Chapter 1 The voice that had summoned Marius to the barricades had come at an opportune moment, when he was mad with grief, desperate, and only wanting to die. Marius crosses the Esplanade and the Invalides Bridge, the Champs Elysees, and the Rue de Rivoli. Passing through the Rue Saint-Honoré, people are walking around and the shops are open as usual. But as he continues on to the Rue des Prouvaires, people no longer walk, instead huddling together and whispering. No candles burn in the windows. A little further on, piles of guns, bayonets, and troops fill the streets, but no curious observers.
Marius traverses a large segment of central Paris from the Left Bank to the Right Bank, and the narrator shows how segmented the city is by neighborhood, such that a scene of total gloom and disaster in one part of the city can be entirely ignored in another, even if they’re geographically close to one another. The revolution’s goal is to universalize social ideals, but at this point the group is very much constrained.
Marius sneaks across a street patrolled by National Guardsmen, attempting to make his way through the darkness. As he crosses the Rue du Contrat-Social, a bullet whistles by him and pierces the wall of a hairdresser’s shop. He continues forward.
Marius’s near-miss with the bullet comes at the “Street of the Social Contract”—a contract between government and people that now seems to be crumbling.
Chapter 2 The narrator paints an owl’s-eye view of the city, beginning with the Halles quarter, an enormous dark hole in the center with no light or movement. All around it, swords and bayonets might be seen to gleam. The darkness is wild, the combatants invisible, and death seems close by and inevitable. This battle would have to be over the next day, so as to tell whether this would be a riot or a revolution. Nature seems to reflect the tone of the city: heavy clouds are on the horizon and the sky hangs low over the streets.
Victor Hugo’s Romantic influences are clearest here, as nature itself is anthropomorphized (made to have living or human qualities) and the city is described as possessing a mood, a tone, and a certain atmosphere. The lack of light further suggests the moral ambiguity of this moment, in which it’s still unclear which group is in the right.
Chapter 3 Marius reaches the Halles and sees a red glow, the reflection of the torch on the Corinthe barricade. He is one road away, but he pauses to think about his father, the heroic colonel, who had fought across Europe for France. He tells himself that it’s now his turn to seek the enemy and be brave, though this time through civil war. He weeps bitterly, feeling that he cannot live without Cosette: he had promised he would die without her. He cannot abandon his friends or be untrue to his word, but he’s ashamed at the degrading nature of the battle compared to his father’s wars. But it occurs to him that he is still fighting for liberty, even if called civil war.
It’s difficult for Marius to sort out how exactly his joining the barricades relates to his father’s battles. His father fought under France’s leader, not against the official French troops, whereas now, under another leader, Marius will be doing the opposite. Still, he finds a kind of reconciliation in the idea of France, which he relates to freedom, equality, and justice, and which can remain constant over time even as alliances and enemies change.
The narrator claims that there is no such thing as foreign or civil war, but only just or unjust war. War is necessary until true progress is achieved. It’s only a disgrace when used against progress, reason, and truth. Driving out a tyrant or the English amounts to the same thing: repossession of one’s territory. And when a tyrant falls in France one falls everywhere—thus such wars lead to peace. Marius mingles these logical, rational thoughts with his heartbreak and passion. He glances towards the inside of the barricade, and sees the man just killed by Le Cabuc in the third-story window, his bloody head bent over the street, as if surveying those about to die.
Civil war, to many, might suggest internal division and thus a kind of moral bankruptcy. For Hugo, however, a better way of judging war is not who is fighting against whom, but what they are fighting for. Still, the narrator notes how Marius can think about lofty, world-historical notions of war even while being simultaneously preoccupied with his own small tragedy. Often this is what melding historical and individual narrative means.