Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Love and Redemption Theme Icon
Mercy vs. Judgment Theme Icon
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Les Miserables, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon

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.

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Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Quotes in Les Miserables

Below you will find the important quotes in Les Miserables related to the theme of Mystery and Knowledge in Paris.
Volume 3, Book 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gavroche
Page Number: 510
Explanation and Analysis:

In this book the narrator begins a long study of a certain Parisian character, one of many character sketches that he paints throughout the book. Ultimately, he will use this sketch in order to characterize the figure of Gavroche. Here, however, the description remains largely abstract. The character of the gamin—a street urchin who knows Paris inside and out, who is both charming and troublesome, innocent and wily—comes to represent the inconsistent and wildly diverse universe that is the city of Paris. Paris, indeed, is its own world in the novel: rather than possessing several unique characteristics itself, which might differentiate it from another city, it swallows up every trait imaginable, as well as every historical period. The narrator emphasizes how Paris is built up on the "dead manners" and dead realities of the past, but in such a way that they continue to influence and shine through to the present, creating a richer and more powerful whole. Even as he depicts the criminal behavior of the Parisian gamin, then, the narrator also expresses a more optimistic viewpoint on Paris as a place of possibility and potential progress.


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Volume 3, Book 7 Quotes

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...

Page Number: 623
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator characterizes what he calls the "third lower floor" of human society. This phrase, originally used in the theater, designates certain traits and resentments that remain under the surface, before bubbling up at times of great strife. The "wild spectres" will soon be given names—they are the hardened criminals who will take on a more important role later on—but here, as earlier, the narrator takes the opportunity to paint a picture of the group as a social phenomenon and category. There seems to be a fascination in the passage about the very existence of such a group, one part of the amazing diversity of Parisian existence.

On one hand, this passage stresses how far apart this category lies from the optimistic ideals of progress and change that the novel has been advocating earlier. These people care far more about their own individual well-being than about anything larger than themselves. However, we also see that the "spectres" are not to be entirely condemned. As usual, we are asked to trace present action and character back to earlier moments and possible causes. "Ignorance" and "misery," which we are told are at the root of their actions, are personified and named as their "two mothers." The effect of this is to emphasize just how direct these roots are—as close, indeed, as the relationship of a mother to a child. Thus the "character" of this criminal underworld may be cruel and selfish, but it also stems from previous injustices and sufferings of which the criminals themselves are innocent.

Volume 3, Book 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Thenardier (Jondrette), Madame Thenardier, Eponine
Page Number: 674
Explanation and Analysis:

Marius has been spying on the Jondrette "lair" from the peep-hole of his own room, and he has been growing increasingly concerned that someone is in great danger, as the family is obviously plotting some kind of crime. In this brief digression, we learn how ideal indeed this hovel would be for a crime. Instead of studying human beings, whether as abstract "characters" or as individuals, here the narrator turns his sociological lens on a particular site within Paris. In some ways, he seems to be suggesting that crime is inevitable in such a place. But in other ways he is, once again, seeking to trace certain behaviors back to their origin—here, the dismal, poverty-stricken surroundings in which these characters find themselves. Rather than it being a question of condemning or withholding judgment, it is a question of seeking to understand and explain the source of these people's anger and criminality.

Volume 4, Book 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gavroche
Page Number: 825
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the story we have returned to the "gamin" Gavroche, whom we now learn sometimes works with the gang of Paris underworld criminals including Montparnasse. Gavroche lives in what he calls "the elephant," once a monumental project by Napoleon to build a 40-foot-tall wooden elephant with a tower perched on top. Most Parisians have forgotten about it by now, and those who do pass by and notice it are quick to scorn it as useless and ugly. They are not interested in the elephant even as a curious reminder of the past layers of Parisian existence.

However, the elephant shelter also has more profound meaning in this section. The narrator argues that the elephant is unfairly maligned for being ugly, and claims that its real strength is a moral one, in that it can provide for poor, hungry, lonely children whom society has otherwise "repulsed." The "good of that," a statement apparently meant rhetorically, is then shifted onto another register, one of ethics rather than economics.

Volume 5, Book 1 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 1050
Explanation and Analysis:

Much of this volume is taken up with detailed, carefully depicted descriptions of the barricade and the fighting within it. At the most recent moment of fighting, Gavroche has been killed, and Enjolras has remarked that Valjean (though no one knows who he is) is managing to fight well without killing anyone. Now the narrator pauses for a more abstract description of these barricades. He depicts them here almost as another feature of Parisian life, among the many sociological categories, neighborhoods, and historical and architectural features that he has pointed our attention to before. He implies here that barricades, long a tool used by the weaker and more vulnerable side in French and European battles, recall these historical fights for those who pass through them. In a way, then, there is little that is more real or more historically rich than a barricade—but at the same time, this vivid, rich fullness of the past makes the barricade seem paradoxically unreal or dreamlike for those who pass through it.