Les Misérables is a novel about the less fortunate, and the ways in which the very existence of poverty is a result of society’s failures. Victor Hugo makes his mission statement clear in the preface: “[S]o long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.” That is, he means to use his novel to critique social inequality, which he does primarily though the trials of his protagonist, the ex-convict Jean Valjean.

After nineteen years in prison, Valjean emerges a bitter, hard-hearted man. That Valjean stole a loaf of bread and earned five years in prison for it, a sentence clearly not commensurate with the crime, suggests that society punishes citizens for their own poverty. Furthermore, Valjean’s futile escape attempts, for which he received an additional fourteen years, are symbolic of the idea that it becomes increasingly difficult to escape a life of poverty and crime once you have been forced into it. Indeed, Valjean’s release from prison is hardly a relief; he is branded a convict and regarded with fear and suspicion, looked down upon and turned away wherever he goes. Only the benevolent Bishop Myriel offers him food and shelter, and the fact that Valjean proceeds to steal valuable silverware from the only man who has shown him kindness is a testament to the depths of his desperation and how far he has fallen. Cruelty, Hugo argues, only begets cruelty; where once there was a good man, society and the injustice inherent within it have produced a hardened criminal.

However, compassion also begets compassion. In the novel’s inciting incident, Valjean’s thievery is forgiven by the Bishop, who saves him from being thrown back into prison and even gifts him with a set of silver candlesticks besides. He implores Valjean to become a good and honest man, and this moment proves transformative, setting Valjean on a path to redemption that underscores the power of kindness, one of the novel’s key themes. The rising action consists of various challenges Valjean must face to be the man the Bishop believes him to be, as when he encounters the tragic figure Fantine. Hugo uses Fantine’s character to explore the unique injustices faced by women in French society, particularly women in poverty. Abandoned by a thoughtless, well-to-do man, exploited by the money-obsessed Thénardiers, and forced into prostitution to provide for her illegitimate daughter Cosette, Fantine receives no support until Valjean intervenes on her behalf, when she is on the brink of arrest. This moment parallels the mercy the Bishop once showed Valjean and introduces the uncompromising, misguided moral values of Javert, the novel’s primary antagonist. Javert, a police inspector, is dedicated to upholding the law and ruled by a false dichotomy; he sees the world in black and white. In his view, it’s not possible to be both a good person and a criminal, a mindset that reflects the inflexible nature of the prison system and the rigid social hierarchies that victimize characters like Valjean and Fantine. Javert’s commitment to law and order proves obsessive; following Fantine’s death, the revelation of Valjean’s true identity, and Valjean’s escape, Javert pursues him relentlessly to Paris, where Valjean hides with Cosette under a new identity.

As a parent, Valjean offers Cosette the love and protection she never received from the abusive Thénardiers. When she grows into a beautiful young woman yearning for freedom, however, their interests clash; Valjean wants to keep Cosette safe and close, and Cosette wants to experience the world. She ultimately piques the interest of Marius Pontmercy, a young man who is attempting to figure out who he is and what he believes. He breaks from his monarchist grandfather and strikes out on his own, symbolic of the younger generation’s rediscovery of the Napoléonic values and the principles of democracy. He meets a group of student revolutionaries known as the Friends of the ABC, the introduction of which sets the stage for the novel’s denouement, in the form of a fictionalized account of the real June Rebellion.

In the lead-up to the uprising, Marius and Cosette meet, grow close, and fall in love, frequently aided by Éponine, the oldest Thénardier daughter and a friend of Marius’s. Éponine is secretly in love with Marius and harbors complex feelings about his relationship with Cosette, with whom she grew up and once thought herself superior. The reappearance of the Thénardiers as members of the criminal underworld serves as a reminder that Valjean was once like them, the difference being that Valjean is driven now by a desire to do good and embody God’s grace, whereas the Thénardiers, who despise Valjean, are driven by jealousy and self-interest, their souls corrupted by greed.

Hugo uses the failed Paris Uprising of 1832 to explore his own complex personal feelings about the idea of revolution. He is largely sympathetic to the revolutionaries’ goals and shares their desire for social change and democracy, but condemns violence on the whole. Indeed, though the novel’s climax occurs at the culmination of this chaos, it is markedly and purposefully nonviolent. When Valjean goes to the barricade to save Marius, he’s given the opportunity to kill Javert, the man who has pursued him relentlessly ever since his prison days and whose death would free Valjean and Cosette from the constant threat of exposure. However, Valjean shows Javert the same mercy the Bishop once showed him, allowing him to go free. Hugo proves once again that mercy begets mercy; when Javert catches Valjean escaping the barricade with the wounded Marius, he finds himself unable to arrest him. That Valjean, a criminal, has proven himself to be a good man contradicts Javert’s deeply held personal convictions, the ones on which he has based his entire life and identity. The only way he can think to reconcile this inner conflict is by committing suicide.

The novel’s falling action commences as Marius recovers at home. Once he and Cosette are married, Valjean confesses his past to Marius and is forced to distance himself from the couple. Marius, who doesn’t realize it was Valjean who saved his life and sees Valjean as an unrepentant criminal, inadvertently learns the truth of Valjean’s character from Thénardier. Both he and Cosette arrive at Valjean’s address just in time to say goodbye to the mortally ill Valjean. In the resolution, Valjean’s death is peaceful; Hugo invokes Bishop Myriel, highlighting the candlesticks Valjean received from him all those years ago and associating with Valjean the same light imagery he once associated with Myriel to signal that Valjean’s moral journey is complete. He has fulfilled his promise to become a better man, and in doing so passed on his capacity for love and compassion to Marius and Cosette.