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What an ominous minute is that in which society draws back and consummates the irreparable abandonment of a sentient being! Jean Valjean was condemned to five years in the galleys.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)
Les Misérables is a sprawling epic by Victor Hugo, the seeds of which can be found in some of his earlier, shorter works such as his novel(la) Le dernier jour d'un condamné, which also treats upon the subject of the penal system in France and includes a character that resembles what could later be called an AU-style Valjean. It was made into a very well-known musical play that has run for nearly thirty years.
The story opens with a recently paroled man named Jean Valjean arriving on foot in Digne, France, come from the shore-prison at Toulon where he's spent the past nineteen years. He was a desperately poor peasant from Brie who constantly worked -- constantly, no matter how hard the labor or menial the task -- to support his sister and her seven children. One especially bad winter as the eighteenth century was drawing to a close, when he was 25, Valjean could not find work and, in an act of real need as much for his family as himself, he broke into a bakery and stole a loaf of bread.
For that, he was condemned to five years hard labor in a brutal, dehumanizing penal system that was par for the course at the time. Before his imprisonment, he was kind, of an even personality, and, in his own words, dull like a block of wood. Nineteen years in the galleys -- nineteen instead of five, for all of his escape attempts -- changed him completely, making him bitter, harsh, and incapable of relating to other human beings as friendly agents. The system at the time made it virtually impossible to be re-integrated into society; the only real way out was death, and the provisions of the law facilitated that: on one's third offense, the death penalty was automatically imposed. However, it was impossible for convicts to make an honest living, because no one would give them work. It was a dreadful double bind. This is the situation Valjean finds himself in when he is finally released. He is set on the fastlane to being sent back again when a meeting with an unconditionally kind man, who happens to be a bishop, changes him forever, for a second time, just as profoundly as his experiences in the bagne changed him.
And that's just the beginning.
He breaks his parole and commits a minor theft out of habit, beginning the book-long chase with Inspector Javert as the pursuer. Over the course of the book, with the inspector always right behind him, Valjean: becomes mayor of a small seaside town due to the penchant for altruism he developed after his redemption; makes a fortune from his own ingenuity and innovation; does many philanthropic works, among them caring for a dying woman, one of his factory workers, and promising her to ensure the well-being of her daughter Cosette; reveals his identity in court to prevent the wrongful incarceration of another man who was mistaken for him; is captured and sent to the galleys, but escapes to keep his promise; adopts the waifish Cosette, and moves from town to town with his final stop as Paris, where he uses his superhuman powers of transcendental niceness to see to his adopted daughter's happiness and save everyone who needs saving. You probably know the rest.
The book provides examples of:
- Adorkable: Marius. He's so shy that he can't muster up the courage to even speak to a pretty girl.
- Aerith and Bob: Some of the names are pretty unique to the story, and were rarely--if ever--used before or after Les Mis.
- All Crimes Are Equal: The French penal code was milder than England's Bloody Code by a hair. Whereas stealing in England under the BC would get you hanged, in France it would get you the galleys for upwards of five years. Offend again (from stealing to murder to sedition) and you'd get life. Escape and offend again and you'd get death -- even if it was only theft all three times. This was doubly bogus when you add the convict passport, which effectively made it impossible for the paroled convict to get honest work.
- Which was the reason English juries routinely refused to declare petty thieves and first time criminals guilty of any felony at all. People actually were considerably worse off in France, where you didn't get trial by jury.
- The Artful Dodger: Gavroche. Hugo even mentions that once kids like Gavroche grow up, the world beats them down, but he assures us that as long as he's young, Gavroche is thriving.
- Author Filibuster: Almost half of the book is Hugo exposing directly his thoughts about the ills of society, history (mostly the first half of the 19th century), the struggle for democracy and many other subjects. Sometimes, there are no mentions of the main characters of the novel for a hundred pages. It is fortunate for the reader that Victor Hugo's thoughts are extremely interesting, well-written and ahead of their time.
- "The Intestine of the Leviathan"="HEY KIDS ISN'T THE SEWER SYSTEM OF PARIS INTERESTING?" To which the answer is, of course, "Yes. Yes it is." It's far beyond Writer on Board.
- Author Stand In: Hugo admitted that Marius is basically a portrait of the author as a young man.
- Valjean's rescue of Fantine was also loosely inspired by something that Hugo did shortly after the success of Notre-Dame de Paris.
- Badass Bookworm: Combeferre, who takes two pistols and a musket with him to the barricades. Also, M. Mabeuf.
- Badass Grandpa: Jean Valjean.
- Barefoot Poverty: Several illustrations, including the most famous one centering on Cosette (see above). Justified, considering that a lot of it (aptly titled "The Miserable Ones") focuses on 19th century France, which wasn't doing all that hot.
- Bilingual Bonus: Hugo makes use of untranslatable puns and argot/slang. An example of a pun is the name of a bagnard named Chenildieu, who's nicknamed je-nie-Dieu, "I deny God"; another is a character admiring the "glacés" (mirrors) in a restaurant, and another replying that she'd rather have "glacés" (ice cream) on her plate.
- Also the title. Does it mean "The Downtrodden", "Those Unfortunates" or "The Children"? Yes.
- "ABC", a rather avant-garde name for an early-19th century French café, is pronounced abaissé in French (ah - be - se). Les Amis de l'ABC thus means "The Friends of the Oppressed"...!
- Blatant Lies: Hugo states "And so Valjean- for we will never refer to him as anything else henceforth..." then goes on to refer to him as "Monsieur Leblanc" for the next two hundred pages.
- Break the Cutie: Fantine.
- Buried Alive: Happens to Valjean during the plot to sneak him into the convent.
- Celibate Hero: Enjolras, who channels all his energy into politics.
- Also, most probably Javert, who is very dedicated to his job.
- Character Tics: Javert has a very strange laugh/smile, which contorts his face in a frighteningly feral way. Also, his penchant for snuff.
- Chaste Hero: Valjean, who because of circumstances beyond his control never had a love interest.
- Chekhov's Gun: Éponine's note "The cops are here." She originally wrote it in front of Marius to show him her literacy. He would later use the note to save Valjean's life.
- Chekhov's Gunman:
- Valjean himself, due to the different names he has throughout the novel.
- The Jondrettes are the Thénardiers.
- The "young (working) man" who wears a grey blouse and cotton-velvet pantaloons is Éponine dressed as a boy. Her true identity is revealed after her Taking the Bullet for Marius at the barricades.
- Early in the novel, Valjean rescues a man named Fauchelevent from under a cart. Much later, when Valjean and Cosette are avoiding Javert, Valjean would unexpectedly meet Fauchelevent once again at a convent. Fauchelevent, who is still grateful to Valjean for everything he had done for him, would return the favour and let Valjean and Cosette stay at the convent.
- Clingy Jealous Girl: Éponine.
- Contrived Coincidence: Too many to count; a good one is the minor thread involving Marius' grandfather's illegitimate children.
- Crapsack World: The title does roughly translate to "The Miserable Ones."
- Criminal Doppelganger: Champmathieu gets arrested in Jean Valjean's place because he just happens to look exactly like him.
- Crucified Hero Shot: The death of Enjolras.
- Deadpan Snarker: Javert, in the scene where he arrests the Thénardiers, and to Les Amis, as he's led away by Valjean and believes he's about to be executed.
Javert:"See you all immediately!"
- Death by Despair: Jean Valjean, after being separated from Cosette.
- Defiled Forever: Fantine.
- Delusions of Eloquence: Thénardier is a frequent example of this, speaking and writing in a flowery manner that gives him the air of a philosopher/intellectual, but his writing is filled with misspellings, and Hugo comments to the effect that his obsession with Big Words shows a stupid person's understanding of what a smart person sounds like. Thénardier also frequently defends arguments by fraudulent citations of famous people, but has no actual knowledge of those authorities, except that they are famous (e.g. he will cite to the novels of someone who only wrote poetry). His wife also demonstrates this through the odd names she gave to her daughters, taken from romantic novels. This choice is very similar to the idea underlying a Ghetto Name.
- Determinator: Valjean definitely shows shades of this, especially in the sewer escape and the journey to Arras, even though he knows that it would be better for him if he just gave up.
- Deus Ex Machina: Ironically provided by Thénardier, although he does so unwittingly and for purely greedy reasons. Near the end of the novel, he reveals to Marius that Jean Valjean is innocent of the more serious crimes he was suspected of. He also brings proof that Valjean was the mysterious man who risked his life to save Marius. All this just in time for Cosette to see her adoptive father one last time before his death.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: Éponine in Marius'.
- Disappeared Dad: Cosette's father left her mother when Cosette was little. She doesn't remember him, and for most of the book, she thinks that Jean Valjean is her father.
- Doomed Moral Victor: Les Amis.
- Doorstopper: Could be Trope Namer -- Up to 1900 pages in small type, and is nicknamed the Brick.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: Valjean cocks his gun unsubtly after he claims Javert as his to kill.
- Dressing as the Enemy: Javert disguises himself as an insurgent and lies low in order to spy; Valjean wears a French National Guard uniform so he can cross the barricade.
- Driven to Suicide: Javert, because of the cognitive dissonance caused by having his life saved by Valjean.
- Dying Declaration of Love: Éponine to Marius.
"You know, Monsieur Marius, I think I was a little bit in love with you."
- Earn Your Happy Ending: And how!
- Eccentric Mentor: Bishop Myriel.
- Embarrassing Rescue: Valjean sees Javert is slated for execution and requests that he have the privilege of killing the spy. Being killed by Valjean squares with Javert's rigid view of the world and he accepts it, feeling like a martyr. When Valjean unties him, fires into the air and urges him to flee -- after telling Javert his address so Javert can find him after the fighting is over -- Javert at first thinks it's a trick, and is so shocked that he later self-terminates due to the ensuing cognitive dissonance. His entire view of the world is crumbling, and furthermore, as long as he is alive he must pursue Valjean, but at the same time he feels he should not pursue a man who saved his life.
- The Everyman: Jean Valjean, who was a simple tree pruner before his imprisonment. His name means, literally, "John's as good as any other John."
- Evil Gloating: Thénardier performs a near textbook example to Valjean when he has him captured in his room in Paris.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: One of the meanings of the title is "The Miserable Ones". And boy, is that ever accurate.
- Faking the Dead: Valjean escapes prison this way.
- The Fettered: Jean Valjean, albeit more through an insistence on Good than Law.
- Flash Back: Mostly from Valjean's POV.
- Foe Yay: Between Javert and Valjean.
A score of times he had been tempted to fling himself upon Jean Valjean, to seize him and devour him, that is to say, to arrest him.
- The Fool: Fantine. At first.
- Forgotten Trope: The penal system in 19th-century France; the Bourbon Restoration.
- Freudian Excuse: The reason Javert is such a stickler and an asshole who is completely unable to attain a sense of post-conventional morality. The trope is very interestingly used in Javert's situation, as he was born in prison the child of a prostitute and a thief, but completely rejects the idea that circumstances rather than evil nature can explain crime.
- Good Shepherd: Bishop Myriel.
- Go Out with a Smile: Enjolras gives one to Grantaire before they are both shot.
- Hair of Gold: Fantine. "For her dowry she had gold and she had pearls, but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth."
- Enjolras. "... his fair hair waved backwards like that of the angel upon his sombre car of stars, it was the mane of a startled lion flaming with a halo..."
- Happily Adopted: Cosette.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Valjean does not like being stuck under douches.
- Heartwarming Orphan: Gavroche isn't actually an orphan, but he still basically fits.
- Heroic Bastard: Both Fantine and Cosette.
- Heroic BSOD
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Played mostly straight with Fantine, who resorts to prostitution as her only available way to provide for herself and her daughter. Throughout, she still retains her love for Cosette.
- Icon of Rebellion: Two of them- the flag Mabeuf dies waving, and Mabeuf's bullet-ridden coat afterwards.
- Identical Stranger: Champmathieu, who almost takes the rap for Valjean.
- If I Can't Have You: Éponine to Marius. She gives him a false message that his friends are expecting him at the barricade. Distraught due to the belief that Cosette had left for England, he goes there. Éponine goes back there herself, hoping that they will both die there together.
- If you can help it, never get into a discussion on whether or not Éponine genuinely wanted to save Marius when she takes the bullet for him later on. Some floodgates should remain closed...
- Ill Girl: Fantine is reduced to a "ghost of herself," suffering from a never-exactly-named disease, and acts as a motivator for Valjean to go and retrieve her daughter -- only fair, seeing as how his policies reduced her to her aforesaid state.
- Important Haircut: The first thing, in the book, that Fantine sells for Cosette's sake.
- Inspector Javert: The character for whom the trope is named, of course.
- In Which a Trope Is Described
- Ironic Nickname: Fantine names her baby Euphrasie in a moment of romantic inspiration, but soon calls her "Cosette" all the time (which means, basically, "Pampered" or "Indulged"). Then she leaves her child with the Thénardiers, who verbally and physically abuse the child, starve her, and force her to work for her keep -- all the while still calling her "Cosette," little Indulged.
- I Have Many Names: Jean Valjean. To take directly from Wikipedia's page, "Jean Valjean: a.k.a. Monsieur Madeleine, a.k.a. Ultime Fauchelevent, a.k.a. Monsieur Leblanc, a.k.a. Urbain Fabre, a.k.a. 24601, a.k.a. 9430."
- Jaywalking Will Ruin Your Life
- Karma Houdini: Thénardier is never made accountable for his various crimes (which include graverobbing, attempted murder, child abuse, kidnapping, torture, theft, and more child abuse) during the book, and in the epilogue, he takes the money Marius had given to him to travel to America and become a successful slave trader. In addition, Tholomyès, who abandons Fantine, becomes a successful lawyer.
- Kid Appeal Character: Gavroche, you little Ankle-Biter.
- Tholomyès does get a come-uppance in a deleted scene to the original novel, where his wedding gets called off because a young Cosette (who just happens to be in the audience) calls out 'Papa!'
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Mid-song, in the case of Gavroche. Yes, this happens in the novel.
- Kill'Em All
- Kill Him Already: Justified, because much as the rebels would like to kill Javert, they have a reason for holding him prisoner for an extended length of time: they are conserving their powder and bullets, and consider killing him any way other than shooting him to be reprehensible and beneath them.
- Kill Me Now or Forever Stay Your Hand: Javert to Valjean. Javert does not take it well.
- Knight Templar: Javert.
- La Résistance: Les Amis de l'ABC.
- The Second-To-Last Of These Is Not Like The Others: The name of the five parts of the book is "Fantine", "Cosette", "Marius", "The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis" and "Jean Valjean".
- Last Request: After Taking the Bullet for Marius, Éponine requests a kiss on the forehead from him after she dies. He grants her request.
- Last Stand
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: Hugo frequently refers to the characters as real people and the research he did in assembling their stories. Some of the characters also know of Hugo: At one point, M. Gillenormand criticizes Hernani, a play written by him.
- Load-Bearing Hero
- Locked Into Strangeness: Valjean's hair turns completely white the night after he makes the difficult decision to turn himself in so that Champmathieu doesn't get sent to the galleys in his place; it stays white for the rest of the book.
- Long Hair Is Feminine: But when Fantine sells hers, she hides her shorn head under a cap so she still looks pretty.
- Love Triangle: Marius, Cosette, Éponine.
- Memetic Number: 24601, the prison number of Valjean.
- Merciful Minion: Reversed (heroes intending to kill villain) with Jean Valjean asking to personally execute the spy Javert. He takes him out of sight, fires a pistol into the ground and tells him to run.
- The Messiah:
- Jean Valjean.
- Enjolras, to a lesser extent.
- Bishop Myriel specifically endeavors to emulate Christ. He's admittedly as close as a human being could be to being perfect.
- One Degree of Separation
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Cosette. To the point where, when discussing her dowry right before her marriage, her future grandfather-in-law asks about her inheritance. (Paraphrased:)
Jean Valjean: Mlle Euphrasie Fauchelevent has five thousand francs a year.
- Patronymic: Jean Valjean is named after his father who, also being named Jean, got the fake-surname Valjean as a contraction of Voilà Jean, a surname that used to also be called "Vlajean."
- Power of Trust
- Pretty Boy: Enjolras. It is stated that he has girlish, pretty features. Also, Montparnasse.
- Punny Name: Many.
- Quicksand Sucks
- Redemption Equals Death: Played with.
- Relatively Flimsy Excuse: Valjean and Fauchelevent.
- Returning the Handkerchief: Or at least, so Marius thinks.
- The Reveal: M. Madeleine revealing himself as Jean Valjean in the middle of a trial. However subverted in the reader's case. Madeleine is introduced to the reader as a completely separate character to Valjean, though it is completely obvious that they are one and the same. It looks like Hugo is setting the whole thing up for a big reveal, but after a while he simply remarks that the reader will have guessed by now that they are the same person.
- The Anticlimax happens again when Thénardier, having fallen in to ruin, is scamming money off some people he heard were generous. He comes across Valjean again, and soon after the meeting reveals this. A passing line is made about a hundred pages later about how the reader probably guessed this before him.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: The Friends of the ABC are portrayed as heroic defenders of the common man, right down to the token drunkard. To balance the scale, however, the sympathetic Bishop Myriel is described as a once-noble victim of the Revolution of 1789, and early in the book has a debate with a dying revolutionary regarding who deserves more pity, the poor, or the nobles who are murdered for a crime that is not their fault.
- While he wasn't blind to the crimes committed in its name, Hugo greatly admired the French Revolution. His last novel, 93, is focused on it.
- She Is All Grown Up: Marius noticing that the girl he's regularly encountered in the park for years, but in whom he has taken no interest, has suddenly developed a mysterious new nubile charm.
- Sour Supporter: This sums up Grantaire to a T.
- Spell My Name with a "The": Inverted by Courfeyrac, who insists on people dropping the article.
- Stalker with a Crush: Éponine. Heavy focus on the word "stalker." Trying to kill him so that they can both die together is more creepy than romantic.
- Marius. The behaviour he exhibits was seen as very romantic at the time but he does basically stalk Cosette.
- Taking the Bullet: Éponine for Marius. A soldier makes it in the barricade and aims his musket at Marius, but Éponine steps between them and takes the fatal shot herself.
- Technical Pacifist: Valjean made a point of aiming for enemy soldiers' helmets. (Turning over an execution to this guy might not have been Enjolras's brightest idea.)
- Title Drop: In Volume III, Book VIII, Chapter V.
Besides, there is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les misérables; whose fault is it? And then, when the fall is furthest, is that not when charity should be greatest?
- Troubled Sympathetic Bigot: inspector Javert starts out as a regular lawman, but is gradually shown to suffer from Black and White Insanity. In the end, he's quite sympathetic as he struggles with his worldview.
- Turn in Your Badge: Inverted when Javert attempts to present, of his own volition, his own resignation to Madeleine/Valjean as mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer for the egregious sin of suspecting him of being Jean Valjean; despite Javert's zealous plea for dismissal, Valjean persuades him that he may keep his post.
- Turn the Other Cheek
- Villainous Breakdown: Inspector Javert, after discovering who saved his life.
- What Do You Mean It's Not Heinous?: 5 years for a loaf of bread, definitely not something the author agrees with.
- Inspector Javert seems to approve of these. He is perfectly willing to throw Fantine, a penniless prostitute who is on her knees begging for the life of her child, into jail for six months on account of assaulting a bourgeois who had deliberately provoked her, and who is unavailable to testify.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Éponine, who dresses as a boy at the barricades.
- Working on the Chain Gang: Valjean and Chenildieu "become friends" for several years while on a chain gang.
- You Always Hear the Bullet: When Prouvaire is taken hostage by the National Guard, he is shot before the rebels can arrange a hostage exchange. Everyone hears the guns, despite it sounding like a "volley of gunfire," which is strange considering they are in the middle of a combat zone.
- You Are Number Six: Although the book is not as crazy about this one as the musical, Valjean's two prison numbers even make it to chapter title, namely "Number 24601 becomes Number 9430" However, the only one ever to refer to Valjean by his prison number is the narrator.
- Hugo does hint once that "he" sounded like Éponine, but didn't confirm it yet.