The novel is full of masks, costumes, mistaken identity, and concealment. Much of this mystery takes place in and is enabled by the winding streets of Paris, a city where characters can find anonymity and escape their pasts. Paris in the period of Les Misérables was not the city of wide-open boulevards that tourists know today. Before the 1850s, it was a largely medieval city of unknown alleys, an old, dank sewer system, and ancient walls and fortresses. Throughout the novel characters both take advantage of and are hindered by its mysteries.
Hugo wrote Les Misérables while abroad in political exile, and he lovingly depicts the city from afar, with lengthy asides on Parisian architecture and history. Jean Valjean is able to start a new life in Paris with Cosette because of the opportunities for concealment that the city affords.—Paris is a dynamic, changing city whose very identity varies with the changing identities of its inhabitants. The characters that can best take advantage of this aspect of Paris are the ones that possess the deepest knowledge of Paris’s secrets, from its sewers to abandoned courtyards and dark alleyways. As an escaped convict, Jean Valjean is one of these characters, but the group of renegades that Thenardier employs to try to snare Valjean are also experts in Paris’s mysteries—as is Gavroche, the young son Thenardier abandons, for whom Paris is a playground to be explored. Ultimately, Paris in the novel takes on the qualities of a character itself, allowing Hugo to explore the other themes of mercy and judgment, justice and injustice, that have Paris as their setting. The city becomes a microcosm of society at large, while also acting as a setting for other characters to discover how to master its ways and plumb its secrets.
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris ThemeTracker
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Quotes in Les Miserables
The gamin expresses Paris, and Paris expresses the world. For Paris is a total. Paris is the ceiling of the human race. The whole of this prodigious city is a foreshortening of dead manners and living manners. He who sees Paris thinks he sees the bottom of all history with heaven and constellations in the intervals.
The wild spectres who roam in this grave, almost beasts, almost phantoms, are not occupied with universal progress; they are ignorant both of the idea and of the word; they take no thought for anything but the satisfaction of their individual desires. They are almost unconscious, and there exists within them a sort of terrible obliteration. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery...
The Jondrette lair was, if the reader recalls what we have said of the Gorbeau building, admirably chosen to serve as the theatre of a violent and somber deed, and as the envelope for a crime. It was the most retired chamber in the most isolated house on the most deserted boulevard in Paris. If the system of ambush and traps had not already existed, they would have been invented here.
The bourgeois decked out in their Sunday finery who passed the elephant of the Bastille, were fond of saying as they scanned it disdainfully with their prominent eyes: “What’s the good of that?” It served to save from the cold, the frost, the hail, and rain to shelter from the winds of winter, to preserve from slumber in the mud which produces fever, and from slumber in the snow which produces death, a little being who had no father, no mother, no bread, no clothes, no refuge. It served to receive the innocent whom society repulsed.
There is something of the apocalypse in civil war, all the mists of the unknown are commingled with fierce flashes, revolutions are sphinxes, and any one who has passed through a barricade thinks he has traversed a dream.