Places: Les Misérables

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1862 (English translation, 1862)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: c. 1815-1835

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. Les MisérablesCapital of France in whose mean–and mainly unknown–neighborhoods most of the novel is set. In setting most of his action in these neighborhoods, Hugo emphasizes how a great majority of honest and hard-working people (“les misérables”) live in overcrowded and dilapidated conditions. His criticism does not originate in class warfare but rather out of a desire to help improve their unbearable situation. Many streets mentioned in the novel were destroyed or absorbed in other wider arteries during various urban renewals, especially under the Second Empire in the 1850’s and 1860’s–and later. Some simply have changed names to new appellations: For example, rue Plumet has become rue Oudinot.

Rue Plumet house

Rue Plumet house. Jean Valjean and Cosette’s new rented home in a good neighborhood. The furnished townhouse, with its solidly enclosed garden, is not only vast and almost elegant, it has a secret passageway offering escape if necessary. Since they want to be unnoticed, Valjean and Cosette never use the entrance on rue Plumet, but use a side door to a back street. After discovering her address, however, Marius visits the sixteen-year-old girl, and both confess their love for each other as they kiss. The untended garden, which symbolizes the naïveté and free-spiritedness of Cosette, is now transformed into a wondrous place, alive with sheltering trees and perfuming flowers, that welcomes their innocent “idyll.”

*Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire

*Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire (rew day feey-doo-kal-VEHR). Street in upper-class district. Mr. Gillenormand (Marius’s grandfather) owns a mansion and private garden at No. 6. Beautifully furnished and appointed, it is the residence of a wealthy bourgeois who appreciates fine art and good books but who is reactionary in his politics. The mansion is so large that it can house seven people quite easily along with Marius’s office. (Valjean, though urged to move in, refuses.)

“Bowels of Leviathan.”

“Bowels of Leviathan.” Hugo’s metaphor for the sewers of Paris. Beside their utilitarian purpose, the underground sewers hide Marius, who is being rescued by Valjean. They must wade through long tunnels filled with sleaze and slime, as the latter intelligently follows the mazelike topographical pattern to secure their safe exit. In comparing the sewers to a Dantesque hell, Hugo stresses the subterranean presence of vice and of moral decadence in society and, thus, the need to redeem one’s soul (never an easy task, witness Valjean’s several struggles with his conscience) through goodness toward others and self-sacrifice.

*Rue de la Chanvrerie

*Rue de la Chanvrerie (rew deh lah shan-vrer-ee). Area of anti-Louis-Philippe insurrection (June 5-6, 1832). This Parisian street in the St. Denis district is the setting for the battle between the well-armed king’s soldiers and the poorly supplied democratic rebels fighting behind makeshift barricades. No wonder so many of them die (gloriously) and Marius is gravely wounded.


*Montreuil-sur-mer (mon-TROEY-sur-mehr). Town in northern France. Jean Valjean (alias Monsieur Madeleine) runs a glass bead factory that gives employment to many, including Fantine. Its distant location from Toulon, the naval port city on the Mediterranean and home of prison ships, also offers him a better chance to hide from the police. However, his past eventually catches up with him and he is sent back to Toulon, from where he later escapes.


*Digne (deen). Small city in southern France. Instead of a luxurious episcopal palace, Bishop Myriel’s house is small and modest and well reflects the prelate’s own modesty. Moreover, even the name of the city (digne means “worthy”) underlines the charity, generosity, and saintliness of Monsignor Bienvenu.


*Waterloo. Town in Belgium that was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous final defeat on June 18, 1815. Hugo shows a deep understanding and knowledge of both the strategy and tactics employed by the French and Anglo-Prussian armies. Thénardier allegedly performed an unselfish deed by rescuing Colonel Pontmercy during the battle.

*Rue de l’Homme-Armé

*Rue de l’Homme-Armé (rew deh luh-MAR-may). Another apartment (at No. 7) used by Valjean and Cosette. Since it is to be a hideaway/refuge for the escaped convict, it contains only the furnishings necessary for him and his young charge.

Gorbeau hovel

Gorbeau hovel (GOR-boh). One of Jean Valjean and Cosette’s numerous homes as they flee across Paris; later the Thénardiers and Marius will live there. As a typical tenement, it acts as a microcosm of lower-class French society, from criminals, young orphans, and prisoners on the run to neglected adolescents and impoverished students.


*Montfermeil (mon-fer-MAYL). Town east of Paris, where the Thénardiers operate an unsavory and ramshackle inn. Cosette, a foster-child in their care and Cinderella-like heroine, lives there, too. Valjean buries his treasure in the forest on the outskirts of this town.

Petit-Picpus convent

Petit-Picpus convent (peh-tee peek-PUH). Estate inhabited by nuns. Although given a specific address (62, Petite rue Picpus), this fictional religious community, containing large gardens, a school, and a nunnery, represents a haven for Valjean and Cosette. For five years he is employed as gardener and general handyman, while she attends its school.


*Père-Lachaise (pehr lah-SHAYZ). Famous cemetery in eastern Paris. Valjean is buried here away from the plots of the rich and powerful, his unkempt and nameless tombstone further accenting the anonymous character of this tragic Everyman.

*Notre-Dame Bridge

*Notre-Dame Bridge. Bridge across the Seine River, which is here at its most tortuous and fast-flowing. A so-called deranged Javert, unable to comprehend Valjean’s merciful generosity, purposely chooses this site to commit suicide.

*Luxembourg Gardens

*Luxembourg Gardens. Parisian park with beautiful grounds and a promenade. It is here that Marius and Cosette see each other for the first time and fall in love from afar.

Café Musain

Café Musain (kah-FAY mew-SAYN). Latin-Quarter drinking establishment whose back room serves as a meeting place for the ABC secret society.

BibliographyBrombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Points out that in Les Misérables the most important reference to hell is its embodiment in the sewers of Paris, through which Jean Valjean carries Marius as the final part of his quest–through death to resurrection.Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. The most sophisticated study of Hugo’s fiction to date. Notes Hugo’s use of digressive patterns and impersonal, realistic narration. Draws on a wealth of French criticism.Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. An exhaustive study of Hugo’s use of image, myth, and prophecy. Notes–among other images and uses of myth–the Christological references to Jean Valjean, who finds redemption in saving others.Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Indispensable starting guide to the works–drama, poetry, and novels–and life of Victor Hugo.Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. Vol. 2. The Romantic Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Analysis of Hugo’s literary theory and its relation to other writers of European romantic works. Discusses Hugo’s careful placement of discursive essays throughout the novel.
Categories: Places