This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Monsieur Myriel is an unusual priest for this time period in France. He serves the poor and gives up nearly all income and pleasures in life. The exception is a set of silverware.
Jean Valjean is a convict recently released from prison after 19 years. The crimes leading to his imprisonment: stealing a loaf of bread and then trying to escape. He travels to the town of Digne, and as the law requires, must show his papers. Because of his past crimes, the inns refuse to serve him. No individuals will let him into their homes, despite his ability to pay. Monsieur Myriel welcomes him into his home.
Jean Valjean does not know how to react to kindness. He has met nothing but harsh treatment in his life. He steals the silverware.
Monsieur Myriel does not call the police, but Jean Valjean is arrested. The police bring Jean Valjean to Monsieur Myriel. The priest lies for the thief, but reminds him that the silverware comes at a price, and now Jean Valjean must live for good.
Jean Valjean spends time in the country, bewildered, warring within himself. The battle is for his soul. He comes across a chimney sweep and steals the boy’s coin in this confused, torn state. Eventually Jean Valjean decides to be a force for good. He travels to Montreuil-sur-mer, where he keeps his true identity a secret. He takes on the name Monsieur Madeleine and uses the money from the silverware to start a factory. It improves the economy of the entire area. He gives most of his wealth away, stresses honesty among his workers and is so beloved the town forces him to take the position of mayor though he doesn’t want it. In the meantime, a young girl named Fantine is traveling to Montreuil-sur-mer.
Fantine is coming from Paris. She has an illegitimate daughter, Cossette. The father has abandoned them. She is from Montreuil-sur-mer, though she has no family. She meets some innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and leaves her daughter with them to raise. She is afraid the people of Montreuil-sur-mer will shun her if it becomes known that her daughter is illegitimate.
Fantine gets a job at one of Madeleine’s factories. She is happy for a time, but her overseer at the factory finds out Fantine has an illegitimate child and crusades to get her fired.
Fantine falls into a wretched state of poverty. The Thénardiers invent lies of Cossette falling ill and needing medicine to squeeze more money out of her. She cuts her hair, has her teeth pulled and eventually turns to prostitution in the hopes of keeping Cossette safe and happy. Cossette in the meantime grows up an unloved child.
Fantine is arrested for ruining a gentlemen’s hat. Inspector Javert witnesses the mild assault and hauls her in for questioning. Fantine pleads her case, telling him how the gentleman she assaulted threw snow down her back and mocked her. She begs for mercy and tells her tragic tale in its entirety. The inspector sentences her to six months in prison.
While Fantine is telling her story, Madeleine slips in unnoticed. When Fantine sees him, she spits in his face, since she thinks he is responsible for firing her. Madeleine makes the inspector set her free, takes her to the hospital, pays her debts and makes arrangements for Cossette to visit her mother.
Inspector Javert is angry and writes to Prefecture of Police at Paris that Madeleine is really Jean Valjean, but the Prefecture writes back that they have Jean Valjean in custody, and he will be executed for his crimes. Inspector Javert confesses this to Madeleine. The inspector wants to be dismissed for his mistake. Madeleine is torn once again, but ultimately confesses who he is and saves the wrongly condemned man.
Inspector Javert arrests Jean Valjean when Fantine is on her deathbed, shocking her into the grave. Jean Valjean escapes Javert, but is recaptured and sent back to Toulan. He escapes once again by faking his own death in the sea. He finds the Thénardiers and rescues Cossette.
Inspector Javert tracks the two to Paris. They avoid being captured through a connection from Jean Valjean’s past. Fauchelevent is a man who Jean Valjean saved when he was the mayor. Fauchelevent is a gardener at a convent. Cossette and Jean Valjean find a new, peaceful life for a time in the convent. Cossette becomes a student, and Jean Valjean the gardener’s assistant.
Jean Valjean and Cossette eventually leave the convent and live in Paris again. Cossette falls in love with a young man named Marius. Marius has left home because of a rift with his grandfather over political and family complications. Because of this rift and Marius’ inability to support Cossette, he cannot marry her.
The political situation deteriorates in Paris, and the city experiences a violent uprising. Barricades are erected all over the city. Marius joins the fight out of despair. Jean Valjean joins the fight to watch over Marius, though part of him wishes Marius to be out of Cossette’s life forever.
Jean Valjean is given the opportunity to execute Javert, but he spares his life. Later in the conflict, Javert allows Jean Valjean to go free. Javert cannot forgive himself for not following the law and commits suicide rather than believe Jean Valjean is a truly good man.
Jean Valjean saves Marius’ life, though Marius does not know who saves him. After Marius heals, he again pursues Cossette for marriage. His grandfather relents, and the two are wed, but Marius is unforgiving of Jean Valjean’s past and drives a rift between Jean Valjean and Cossette.
Thénardier visits Marius in an attempt to swindle money and get Jean Valjean arrested. However Marius learns from him that it was Jean Valjean who saved Marius during the fighting in Paris. Marius and Cossette find Jean Valjean to ask forgiveness, and he is on his deathbed. He dies happy and forgiven.
In 1862 France, the Catholic Church holds political power. The higher an individual rises in the church hierarchy, the more access he has to wealth and prosperity. Hugo paints the established church as corrupt and hypocritical, though he also shows that some priests love God and serve the poor.
Many of the characters believe in God, the Devil, sin and redemption and are concerned with good and evil.
Inspector Javert believes that one is justified by the law, but when Jean Valjean saves him and he lets the man escape, Javert can find no relief for having broken the law.
Many religious leaders are corrupt and only concerned about riches. A few live out their Christian ideals by serving the poor. Monsieur Myriel’s life extols the teachings of Jesus and helps transform Jean Valjean’s life because of his kindness toward the man.
A policeman, Inspector Javert, is obsessed with the law. He follows it to the letter, unrelenting in his pursuit for justice. Jean Valjean ultimately proves to be a virtuous father to Cossette, a protector of those she loves and a man redeemed.
Though there is an insurrection in Paris and fighting at the barricades, the descriptions are not gory, though characters die. Inspector Javert kills himself.
Fantine has a child out of wedlock, several characters are kissed and several references are made to working girls and prostitution. None of the descriptions are explicit.
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