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In the mid-1800s, French peasant Jean Valjean is sentenced to ten years aboard a prison ship for stealing a loaf of bread. During his torturous imprisonment, Valjean is taught to read by fellow inmate Genflou, who encourages him to develop his mind. One day, the ship nearly founders during a storm, and the immensely strong Valjean frees a prisoner trapped beneath a beam. Valjean's act of mercy is noticed by guard Etienne Javert, who is so dedicated to the law that he enforces all regulations without question. Soon after, Valjean is paroled, although he is upset to receive a yellow passport, which brands him as a convict. Unable to obtain shelter, Valjean walks for miles before finally stopping at the home of Bishop Courbet and his sister. The gentle bishop assures Valjean that he is a good man despite his past, and that he should not be so fearful and cynical. Despite the generous treatment he receives, Valjean steals the bishop's silver plates before disappearing the next morning. Valjean is captured by the police, however, and is stunned when the bishop claims to have given the plates to him as a gift. Bishop Courbet also gives Valjean his silver candlesticks and instructs him to always act with similar kindness. Valjean then pawns the plates in the village of Morvin, where he stops a runaway wagon and saves the life of a small boy. Valjean is amazed by the acclaim he receives, and while talking with the boy's grandfather, learns that a small pottery shop is for sale. Although he knows that he will be violating his parole by not going to Orleans, where he is to report to the police, Valjean buys the shop and settles in Morvin. During the next six years, Valjean, who keeps his past a secret and goes by the name Monsieur Madeleine, becomes a successful and well-loved businessman. Robert, the foreman of Valjean's pottery factory, is aware of his friend's history but nonetheless urges him to comply with the townspeople's request that he become Morvin's mayor. Valjean agrees and soon after, the newly chartered city is sent a police inspector. Valjean is horrified to see that his new underling is Javert, but Javert does not seem to recognize the former convict. Shortly after his arrival, Javert arrests a prostitute named Fantine and will not listen to her pleas that she must provide for her small daughter, who is being cared for by an innkeeper. Valjean, who witnessed Fantine's arrest, arrives at the jail and orders her released when she accuses him of being responsible for her misfortune, as she was fired from his factory after it was discovered that she had an illegitimate child. Valjean brings Cosette, Fantine's daughter, to Morvin to visit her gravely ill mother, but his attention is diverted when Javert announces that he is testifying in the case of a parole violator named Jean Valjean. Stunned, Valjean goes to the courtroom, where a simple-minded old man named Champmathieu is identified as Valjean by several of his former comrades. Unable to see an innocent man suffer, Valjean reveals his identity to the court, and Javert, who had recognized his old prisoner, smiles in triumph. Valjean returns to Morvin to settle his affairs, and promises Fantine that Cosette will always be protected. Javert interrupts his tender proclamation, however, and when the inspector's revelation about Valjean's identity causes Fantine to die from shock, the infuriated Valjean throttles him until he loses consciousness. With Robert's help, Valjean and Cosette escape to a convent on the outskirts of Paris. There, Valjean enrolls Cosette in school and spends the next few years as the convent's gardener. Cosette excels at her studies and grows up to be a lovely young woman who is devoted to Valjean. One day, Marius, a law student embroiled in the revolution, is injured during a demonstration and evades his pursuers by leaping over the convent walls. Valjean briefly hides Marius, and the young man and Cosette are instantly attracted to each other. Fearing that Marius might draw the police's attention to him, Valjean withdraws Cosette from school and takes her to Paris, where Robert, who has guarded Valjean's fortune, helps them to buy a home. Although she is thrilled to be in Paris, Cosette longs for Marius and soon begins seeing him. Cosette, who is aware of Valjean's past, forbids Marius to seek his permission for them to marry, while Valjean decides that he must go to England to avoid the police spies following Marius. Cosette pledges to accompany Valjean, and when Marius confronts them, she tells him that she is leaving the country. Marius accuses Valjean of being in love with Cosette himself, then returns to the barricade erected by the revolutionaries in a town square. Meanwhile, Javert, who has been promoted to a position in Paris, prepares to accompany the king's militia in an assault on the barricade. That night, Valjean intercepts a note from Marius to Cosette, begging her not to sacrifice herself to Valjean's selfishness, and Valjean hurries to the barricade. There, Valjean assures Marius that he loves Cosette only as a father and gives his blessing to their marriage, but Marius refuses to leave his comrades. Just then, Javert, who has been captured, is brought before Marius, and Valjean persuades him to let him deal with the police inspector himself. Although Javert threatens to continue hunting Valjean, Valjean sets him free. Valjean then rescues the wounded Marius, and in order to avoid the battle, carries him through the sewers. Javert follows them to Valjean's house, however, and there places Marius and Valjean under arrest. Javert refuses Valjean's pleas to send for a doctor, but is still strongly moved by Valjean's bitter declaration that Bishop Courbet was wrong when he said that even the most despicable of men have good in them. Javert then accepts Valjean's word that he will surrender peacefully if a doctor is called, and Robert taunts the policeman about accepting the word of honor of a convict. Deeply disturbed, Javert leaves the house, and Valjean follows but cannot stop him from committing suicide by throwing himself into the river. Valjean then returns home, where a doctor and Cosette tend to the recovering Marius.