Les Miserablesis the greatest work of Victor Hugo, published in 10 volumes in 1862 while the author was in exile in Guernsey. The action covers the years 1815 to 1833.
Jean Valjean, a poor peasant of Brie, is sent to the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's starving children. Attempts to escape lengthen his term to 19 years; on his release in 1815 he finds every door shut against him. He finally is sheltered by the saintly Bishop Myriel, whose silver dishes he steals. Caught with the goods by a suspicious policeman, he faces return to the galleys until the bishop, called to identify his property, says that the dishes were a gift and adds to them his silver candlesticks. The bishop's act changes Valj can's life. Under the assumed name of Madeleine he prospers for 8 years, becomes noted for his charities, and is chosen mayor of his town. Only Javert, the police inspector, eyes him askance, observing his likeness to the convict he had once known. Then word comes that a petty thief at Champmathieu has been identified as Jean Valjean and faces a life sentence for another theft the real Valjean had committed 8 years before. After a terrible struggle with his conscience, Valjean gives himself up and receives the life sentence. Escaping, he finds sanctuary as a convent gardener in Paris.
One of the needy he had helped in his prosperous days was Fantine, a Parisian grisette deserted by her lover. She was struggling to support her little daughter, Cosette, whom she had entrusted to Thenardier, a villainous innkeeper at Montfermeil. Valjean had promised the dying Fantine to care for Cosette, and kept his promise after his escape, though with Javert on his track it added to the risk of recapture.
Meanwhile in Paris, Marius Pontmercy, son of a Napoleonic officer, had quarreled with his royalist grandfather and joined a revolutionary organization seeking to restore the republic. He and Cosette meet and fall in love. When street fighting breaks out in 1832, Valjean saves Marius, unconscious and desperately wounded, by carrying him for miles through the Paris sewers, having previously saved Javert's life when he was in the hands of the revolutionaries. Javert, torn between his debt to Valjean and his duty as a policeman, can find no way out of the dilemma except in suicide. Marius recovers, is reconciled with his grandfather, and marries Cosette. Valjean, having revealed his past to Marius, pines away with grief at losing Cosette, but dies happy in the knowledge that both the young people love and reverence him the more for his sufferings.
The book is filled with moral disquisitions, and with such rhetorical set pieces as the description of the Battle of Waterloo and the historical essay on the sewers of Paris. Hugo is always positive, whether his facts are right or not. Coincidence is endemic; wherever they go, Valjean, Javert, and the Thenardiers run into each other. Passages of wild melodrama, reminiscent of the Gothic romances, alternate with episodes of grim realism. But the very copiousness of the writing and the geographical exactness of the settings give the book a vitality which overrides all the mechanical contrivances of its plot. Primarily a study of the redemption of a soul through voluntary expiation, Les miserables is also an epic of democratic idealism and a realistic novel. It even contains elements of autobiography, for the character of young Marius is a somewhat glorified portrait of young Victor Hugo.