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The convict Jean Valjean is
released from a French prison after serving nineteen years for stealing
a loaf of bread and for subsequent attempts to escape from prison. When
Valjean arrives at the town of Digne, no one is willing to give
him shelter because he is an ex-convict. Desperate, Valjean knocks
on the door of M. Myriel, the kindly bishop of Digne. Myriel treats
Valjean with kindness, and Valjean repays the bishop by stealing
his silverware. When the police arrest Valjean, Myriel covers for
him, claiming that the silverware was a gift. The authorities release
Valjean and Myriel makes him promise to become an honest man. Eager
to fulfill his promise, Valjean masks his identity and enters the
town of Montreuil-sur-mer. Under the assumed name of Madeleine,
Valjean invents an ingenious manufacturing process that brings the
town prosperity. He eventually becomes the town’s mayor.
Fantine, a young woman from Montreuil, lives in Paris.
She falls in love with Tholomyès, a wealthy student who gets her
pregnant and then abandons her. Fantine returns to her home village
with her daughter, Cosette. On the way to Montreuil, however, Fantine
realizes that she will never be able to find work if the townspeople
know that she has an illegitimate child. In the town of Montfermeil,
she meets the Thénardiers, a family that runs the local inn. The Thénardiers
agree to look after Cosette as long as Fantine sends them a monthly
In Montreuil, Fantine finds work in Madeleine’s factory.
Fantine’s coworkers find out about Cosette, however, and Fantine
is fired. The Thénardiers demand more money to support Cosette,
and Fantine resorts to prostitution to make ends meet. One night,
Javert, Montreuil’s police chief, arrests Fantine. She is to be
sent to prison, but Madeleine intervenes. Fantine has fallen ill,
and when she longs to see Cosette, Madeleine promises to send for
her. First, however, he must contend with Javert, who has discovered
Madeleine’s criminal past. Javert tells Madeleine that a man has
been accused of being Jean Valjean, and Madeleine confesses his
true identity. Javert shows up to arrest Valjean while Valjean is
at Fantine’s bedside, and Fantine dies from the shock.
After a few years, Valjean escapes from prison and heads
to Montfermeil, where he is able to buy Cosette from the Thénardiers. The
Thénardiers turn out to be a family of scoundrels who abuse Cosette
while spoiling their own two daughters, Eponine and Azelma. Valjean
and Cosette move to a run-down part of Paris. Javert discovers their
hideout, however, and they are forced to flee. They find refuge
in a convent, where Cosette attends school and Valjean works as
Marius Pontmercy is a young man who lives with his wealthy grandfather,
M. Gillenormand. Because of political differences within the family,
Marius has never met his father, Georges Pontmercy. After his father
dies, however, Marius learns more about him and comes to admire
his father’s democratic politics. Angry with his grandfather, Marius
moves out of Gillenormand’s house and lives as a poor young law
student. While in law school, Marius associates with a group of
radical students, the Friends of the ABC, who are led by the charismatic
Enjolras. One day, Marius sees Cosette at a public park. It is love
at first sight, but the protective Valjean does his utmost to prevent
Cosette and Marius from ever meeting. Their paths cross once again,
however, when Valjean makes a charitable visit to Marius’s poor
neighbors, the Jondrettes. The Jondrettes are in fact the Thénardiers,
who have lost their inn and moved to Paris under an assumed name.
After Valjean leaves, Thénardier announces a plan to rob Valjean
when he returns. Alarmed, Marius alerts the local police inspector,
who turns out to be Javert. The ambush is foiled and the Thénardiers
are arrested, but Valjean escapes before Javert can identify him.
Thénardier’s daughter Eponine, who is in love with Marius, helps
Marius discover Cosette’s whereabouts. Marius is finally able to
make contact with Cosette, and the two declare their love for each
other. Valjean, however, soon shatters their happiness. Worried that
he will lose Cosette and unnerved by political unrest in the city, Valjean
announces that he and Cosette are moving to England. In desperation,
Marius runs to his grandfather, M. Gillenormand, to ask for M. Gillenormand’s
permission to marry Cosette. Their meeting ends in a bitter argument.
When Marius returns to Cosette, she and Valjean have disappeared.
Heartbroken, Marius decides to join his radical student friends,
who have started a political uprising. Armed with two pistols, Marius
heads for the barricades.
The uprising seems doomed, but Marius and his fellow
students nonetheless stand their ground and vow to fight for freedom
and democracy. The students discover Javert among their ranks, and, realizing
that he is a spy, Enjolras ties him up. As the army launches its
first attack against the students, Eponine throws herself in front of
a rifle to save Marius’s life. As Eponine dies in Marius’s arms,
she hands him a letter from Cosette. Marius quickly scribbles a
reply and orders a boy, Gavroche, to deliver it to Cosette.
Valjean manages to intercept the note and sets out to
save the life of the man his daughter loves. Valjean arrives at
the barricade and volunteers to execute Javert. When alone with
Javert, however, Valjean instead secretly lets him go free. As the
army storms the barricade, Valjean grabs the wounded Marius and
flees through the sewers. When Valjean emerges hours later, Javert
immediately arrests him. Valjean pleads with Javert to let him take
the dying Marius to Marius’s grandfather. Javert agrees. Javert
feels tormented, torn between his duty to his profession and the
debt he owes Valjean for saving his life. Ultimately, Javert lets
Valjean go and throws himself into the river, where he drowns.
Marius makes a full recovery and is reconciled with Gillenormand,
who consents to Marius and Cosette’s marriage. Their wedding is
a happy one, marred only when Valjean confesses his criminal past
to Marius. Alarmed by this revelation and unaware that it was Valjean
who saved his life at the barricades, Marius tries to prevent Cosette
from having contact with Valjean. Lonely and depressed, Valjean
takes to his bed and awaits his death. Marius eventually finds out
from Thénardier that Valjean saved Marius’s life. Ashamed that he
mistrusted Valjean, Marius tells Cosette everything that has happened.
Marius and Cosette rush to Valjean’s side just in time for a final
reconciliation. Happy to be reunited with his adopted daughter,
Valjean dies in peace.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!