Les Misérables is a French historical novel by Victor Hugo that is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Beginning in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, the novel follows the lives and interactions of several characters, focusing on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption. Examining the nature of law and grace, the novel elaborates upon the history of France, the architecture and urban design of Paris, politics, moral philosophy, antimonarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love.
More than a quarter of the novel is devoted to essays that argue a moral point or display Hugo's encyclopedic knowledge. The topics Hugo addresses include cloistered religious orders, the construction of the Paris sewers, argot, and the street urchins of Paris. Even when not turning to other subjects outside his narrative, Hugo sometimes interrupts the straightforward recitation of events, his voice and control of the story line unconstrained by time and sequence.
The story begins in 1815 in Digne, as the peasant Jean Valjean, just released from 19 years' imprisonment in the galleys -- five for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family and fourteen more for numerous escape attempts -- is turned away by innkeepers because his yellow passport marks him as a former convict. He sleeps on the street, angry and bitter.
Digne's benevolent Bishop Myriel gives him shelter. At night, Valjean runs off with Myriel's silverware. When the police capture Valjean, Myriel pretends that he has given the silverware to Valjean and presses him to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them. The police accept his explanation and leave. Myriel tells Valjean that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use money from the silver candlesticks to make an honest man of himself. Six years pass and Valjean, using the alias Monsieur Madeleine, has become a wealthy factory owner and is appointed mayor.
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