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There are five volumes to Victor Hugo’s epic masterpiece, Les Miserables. One of the great novels of the 19th century, Les Miserables is the story of the life of Jean Valjean, a man desperately trying to run away from his past. Set in the decades leading up to the French Revolution, Les Miserables is a book focused on social justice, but more importantly, about the incredible power of compassion and love.
The first volume, entitled Fantine, chronicles Jean Valjean’s release from a French prison, where he served a 19 year term for stealing a loaf of bread. He is thrown back into the world penniless and marked as a criminal. A kind bishop takes him in and gives him food and place to spend the night. In his desperation, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and runs off in the night. He is subsequently arrested. Insisting the bishop gave him the silver, the authorities call the victim in for questioning. The bishop corroborates Valjean’s story and he is released from custody. The bishop allows Valjean to keep the silverware, but entreats him to use it to turn his life around and to become a better man. Deeply moved by the kindness and forgiving nature of the bishop, Valjean dedicates his life to living up to his promise. He tears up his papers, forms a new identity, and uses the money to establish himself in a small town, where he eventually becomes mayor.
The first volume focuses on poor Fantine, a woman working in Valjean’s factory who has a secret; she has an illegitimate daughter who is being raised by local innkeepers. When her supervisor finds out about the child, she is fired. She begs Valjean to allow her to continue working, but Valjean does not want to be bothered and supports the supervisor’s decision. Fantine is forced to turn to prostitution in order to support her daughter, whose greedy caretakers threaten to turn out on the streets unless they receive more money.