Les Miserables

Les Miserables Literary Elements



Setting and Context

France in the early 1800s

Narrator and Point of View

The novel is narrated from the third person; the narrator is never named, and offers an omniscient perspective on the events that are unfolding.

Tone and Mood

The tone and mood of the novel vary widely. Hugo is concerned with describing the situations faced by the destitute and outcast, and the tone is often serious and solemn. The novel is also characterized by a strong current of idealism, and the tone often becomes revolutionary and hopeful. Interspersed with these grand themes is a note of gentle humor.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The primary protagonist is Jean Valjean, and the primary antagonist is Javert. Secondary protagonists include Marius, Cosette, and the members of the ABC Society. Secondary protagonists include Thénardier and the Patron-Minette gang, as well as the Gaurde Nationale.

Major Conflict

There are a number of plot lines in the novel, each with its own conflict: Enjolras' struggle for a more democratic France, Éponine's unrequited love for Marius, Valjean's mission to survive in the world as a righteous man, and so on.


The climax comes on Enjolras' barricade during the uprising of 1832. All of the main characters (Valjean, Marius, Javert, the ABC Society, Éponine, Mabeuf) are gathered into this conflict, and others (Cosette, the Thénardiers) will be directly impacted by the outcome.






Bishop Myriel rides into the city of Senez on the back of a donkey. He playfully jokes about the inexpensive and uncomfortable means of transportation, making an allusion to Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, which occurs in Mark 11:1-11. Though Myriel would shyly refuse such a comparison, this allusion establishes that Myriel's goodness is comparable to that of Jesus.




The novel frequently describes the peculiar paradoxes and contradictions of life. For example, bystanders hoot and laugh after Fantine's unjust arrest due to "the utmost extremity of degradation is the obscene merriment to which it gives rise" (pg. 183). Terrible grief and wrongdoing can sometimes result not in weeping, but in laughter.


The difference between Champmathieu and Valjean/Madeleine is an example of parallelism. The two men look very similar and come from the same region. However, Valjean's encounter with Myriel has placed him on a course of righteousness, whereas Champmathieu is still mired in misanthropy and anger. Champmathieu provides an example of what could have happened to Valjean if he had not met Myriel.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Myriel undertakes a dangerous journey into the mountains, despite his advanced age and the violent brigands who roam there. When the mayor of a nearby town urges him to give up this mission, Myriel responds with the following quote: "I was not put into this world to protect my life but to preserve souls" (pg. 41).

This equates souls to people, an example of synecdoche (substituting a part of something for the whole when describing a person, place, or thing). This quote establishes that Myriel values people for their spiritual potential more than for their earthly means or deeds.


France is frequently personified in human form: sometimes as a woman, a mother, or a noble figure. On page 1022, France is described thusly: " A prodigious light shines, and the gaping jaws of force recoil; the lion which is the army comes face to face with the tranquil figure of the prophet, which is France."

France is almost an entire character in the book, one that vacillates between several forms, encompassing the diversity of the nation.