Chapter 1 The narrator describes 1831 and 1832 as two revolutionary mountains, crossed by social masses and even civilizations. The Restoration had been an intermediate phase, where heroism and ambitions had dwindled and people sought only a shelter. The Bourbon royal family, which had returned to France after Napoleon, believed it still possessed divine right, rather than simply being a part of history. Therefore the Restoration dismissed individual sovereignty and liberty, thus leading to its fall. But the nation had grown used to calm, intelligent discussion, and the slow, careful growth of liberty of conscience, speech, and press, at least until 1830.
It’s helpful to keep in mind a timeline of French history here: after Napoleon’s definitive fall in 1815, monarchy returned to France in the Restoration period. The narrator suggests that the mistake was to think that nothing had changed since the old regime before the Revolution of 1789. This assumption, which ignored even slight progress, made the Restoration’s fall (in 1830) inevitable, according to the narrator.
The Bourbons left the throne without authority, even though with gravity; their misfortune had no majesty. The July Revolution that did away with Charles X had many friends, but also enemies that witnessed it with fright and wrath. In this revolution, according to the narrator, right overthrew fact; it was mild, beautiful, and pure. The task of wise men, indeed, is to do away with the conflict between right and fact.
The narrator contrasts the “fact”—the powerful monarchy that usually quashes revolutionary movements—with “right,” or the social, political, and ethical justice of the poorer classes rising up against the Bourbons (even as the narrator doesn’t claim the Bourbons were entirely evil).
Chapter 2 But the Revolution of 1830 soon skidded to a halt, and was arrested midway by the bourgeoisie, which Hugo defines only as an interest group, which stops being a class once the interest is satisfied. Between 1830 and 1848 is a pause of progress during Louis-Philippe’s reign, a kind of “half-throne.”
The narrator suggests that, while “right” did temporarily win out in 1830, not much changed between then and the much more significant revolution of 1848. He suggests that progress can be “paused” even if never wholly vanquished.
Chapter 3 The narrator notes that Louis-Philippe, a member of the House of Orleans, was sober, patient, and morally upstanding, bourgeois through and through. He was patriotic, but preferred his family to his country. He valued domination more than dignity, and treated other nations in different ways depending on the moment. He was not very attentive, but a decent observer. He knew dates and details well but was ignorant of passions and inner aspirations of the crowd. He was charming but lacked majesty—his manners were of the old regime and his habits of the new. He was transition embodied. His fault was that he was too much of a paternal king, too concerned with private over public matters. In ’93 he had witnessed the trial of Louis XVI, and the Revolution had left a great trace in him. Still, too little time has passed (at the year of Hugo’s writing) before history can truly pronounce a definitive judgment on the king. At least as a man, he was kindly and good.
In the classic style of Hugo, we are treated to a detailed physiognomic analysis of the king that reigned between 1830 and 1848, whom many historians have deemed the “bourgeois king” because of how much he reflected the values of this class. Although the narrator had said the bourgeoisie cannot be defined as anything other than a group of interests, here he fleshes out more of what “bourgeois” means: morally upstanding but somewhat empty, charming instead of passionate, and inconsistent in its values. The narrator refrains from passing judgment on this “transitional” monarch, certain that history will accomplish that goal for him.
Chapter 4 The narrator wants to make clear that Louis-Philippe had attained power through revolutionary change; his position had been offered to him. But democracy and royalty could never be reconciled. The July Revolution had various interpretations within France. The old parties thought because of the right to revolt, one could revolt against revolutions, even though that meant it would be the king, not the people, revolting. Revolutions, unlike revolt, spring from necessity. Yet many legitimists attacked the revolution’s change from a Bourbon to Orleanist king, whereas the republicans struggled against the persistence of having a king at all.
The main point in this passage is that the July Revolution, which resulted in a compromise, ended up satisfying no one at all. The legitimists wanted a return to the “legitimate” Bourbon line of kings, while the republicans were unsatisfied with what they saw as a mere change in royal bloodline, rather than a true transformation of society. The narrator suggests that it was inevitable for this compromise to fall apart—laws of history wouldn’t allow it to stand.
Meanwhile, the questions of poverty, education, prostitution, wealth, consumption, etc., all continued without being resolved, with thinkers considering them abstractedly, instead asking themselves material questions about man’s happiness. Socialist thought led from these questions: how to produce wealth and how to share it—how to make man happy, citizens free, and nations great out of social prosperity. Capitalism and communism deal with only one part of these questions, and socialism attempted to unite them. But these ideas all coexisted in the years after 1830. Meanwhile, people remained without bread, foreign affairs grew more hazardous, and discontent grew as ideas were fostered.
The narrator seems to look with some disapproval on the various ideas and theories being tossed around in the years after the July Revolution. Capitalism, communism, and socialism all have their positive aspects, according to Hugo, but each has its own drawbacks as well. Furthermore, none of these ideas were even really being put into practice, while the material, physical problems plaguing Parisians and other French people continued.
Chapter 5 By April 1832, discontent was rapidly brewing. In Paris, this took place largely in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where “subversive” pamphlets were read in bars and news of anti-government plots spread. Scraps of conversation and vague plans could be heard throughout neighborhoods. Then more material evidence began to arise, like a report noting the need for sulphur, charcoal, and water, or the discovery by some children playing in the Champ-de-Mars of material for the preparation of gun cartridges. Secret societies began to spread over the country, such as the Society of the Rights of Man (dating from the Revolution), the Society of Action, and the Society of Equal Workingmen. In Paris, the Society of the Friends of the ABC continued to meet in the Café Musain.
By prefacing his remarks about the discontent of April 1832 with a historical summary of the politics of the time and the intellectual ideas of the moment, the narrator seems to suggest that these revolutionary ideas were justifiable and even necessary. For many of Paris’s and France’s poorest citizens, little had changed for the better in all these political upheavals. The spread of these ideas is described almost like a virus, growing contagious and expanding exponentially, in one way to think about how revolutionary ideas gain currency.
The neighborhood of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was in a state of agitation, especially since it was working-class and received shocks of commercial crises and strikes. The wine-shops of this area were particularly notorious as places of revolutionary thought. In ’93, men here hurled themselves on Paris seeking an end to oppression and tyranny, social equality, and progress. They acted savagely but in pursuit of civilization. The narrator notes that he would prefer barbarians of civilization to civilized men of barbarism. But he claims there is a third way: progress with a “gentle slope,” which God takes care of.
Hugo is far from straightforward concerning his opinions about revolution and political uprising. On the one hand, many French citizens’ political leanings (not to mention the band of Courfeyrac and friends) have been described sympathetically, yet even as the narrator stresses his defense of their savage behavior, he suggests that another path—one of gradual progress—is even better.
Chapter 6 Around this time, Enjolras is leading a meeting at the Café Musain. He asks how many can be counted on to battle against the army, and directs his friends to take care of certain neighborhoods. One is missing—the Barrière du Maine—where artists’ and sculptors’ studios are found, though the artists seem less interested in revolution than before. He tells Grantaire to go to these artists’ café, Richefeu’s, to try to talk them into joining forces.
From a sweeping historical and political scope, we now return to the miniscule workings of one particular political group: the Friends of the ABC at the Café Musain, or Marius’s friends and colleagues (though he’s decreased his political involvement since falling in love with Cosette).
After everyone leaves, Enjolras wanders the café, wondering if this is the moment to act. He asks himself if he should go to Richefeu’s himself and see how Grantaire is getting on. Reaching the door, he peers through the smoke to his comrade, who is simply playing dominos with his friends.
Here the narrator interjects a bit of humor into a stormy political situation. Enjolras may be single-minded in his pursuit of freedom through uprising, but others are more interested in youthful entertainment.