Les Misérables is sort of like Titanic. The movie isn’t really about Jack and Rose. They’re the hook. They’re the path you follow to see all the stuff James Cameron wants to show you about the ship and society. Similarly, Victor Hugo’s “digressions” aren’t side notes. They’re the point. The characters and plot are there to lead you through it.
Yes, even Waterloo. And argot. And the history of convents. He’s not telling the story of Jean Valjean, Marius and Cosette, he’s telling the story of France and the way Western society treats the less fortunate: the wretched, miserable, downtrodden, however you translate it.
Through Jean Valjean and Javert he shows redemption vs an oppressive justice system.
Fantine? Exploitation of women and locked-in poverty.
Marius? Those who have the opportunity to climb out of poverty.
The Thénardiers and Patron-minette are the criminal underbelly.
Gavroche is literally the archetype of the Paris street urchin.
Bienvenu is his ideal of religion, while the convent is religion as a prison – but one that still gives Cosette a transformative opportunity.
The students are Revolutionaries.
Gillenormand is old money.
Fascinating as the characters are, every one of them is a representation of or a guide to something in society that Hugo wants you to see. The plot is about them, but the story isn’t. The story is about who and what they represent.