Les Miserables is widely regarded as Victor Hugo's finest work and a masterpiece of European literature. Published in 1862, the epic novel is set in the underworld of early 19th-century Paris and tells the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant imprisoned for the minor crime of stealing a single loaf of bread. An honest man driven to crime only by the desire to see his sister's starving family fed, Jean is molded into a hardened criminal by the resulting 19 years (lengthened from an original 5-year sentence for numerous escape attempts) that he spends in prison. After his release from prison he meets the kindly Bishop Myriel who inspires him to reform and become an honest man again. Living under the alias Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean manages to become a prominent and successful factory owner and eventually even the mayor of his town. In spite of his success and new life, he still finds himself haunted by a minor crime he committed shortly after his release from prison. He manages to arouse the suspicion of the town's police inspector, Javert, who feels certain that he knows Madeleine's true identity and doggedly pursues him in a relentless quest to prove his suspicions correct.
Set against the stark backdrop of 19th-century revolution-torn Paris, Les Miserables is a sweeping work that deftly deals with themes of moral failings and redemption, justice, politics and human rights. Acclaimed worldwide as one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, it has inspired an award-winning Broadway musical as well as several film adaptations.