Chapter 1 It is July 1823, and Jean Valjean has been recaptured. One article from the Drapeau Blanc newspaper notes that prior to his arrest, he managed to escape and withdraw over half a million francs from M. Lafitte—but no one knows where it is. After being brought again to the Court, Valjean refused to defend himself and was condemned to penal servitude for life. With this sentence, the narrator notes, M.-sur-M.’s prosperity vanishes entirely. Good will gives way to competition and animosity, the industrial products become faulty, and bankruptcy arrives.
After the introduction of Thenardier into the battlefield scene, the narrator transitions back to the major thread of the novel. Despite having escaped with Sister Simplice’s help, Valjean has apparently been captured again. Unfortunately, Valjean’s fears about the ethical correctness of abandoning M.-sur-M. to clear Champmathieu’s name turn out to be well-founded.
Chapter 2 Around the same time, in Montfermeil, an ancient superstition is revived: that of the devil who appears in the forest to dig holes for his treasures. If someone approaches and speaks to him, he dies within the week, and if someone grabs the treasure for himself, he dies within the month. Around the time of Valjean’s brief escape from Javert, an old road-laborer and ex-convict named Boulatruelle is noticed escaping into the forest in search of something, and digging holes. People in the town ask each other if the devil will catch him. After awhile, Boulatruelle stops searching, but others in the town surmise that it’s not the devil but a more worldly affair instead.
Montfermeil is the home of the Thenardiers, and this forest will play a significant role for the rest of the novel. As is often the case, the narrator takes on the point of view of various witnesses, entering the scene not just from the perspective of Boulatruelle but also from that of the townspeople who are curious to know what’s going on. This device also keeps the reader at least temporarily in the dark, and suggests that there is more to the story than what initially appears.
Thenardier, who’s very curious, suggests they get Boulatruelle drunk. He says very little, but they do figure out that one day, on his way to work, Boulatruelle had glimpsed a person he knew from the galleys carrying a large box into the forest with him. He lost the man in the forest, but later saw him emerge with a shovel and pick. He thus decided that money was buried somewhere in the forest—but his attempts to find it were in vain.
Knowing Thenardier as we do, we can surmise that his is not an innocent curiosity, but rather that he hopes to get something out of Boulatruelle’s confession. This time, though, the reader knows more than he does, as the narrator expects us to tie this information to the money withdrawn by Valjean.
Chapter 3 Towards October in 1823, the magnificent ship Orion enters into the port of Toulon to be repaired after its participation in the “Spanish war,” in which it mainly fired celebratory shots—at a cost of 300 million francs a year. The war was a matter of petty politics and slaughtered principles, in general a suspicious affair. France’s goal was to subject another nation to its rule: for the narrator, this goes against the values of the French Revolution. Nevertheless, the people of Toulon are in awe at the ship with its gigantic proportions and modern design.
The narrator takes this opportunity to reflect on the wasteful and frivolous nature of most war spending. He portrays the “Spanish war” as a gratuitous spectacle. By mentioning the annual cost of its celebratory shots, and the imperialist ideas behind it, he makes an implicit contrast to the social issues within France, issues with which so much of the novel is concerned.
One morning the crowd by the ship witnesses an accident. As the crew is bending the sails, the topman loses his balance and falls toward the sea, managing to seize the footrope but remaining hanging from it with the sea far below. Not one sailor dares to try to save him. Meanwhile he is straining to keep holding on. All at once, a man dressed in red—a convict—is seen climbing into the rigging. He had asked the officer of the watch’s permission to attempt to save the man. Only later do people recall how easily he had broken his ankle chain. The convict fastens another rope to the yard (a cross spar of the mast) and begins to descend along it next to the sailor, whom he secures to himself and drags back up. The crowd breaks into applause. But as the convict runs to rejoin his group, he runs along one of the lower yards and suddenly seems to stagger, and he falls into the sea. Four men rush into a boat and search for him, but he’s disappeared. His number is 9,430, his name Valjean.
Once again, Hugo begins with a broad portrayal of a scene, with all the social and political points of resonance one might find there, before centering in on a particular character or moment. In this way the book continues to show the interpenetration of history and personal narrative, social politics and individual experience. The early reference to the ease with which the convict broke his chains is the first suggestion that we might be dealing with a familiar character—but by refraining from using Valjean’s name, and only mentioning it after his number, the narrator reminds us of the dehumanizing nature of the prison system.