of the few enemies who M. Madeleine had. The man was jealous that a simple workman could rise to become a successful businessman while a lawyer was reduced to being a carter with a cart and horse as his only possessions.

One day the horse died, the cart broke and Fauchelevent became trapped underneath and was in the process of being crushed to death. Javert sent for a jack-screw, but it was unlikely to come in time. Madeleine beseeched some men in the crowd to lift the cart, but none were willing even for a generous reward. Javert taunted that he knew only one man in the world, an ex-galley prisoner, who could perform such a feat. Finally, risking exposure as well as his life, Madeleine himself crawled underneath the cart, lifted it and saved Fauchelevent's life. Fauchelevent's shoulder has been broken. Madeleine pays him 1000 francs for his broken cart and dead horse and then gets him a position as a gardener is a Paris convent.

Soon after Madeleine becomes mayor of the M. sur M. True to the rule that helping a person with ill-will for you will cause trouble, Madeleine pays a price for helping a jealous enemy. Javert comes to suspect that he is really Jean Valjean and tries to expose him to the Paris prefect police. Perhaps because Fauchelevent is really not a bad man, but only one jealous out of misfortune, Madeleine is able to escape the blow when the affair of Champamathieu distracts Javert from his suspicions.

Trial of Champamathieu

Jean Valjean has risen from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of public approbation as M. Madeleine. He is wealthy, a highly respected mayor whose reputation is known even to the King, and worshiped as a saint by his employees and many other people in the town. It is eight years since he was released from prison and has begun a new life for himself. Now he takes initiative to help Fantine, taking her into a hospital ward in his own house for special medical treatment. He has sent money to the Thenardiers and is pressing them to return Cosette to her mother. He is even prepared to go to them in person to arrange it if necessary.

Within a short time, Javert brings word about the mistake arrest and prosecution of Champamathieu as Jean Valjean. The ex-convict Jean Valjean is still being hunted after eight years for having stolen the Bishop's candlesticks and for having stolen 40 sous from the Savoyard Little Gervais. Valjean has undergone a spiritual transfiguration after the meeting with the Bishop, but society continues to pursue him for the man he was. He is now presented with a unique opportunity and challenge. If he keeps silent, Champamathieu will be convicted as Jean Valjean and thrown back in the galleys. Madeleine will be freed for ever from the curse of the past. But to gain that unimagined freedom, he must allow an innocent man to suffer.

When he learns of the trial, he is thrown into a moral quandary. For eight years he has been pursuing two goals which were never in conflict -- to conceal his past and to be a good person. For years he has risked being exposed in order to do what he thought was right. He has preserved the candlesticks and even his old clothes, mourned the Bishop on his death, interrogated every Savoyard that passed through in search of Gervais, saved old Fauchelevent's life under the eye of Javert -- always accepting that his first duty was not towards himself. (236)

Now at the peak of his success, life presents him with a conflict that can only be resolved by chosing one of the two and sacrificing the other. His conscience will not let him keep quiet. His fear of losing everything and returnign to the galleys raises a horrible spectre before his eyes. It is precisely the situation Sri Aurobindo describes [1] in which circumstances the higher consciousness presents circumstances for the transformation of the lower consciousness by voluntary submission.

VJ is paralyze by the magnitude of the decision he has to make. He is unable to think. He cannot bring himself to inflict suffering on another. He recognizes clearly that he is completely master of the situation. It is his choice. He argues that what has happened is destiny, God liberating him from his past, but feels it is monstrous to allow another to suffer for his sins. To remain silent and passive would be sinful and cowardly. For the first time in eight years, evil thoughts cross his mind. he must chose to become infamous in the eyes of man in order to win sanctity in the eyes of God or vice versa. He takes the candlesticks and places them in the fire to remove all traces of his past, but a voice calls out in protest.

He arranged to go to Arras without deciding what he will finally do. Obstacles are cast in his way at each turn. No vehicle is available that can carry him so far in time for the trial. Finally he finds a small carriage with a single horse that can make the journey. The wheel is damaged in collision with the post carriage. He is urged to return. Instead he fashions a make-shift repair and proceeds. Along the way the carriage breaks down. There is no one who can repair it. He is urged to go back or wait for two days. He feels Providence is intervening to prevent him from proceeding. Then a small boy who overhead his predicament brings a woman who has another small cart. He is forced to proceed. He learns the road is blocked and a journey that should have taken five hours takes 17. He travels without eating and arrives at Arras at 8 pm, thinking he is too late for the trial. He learns it is still going on. He is told no one else will be admitted. He sends in is name and is allowed entry.

As a result, Jean Valjean will expose himself as a former galley slave, escape arrest, adopt the impoverished child of a street prostitute as his daughter, and go into hiding for years. The misfortunes of Fantine fall heavily on her benefactor. He loses his position, his safety and his peace of mind, since Javert will pursue him wherever he goes. In exchange he gets the one thing Fantine has to offer, the goodwill and affection of another human being, her daughter Cosette.


  1. The Life Divine, p. 714

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