Chapter 1 The area of Paris by the Salpetrière is not quite the country, since there are many passers-by, but no longer the city, since the streets are overgrown with grass. It is a wild section of Paris, called the neighborhood of Marche-aux-Chevaux. Near the Rue des Vignes-Saint-Marcel, next to a factory and between two garden walls, is a small hatched hovel one story high. The door is made of worm-eaten planks, and the windowpanes are cracked, but there’s an honest air about the place. The house is known in the area as the Gorbeau house, from a man initially named Corbeau (raven), but whom the king had allowed to change his name to prevent mockery. Opposite the house is a street that leads to the city wall (no longer in existence at the time of writing). The area is dim and unpleasant: not a hell where one suffers, but a hell where one is bored. At twilight the boulevard becomes sinister and frightening, though. The area is quickly changing, the old buildings crumbling and new ones being erected. Not until 1845, when black smoke began to be seen in the area, will civilization really arrive in the neighborhood.
While Paris has played a small part in the novel up to this point (it’s where Valjean had made a brief stop, and where Fantine had spent her love affair with Tholomyes), only now does the narrator bring the reader into the city with a lush, evocative description—not of the historic monuments and famous boulevards, but rather of a small, apparently insignificant section of the city. Located somewhere between the urban and the rural, the Gorbeau hovel occupies a borderland in other ways too, as its inhabitants are largely ignored by the bustling, thriving city further towards the center. The narrator seems to suggest that it’s important to preserve such neighborhoods in prose, even if they’re wild and poor, since Paris has changed so much since the setting of the novel.
Chapter 2 Valjean stops in front of the Gorbeau house, takes a key, and opens the door, climbing a staircase to a moderately sized attic. He lays Cosette on the bed and kisses her hand, as he’d kissed her mother’s hand nine months before. The next morning she awakens with a start, saying she’s ready to work, but then sees Valjean and remembers she has a new life. Valjean tells her to play with her doll all day.
Into this intensely detailed scene enter Valjean and Cosette, both characters that have been forced to live on the margins or borders of society—just as their neighborhood is on the margins of Paris proper. The narrator stresses Valjean’s continued kindness.
Chapter 3 For 25 years Valjean has not loved anything. Only at the age of 55 does love enter his life. Cosette changes as a result of his love. She does not remember her mother, and though she had tried to love, all the Thenardiers had repulsed her. Destiny fills in the gulf of age between Valjean and Cosette.
The narrator emphasizes how much love and compassion can actually change someone’s nature—a claim that challenges the idea that all people are born with a certain character.
The two live in the attic alone, except for an old housekeeper who is lodged on the first floor. Before he had gone to Montfermeil, he had told her he was a gentleman ruined by Spanish bonds. Valjean teaches Cosette to read, sometimes recalling how he had taught himself to read in prison in order to do evil. He teaches her to pray, and tells her about her mother.
As usual, it’s impossible for Valjean to entirely conceal himself from all of society, but he covers his tracks as best he can. Teaching Cosette to read gives him another opportunity to reflect on his slow, painful path from crime to redemption.
Until now, Valjean has been mainly acquainted with the malice and misery of society: the fate of women through Fantine, and public authority through Javert. He had attempted to repress any new bitterness at being returned to prison, but if not for Cosette, he may have grown discouraged and fallen once more.
In the novel, characters like Fantine and Javert have often represented problems in society. Cosette is another example, standing in for the misery that specifically affects children.
Chapter 4 Valjean never goes out by day; at night he goes to church. He dresses poorly, but whenever someone asks for alms, he gives money. Thus he begins to be known as the beggar who gives alms. The housekeeper, a gossip, spies on Valjean one day, and sees him draw out a 1,000-franc bill from the lining of one of his coat skirts. She flees in alarm. A moment later, Valjean approaches the woman and tells her to exchange the bill, which is the quarterly income he’s just received. It’s too late at night for him to have just received a check. The housekeeper spreads her concerns among the others in the neighborhood.
Hugo is concerned with the harmful, insidious results of gossip. Gossip had been the initial trigger for Fantine’s dismissal, which then led to all of her other miseries and death. Here, gossip about money threatens to unravel the carefully constructed persona and life of Valjean and Cosette. Ironically, it’s fed in particular by his generosity, which can be contrasted to the skeptical, over-curious attention of others.
Chapter 5 Valjean often gives some money to a poor man by a well near Saint-Medard’s church, a man whom some say is actually a policeman in disguise. One evening he’s approaching the beggar, who raises his head, and Valjean feels panicked: he thinks he’s seen Javert’s face. The next day he returns to speak to the man: he is certainly not Javert, and Valjean feels relieved. A few nights later, in the attic, Valjean hears the door downstairs open and shut. He sends Cosette to bed and remains silent. He sees a light through the keyhole, and realizes someone is there listening. A few moments later, the person retreats.
Is Valjean’s past finally behind him, and is he simply being paranoid? It’s difficult to tell at this point—after all, Valjean had confirmed that he is believed dead, and his death had even been printed in the newspapers. But Paris is notable, at least in the novel, for being both a huge, thriving city and, ultimately, a very small world, so Valjean worries that his past may have caught up with him once again.
At daybreak, Valjean hears a noise again, and looks through the keyhole. He sees a man, who passes in front of Valjean’s room: it’s Javert. The next morning, the housekeeper tells him that a new lodger has entered the house. That night, Valjean looks out onto the boulevard. Seeing no one, he tells Cosette to accompany him out.
Valjean’s fears are confirmed, though it’s impossible for him to know how Javert tracked him down. Javert clearly retains some doubts, however, or else he would arrest Valjean on the spot.