Chapter 1 Last year (for the narrator, 1861), the narrator was walking from Nivelles to La Hulpe, when he passed through a valley home to several inns and other buildings. He found himself before a large stone door, across from a meadow with wild flowers. There was a large circular hole at the foot of the door, and a peasant woman emerged, remarking that this hole was made by a French cannon ball. Higher near the door, she said, was the hole of a bullet. The place is called Hougomont, she said. The narrator continued walking on, and arrived at an elevation where he could look out on the battlefield of Waterloo.
This is the first time that the narrator actually enters into his own story, which now jumps forward several decades to around the time of the publication of Les Misérables. This intrusion will ultimately be connected back to the plot of the novel, but it will also give the narrator time and space to develop some of the important themes of the book, even if here they are only tangentially related to the plot itself.
Chapter 2 Hougomont is the site of the beginning of the resistance to Napoleon, the beginning of his end. It was once a chateau, but now is only a group of farms. Napoleon sent multiple generals with their soldiers against it, but none managed to conquer it. The horror of combat still lingers in some courtyards, echoing the agony of those who died there. English guards had been in ambush in the rooms of one house, which now is overgrown with ivy and dirt. There had been a massacre in the chapel, which is now no longer used. The well was turned into a grave for hundreds of bodies, which the soldiers were anxious to bury after the battle. Only one house in the ruin is still inhabited, by the grandchildren of the old gardener Guillaume van Kylsom, whom the British had forced to be their servant when they invaded.
Napoleon has been mentioned earlier in the novel, particularly relating to the Bishop’s disapproval of his continental conquests and hubris in wanting to extend the French empire. Here, Napoleon is mentioned as a historical reference and means of contextualizing the site of Hougomont and the battle of Waterloo, but Hugo’s other purpose is to minutely detail the sites of destruction, terror, and death through “physiognomic” descriptions that allow the reader to relive these historical moments.
Between the garden and the orchard beside it are a number of holes made by the British firing outwards and the French attacking. The French had managed to take the orchard. The trees still bear traces of bullets and bayonets. English, French, and German blood had been spilt here: 3,000 deaths in Hougomont alone.
Even in 1861, decades after Waterloo, physical traces of the battle remain in the trees, symbolizing the persistence of history (perhaps even more so than human memory) in certain places.
Chapter 3 The narrator suggests we turn back to 1815 to explain what happened around the action of this book. Europe’s fate would have been different if it hadn’t rained on the night of June 17th, he says. The battle of Waterloo had to be delayed because of wet ground, which made it impossible for the artillery to maneuver. Napoleon, an artillery officer, wanted to use his artillery’s advantage over the smaller British artillery. But as it was, the delay gave more Prussians time to arrive, and ultimately helped them win. The narrator asks, as other historians have, if the defeat was all Napoleon’s fault: if his forces had weakened, his desire for adventure had become unrealistic, or if any of these are true, as Napoleon’s battle plan was a masterpiece. But he cannot give a full history of the battle, since he is only a distant witness.
Again the narrator stresses the interconnectedness of history and narrative, of broad political decisions and minor personal activities. Like Tolstoy in War and Peace, Hugo is interested in destiny (Tolstoy wonders whether Napoleon wouldn’t have been turned back from Russia if he didn’t happen to have a cold). Here, chance—perhaps the other side of fate and destiny—serves as an opportunity to reflect on how things could have been different, and how one small aspect of history can have enormous unforeseen results—in one’s own life as well as in history writ large.
Chapter 4 The narrator suggests that to visualize the battle one imagine a capital A on the ground: each limb of the letter is a road and each tip a town: at the center is the final battle. Wellington, the English general, had already studied the terrain, and for this battle the English had the better position. The figure of Napoleon on horseback at daybreak is well-known, so the narrator doesn’t feel the need to describe him. History is a pitiless light, the narrator states, and the shadows of the tyrant often mingle with the brilliancy of the great leader.
Again the narrator introduces the symbols of light and darkness to represent heroic character versus moral malice, here in a political context. Napoleon is treated ambivalently throughout the text, as many characters do consider him a “brilliant,” great leader, while others judge his actions to be those of a tyrant, and still others struggle to categorize him as a historical figure.
Chapter 5 The beginning of the battle was uncertain for both parties, but worse for the English. It began at around half past eleven in the morning. Napoleon tried to make a feint by attacking Hougomont and drawing Wellington away from other places, but the English held their positions strongly. The English army had many young, raw recruits, whose inexperience paradoxically made them fight harder and better. In the afternoon, the battle became a dizzy mirage, and each historian has taken from it what pleases him to notice. In fact, chaos is the only rule of battle, and historians can only seize the general outline of the struggle, without being able to enter into particular descriptions and individual depictions.
At first, the narrator sticks to clear, straightforward language and known facts about the way that the battle initially developed. But this unidealized description soon gives way to Hugo’s recurrent philosophies about history. Here, the emphasis is on how difficult it is to do what he’s suggested earlier—concentrate on individual, particular stories rather than grand narratives—in the haze and chaos of a battle. The history of war, it’s suggested, is inherently partial and uneven.
Chapter 6 By 4:00 the English were in bad straits, with several generals and colonels killed. But the center still held on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean. The English drew back, and Napoleon shouted that this was the beginning of their retreat.
The narrator now reverts to chronological description. There’s some dramatic irony at play in the way Napoleon so confidently states the French will soon triumph.
Chapter 7 Napoleon was in a wonderful humor that day: the narrator notes that even destiny’s favorites make mistakes, and only God knows all that will happen. Napoleon was convinced he could take all the English as prisoners. The narrator notes that the field of Waterloo has changed greatly from what it was during the battle. Two great tombs, English and German, now dot two meadows, while the entire plain is a tomb for the French. On June 18th, 1815, there was a steep slope creating a plateau, along which ran a kind of trench—an old hollow road, where so many accidents had happened that it was no longer used. However, it meant that those below could not see what was happening on the plateau.
The narrator assumes that the reader will know the outcome of Waterloo: the French are defeated by a joint army of the English and Prussians. In examining the day of the battle in detail, with the outcome a foregone conclusion, the narrator is able to return to nuances of the battlefield—like the old hollow road—and make conjectures on destiny and human versus divine will. This will be a largely unconventional tale of the battle of Waterloo, compared to classic accounts.
Chapter 8 Napoleon thought little about all the possible things that could go wrong that day, instead preferring to shake his head at fate, believing it to be in his favor. With Wellington in retreat, he gave orders to attack the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean.
The narrator contrasts his own focus on the weaknesses of the French position with Napoleon’s cavalier attitude in assuming that he was free from fate.
Chapter 9 3,500 Frenchmen began to attack, looking formidable. They ascended the slope of the plateau and could only be seen through clouds of smoke amid a huge clamor, like figures from an ancient epic. Beyond the crest of the plateau the English were waiting. All at once, the French reached the hollow, moving too quickly to halt, and the horses dived into it, the following ranks piling up behind them.
The narrator’s language indeed recalls that of an epic, which has the effect (paradoxically, since it contradicts his previously stated goals) of transforming the soldiers from modern, particular humans into vague and mythic figures.
The narrator says it was impossible for Napoleon to have won the battle, not because of Wellington but because of God. The laws of the 19th century did not allow it: the individual figure of Napoleon had held too much power for too long, and it was time for civilization at large to regain its command.
While the narrator stresses the importance of individual figures in history, this doesn’t necessarily extend to history’s “great men,” as he suggests that such figures can never conquer all of civilization for any extended period of time.
Chapter 10 At the ravine, the whole battle turned. One French column had been able to skirt the ravine, and they hurled themselves on the English. Each one of the French was equal to ten English, but they soon found themselves overwhelmed. Even as the English were extraordinarily weakened, they continued to hold the plateau. At 5:00, Wellington drew out his watch and muttered, “Blucher, or night!” At that moment a distant line of bayonets gleamed in the twilight.
The language of this section betrays some nationalistic leanings, as the narrator affirms the strength and courage of the French even when overwhelmed by their enemy. As night approaches, France’s inevitable defeat approaches as well. Here darkness is the sign of material ruin.
Chapter 11 This surprise was the arrival of the Germans, led by Blucher—if he had arrived two hours earlier, Napoleon would have won.
This is another opportunity for the narrator to muse on the mysterious workings of fate and lack of human control.
Chapter 12 Everyone, says the narrator, knows the rest: Blucher turned the battle against the French, and roused the English back to strength. The French yelled “Vive l’empereur” and continued to advance, but it was total suicide. One general, Ney, offered himself to all the English bullets, but none struck him: he was fated to be killed by his own people instead.
The narrator glosses over what other historians would normally focus on—the military strategies that provoked this change of fortune—to instead concentrate on individual details, like Ney’s charge through incoming bullets.
Chapter 13 The French finally were forced to disband, each man trying to save himself. Heroism disappeared, as friends killed each other to escape and paid no attention to the entreaties of Napoleon, galloping past, whom they barely recognized. One column tried to rally at Genappe, but Blucher ordered extermination, and again this column fled. For the narrator, this downfall is not without a cause, but is instead a reminder of destiny. He calls Waterloo the hinge of the 19th century, which was needed to make the one great man disappear. God passed by here, he says. That evening Napoleon, haggard and somber, went back alone to Waterloo, as if advancing again.
Once again, Hugo’s interest in the desperate, less heroic side of humanity emerges, as the remarks on French heroism give way to a stark description of the utter chaos of defeat. However, the French soldiers are exempted from full responsibility for this lack of heroism by means of what Hugo believes is the historical necessity of the French defeat. Napoleon’s return to Waterloo, haggard rather than triumphant, reflects this world-historical shift.
Chapter 14 That night, each regiment, abandoned and conquered, died alone. When, at the foot of the plateau, one legion had more corpses than survivors, the English artillery gave pause. An English general shouted to them to surrender, and Cambronne, a French general, shouted an expletive back to them.
Brief glimpses of heroic behavior could, according to the narrator, still be found in individual actions such as those of Cambronne, even if they were not to be seen in official battlefield moves.
Chapter 15 The winner of Waterloo was Cambronne, according to the narrator, because of his courageous reply, which recognized that the offer of life was only a mockery. The English responded, “Fire!” and annihilated the rest of the legion.
The sacrifice of one’s own life by clinging to honor is portrayed here as an example of heroism, and also as a way to muddy and undermine the triumph of the English.
Chapter 16 Waterloo is an enigma; no one knows exactly what happened there, including the historians. No single man played a significant part in it. Waterloo was merely the rest of Europe’s winning number in the lottery against France. It was not Wellington but the English, with English firmness and resolution, that should be admired in the battle. Wellington was only a hero like any other. Out of 144,000 combatants, 60,000 were killed. Today Waterloo is a calm, nondescript field, but at night the catastrophe seems to arise again in a kind of nightmare.
Again the narrator stresses both that Napoleon lost his individual might at Waterloo, and that “history” as it is normally performed is an imperfect tool for understanding what really happened. The narrator also contrasts the focus on single generals and leaders with the unimaginable numbers of regular people who died at battle, whom he asks us to remember.
Chapter 17 For the narrator, Waterloo cannot be considered good. It was the death knell to the age of revolution, even though Napoleon’s empire had grown tyrannical. However, Louis XVIII did agree to a constitutional charter after the battle, leaving one small flame of revolution alive. Progress is inevitable; Waterloo only cut short one means of revolution, allowing it to be continued in another direction. The victory at Waterloo, then, was a counter-revolution that did not mean to be progressive. On June 18th, Robespierre was thrown from his saddle.
The narrator suggests that even without promoting or even condoning war, one can find positive consequences in political and social spheres. Robespierre, the revolutionary who became the leader of the bloody French terror, is now, the narrator suggests, no longer the model for how revolution should function: Waterloo thus serves as a turning point.
Chapter 18 The whole European system crumbled away after Waterloo. Louis XVIII reentered Paris, and monarchy was restored all over Europe. However, Napoleon became a symbol of Liberty for the people, even as the Restoration began. But for God, the narrator says, war and peace have the same value as a bug hopping from one blade of grass to another.
Many have understood Napoleon’s defeat as causing a step backwards for Europe (back to pre-revolutionary monarchy), but the narrator suggests a different interpretation, even while continuing to stress people’s helplessness before God.
Chapter 19 After the battle was over, the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean remained empty. By the next day, many of the bodies had been stripped of their clothes and possessions. The guilty were the rear-guard, parasites who didn’t fight in battle but sought to reap its booty. Around midnight, one of these men was roaming the field, resembling a dark nocturnal bird. There is nothing more terrible, says the narrator, than to live, laugh, and be healthy, to have a mother and wife and children, and suddenly sink into an abyss, struggle in vain, and realize that death is approaching.
The narrator contrasts the desperation and quiet dignity of those who fought and died in the battle of Waterloo with those who merely seek to benefit from others’ suffering and death. The comparison of one of these “parasitic” creatures to a nocturnal bird further underlines the demonic nature of such figures, who would be afraid to roam during the day.
This prowler paused over one dead man with a ring of gold on his finger. The scavenging man took it off, but suddenly the “dead” man’s hand grabbed his cloak. He dragged the man into the road: the injured man was an officer who wore the Legion of Armor. The officer asked who won the battle. At the man’s response, the English, the officer told the man to take a watch and purse from his cloak. The man pretended to do this, as he had already taken them. The officer told the man that he saved his life, and asked who he was. The man said he belonged to the French army, but must now flee. The officer asked his name: it was Thenardier. The officer said his was Pontmercy.
From a wide-frame perspective that considered the battle of Waterloo as a whole, the narrator has now zoomed in on one aspect of the battle, the rear-guard prowlers, and then further focused on one “parasite” in particular. Now this section of the novel rejoins the other “books,” as we learn that this figure is none other than Thenardier—a character whose nature clearly didn’t change much between now and his adoption of Fantine’s daughter.