Jean Valjean, after spending nineteen years in jail and in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread and for several attempts to escape, is finally released, but his past keeps haunting him. At Digne, he is repeatedly refused shelter for the night. Only the saintly bishop, Monseigneur Myriel, welcomes him. Valjean repays his host's hospitality by stealing his silverware. When the police bring him back, the bishop protects his errant guest by pretending that the silverware is a gift. With a pious lie, he convinces them that the convict has promised to reform. After one more theft, Jean Valjean does indeed repent.
A pathetic young girl Fantine. Alone and burdened with an illegitimate child, she is on the way back to her hometown of Montreuil, to find a job. On the road, she entrusts her daughter to an innkeeper and his wife, the Thénardiers. Fantine finds a job in Madeleine's factory and attains a modicum of prosperity. Unfortunately she is fired and, at the same time, must meet increasing financial demands by the Thénardiers. Defeated by her difficulties, Fantine turns to prostitution. Tormented by a local idler, she causes a disturbance and is arrested by Inspector Javert. Only Madeleine's forceful intervention keeps her out of jail. She catches a fever, however, and her health deteriorates dangerously. Death is imminent and M. Madeleine promises to bring her daughter, Cosette, to her.
Madeleine, however, is faced with a serious problem. Jean Valjean has been arrested and is about to be condemned for his crimes. After a night of agonizing moral conflict, Madeleine decides to confess his past. At Arras, the seat of the trial, she dramatically exonerates the accused. A few days later, he is arrested by Javert at Fantine's bedside. The shocking scene kills the young woman.
That same night Valjean escapes, but he is quickly recaptured and sent to Toulon, a military port. One day he saves a sailor about to fall from the rigging. He plunges into the sea and manages to escape by establishing the belief that he has drowned. He uses his precarious freedom to go to Montfermeil, the location of the Thénardiers' inn. After burying his money in the woods, he frees Cosette from the Thénardiers' abominable guardianship and takes her into the protective anonymity of Paris.