Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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Les Miserables Volume 5, Book 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter 1 Paris’s two most infamous barricades are not from 1832, but rather the insurrection of June 1848. The narrator notes that it’s sometimes the common people, not the privileged, who suffer the most from such revolutionary violence. The insurrection of June 1848 was exceptional and difficult to classify. It attacked the republic, so it had to be combated, but ultimately it was the revolt of the people against themselves. It had two major barricades: at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and at the Faubourg du Temple. Saint-Antoine was made out of all kinds of odds and ends and rubbish from the streets. The pell-mell of the barricade made it a symbol of the people’s despair, confusion, and fury.
Once again, the narrator suggests that each historical moment must be judged on its own merits rather than condemning them all together. Here he suggests for the first time that insurrection might not be ideal even for the lower classes, whom the rebels are purportedly seeking to defend. We’ve already seen the relationship between the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and revolutionary activity, and here the narrator adds another neighborhood to the map of Paris in revolution.
Themes
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Here, the people would attack revolution (universal suffrage, the assembly, the republic) in the name of revolution. Meanwhile, across the city at the Faubourg du Temple, the dazzling June sun illuminated the severe, silent, barricade there. This barricade, defended by 80 and attacked by 10,000, held out for three days. All the defenders were killed except for the leader, Barthelemy.
Hugo was against the revolutions of 1848, instead hoping for a slower, more gradual movement of change and progress. Hugo’s own political beliefs find their way into the novel, of course, but this description also suggests that there was courage and nobility in the rebels’ actions.
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Courtnet, a brave, energetic man who had been a navy officer, had built the Antoine barricade. Barthelemy, a feeble, taciturn kind of street urchin who’d been in the galleys, constructed the Temple one. Later on, Barthelemy would duel Cournet in London and kill him, and then would be hanged.
These barricade builders seem to echo the kinds of men that embraced riot and revolution in June 1832 (the time of the novel). The narrator continues to stress the relationship between social unhappiness and revolt.
Themes
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Chapter 2 The Rue de la Chanvrerie barricade, then, is only a bare outline of the later Paris barricades. That night, many of the insurgents take refuge and tend to the wounded in a neighboring house, while Enjolras remains with Javert in the tavern. At 2:00 in the morning there are still 37 men. Near dawn, they gain renewed energy, and Combeferre leads the conversation towards the Roman Emperor Caesar, who was betrayed and killed by the senator Brutus (among others). Combeferre says Caesar fell justly.
By making a brief excursion to talk about the 1848 revolution, the narrator is able both to compare and contrast this moment to later construction of barricades in Paris. The suggestion that Brutus was right to kill Caesar is a political claim, proposing that the members of the group have justice on their side in attempting to knock down those in power.
Themes
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Chapter 3 Enjolras returns from making reconnaissance. He says that the entire army of Paris is ready to strike, and the populace has abandoned them. A voice from among the group shouts that they should build up the barricade and show that the republicans don’t abandon the people, even if the people abandon the republicans.
The initial barricade fight was meant to give the fighters time for the rest of Paris to join them, so that it would really be the citizens versus the army. Unlike in other moments and circumstances, however, this time mot Parisians are too wary to join in the revolt.
Themes
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Chapter 4 Enjolras says only thirty men should remain, so as to not waste more lives. Combeferre says they may all want to get themselves killed, but they must think of their wives and children. Suicide would only mean the murder of families that would grow helpless and wretched. They must not be selfish, he says. Marius raises his voice and says that the men are right, and those who have families should leave. Slowly, the men begin to point out others among their ranks, and five step out. There are only four National Guard uniforms in which they can hide, so they begin to quarrel over who will stay, but at once a fifth falls onto the ground: Valjean has just entered the barricade. Bossuet asks who he is, and Marius says gravely that he knows him. They all welcome him.
For these men, abandoning their posts would not only be the height of cowardice but would also mean another kind of sacrifice, in this case sacrificing the opportunity for honor, dignity, and courage. Like Marius (and Valjean), many came to the barricades expecting that they wouldn’t get reinforcements from other Parisians, and that they’d die here. But this kind of sacrifice for a political goal—republicanism—is to be balanced with another kind of duty—one related to love and family.
Themes
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Chapter 5 For a while, Enjolras’s thought has been expanding: he is committed to progress and to both the French and human republic. He tells the other men to picture the future: equality, fraternity, peace, and harmony. When they have accomplished their task, they will have contributed to the dawn of truth and the unity of man: the sovereignty of man over himself, which is another word for liberty. This will begin with universal education, which will equip all with the tools to become equal and fight for justice, so that the twentieth century will not suffer the injustices of the nineteenth—it will be as if history had ended. If they die here, they’ll die in the light of the future.
Enjolras returns to the kind of speeches he has been accustomed to making with the Friends of the ABC, but this time with a broader historical thrust behind it, as he situates what they’re doing within other battles both in France and elsewhere, battles that have sought to attain basic rights for people. Much of this language can be traced to the rhetoric of the French Revolution, but there’s also a confidence in the inevitability of progress (which Hugo himself espoused).
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Chapter 6 Marius had been feeling as if he were already dead, but now he wonders why Fauchelevent (Valjean) is here. Meanwhile, Enjolras enters to give Javert a drink. Javert asks to be bound on a table rather than against the post. Javert raises his eyes and recognizes Jean Valjean: he’s not even shocked.
This chapter is a shifting web of disguises and recognition, as Marius still thinks he knows who Valjean really is, and Javert does “discover” Valjean, although only when he himself is condemned to die.
Themes
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Chapter 7 The insurgents increase the height of their barricades, and each is given a small drink of brandy. The men prepare for the attack silently, no longer hoping for victory. They fix their eyes on the edge of the street. Then a cannon appears, pushed by artillery-men. The entire barricade fires, but none of the artillery-men are struck. Bossuet shouts Bravo for their adversaries, and everyone claps. Combeferre notes that it’s a new technology for the cannon. Suddenly, the artillery-men load and shoot the cannon, which dashes against the barricade but barely dents it. At that moment, Gavroche flings himself into the barricade, and everyone starts to laugh.
Now it seems that all the men who have remained are committed to dying here. Instead of hoping for victory, they recall the speech of Enjolras and place their own individual actions within a historical narrative of greater importance. Interestingly, it’s at the moment of their somber acceptance of death that the group becomes more merry and cheerful, perhaps because they have nothing at all left to lose.
Themes
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Chapter 8 Marius asks Gavroche what he’s doing there, and Gavroche says he delivered the letter to the porter who was asleep. Marius asks if he knows that man (Valjean), and Gavroche lies and says no. Meanwhile, an infantry company appears at the end of the street, and the cannoneers re-load their weapon. The insurgents burst forward, but this time the cannon rips through the wall with grape-shot and kills two. Enjolras takes aim at the artillery sergeant, a young, gentle-looking man. Combeferre exclaims that this is a charming, thoughtful man who probably has a family and is in love—they shouldn’t kill him. Enjolras says it must be done, and as a tear falls down his cheek, he fires and kills the man.
Although Gavroche had tried to follow Marius’s instructions, his eagerness to return to battle made him complete his task a little sloppily. It’s this very carelessness, however, that has given Valjean the opportunity to make his way to the barricade (for what, we’re not yet entirely certain, though given earlier clues, it should have something to do with protecting Marius). Enjolras, once again, is uncomfortable with the system of justice and right promulgated in battle, but he makes himself follow this system all the same.
Themes
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Chapter 9 The grape-shot will soon be the ruin of the insurgents, so they decide they must deaden the cannon blows. One old woman had placed her mattress in front of her window, foreseeing the bullets. Valjean fires at the ropes holding it up, and the mattress falls into the street, though outside the barricade. Valjean steps out into the street, amid a rain of bullets, and carries it back to the barricade. The next cannon-shot is dulled by the mattress.
This is the first time Valjean enters and plays a strategic role in the battle, though it’s not by harming anyone—even though he does risk harm himself by carrying the mattress across the barricades. Once again Valjean relies upon skills, like an accurate shot, that were developed with less noble purposes years before.
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Chapter 10 At that moment Cosette awakens, having dreamed of Marius, whom she is sure has received her letter and will find a way of seeing her. Cosette gets dressed and opens her window. At once she bursts into tears, having a sudden inkling of something terrible happening. Below her window is a bird’s nest, and Cosette slowly grows calm again while looking at the birds.
The narrator abruptly shifts to another area of Paris, one devoid of the chaos and danger of the barricade, but still the site of Cosette’s emotional turmoil and worry. Cosette is treated as loving and pure, but also rather simple—free from the grave moral decisions of those like Marius and Valjean.
Themes
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Chapter 11 The army continues to fire, hoping to exhaust the insurgents’ ammunition. Valjean shoots the helmet off one sentinel perched on a chimney, terrifying him into descending. Bossuet asks why Valjean didn’t kill him, but Valjean doesn’t reply.
Bossuet is the first to realize that, while Valjean has played a crucial role in protecting others, even risking harm to himself, he is not actively harming others among the “enemy.”
Themes
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Chapter 12 The narrator notes that the National Guard is known to be zealous against insurrections. At times like these, “civilization” (represented by multiple interests rather than a few strong principles) believes that it is in danger, and this leads to swift action—including the execution of an insurgent like Jean Prouvaire after just five minutes.
The narrator suggests through this passage that “civilization” may not have the monopoly on moral upstandingness that it’s assumed to have, especially when it descends from principles to interest groups characterized by desperation rather than by strong values.
Themes
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On June 6th, the National Guard company is commanded by Captain Fannicot, a fanatical supporter of the government who hopes to defeat the insurgents on his own. He sends his company rushing down the street, but the insurgents immediately open fire and kill a number of men, including Fannicot. Enjolras is irritated that their ammunition is being used up for nothing. Unlike large armies, insurrectionists must count their cartridge-boxes. This means that barricades are usually crushed in the end, though sometimes the improbable does happen.
The narrator has already detailed characters like Claquesous/Le Cabuc, who escape the high-minded values of the rebellion’s leaders and take advantage of the chaos of revolutionary times. The narrator suggests that Fannicot is another species of this type, defined rather by hubris and thoughtlessness in leading his men into certain death.
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Chapter 13 Enjolras cries that Paris seems to be waking up: new barricades are built on other streets, and on the Rue Saint-Denis a woman fires on the army from behind a window. In the Rue Planche-Mibray, women throw old pottery-pieces and utensils onto the soldiers. The army has to stamp out flares on multiple sides. But in less than half an hour, the National Guard seems to have succeeded.
The narrator has noted how quickly rebellion can rise and fall, and this seems to be one example in which a certain crescendo seems to be established before dying away just as quickly. Such unexpected rhythms seem to define the revolutionary experience for Hugo.
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Chapter 14 Courfeyrac and Bossuet are in increasingly good humor. Bossuet laughs at how Enjolras manages to be great and brave without a mistress making him so. Suddenly, they hear another cannon at a distance, attacking the Saint-Merry barricade. The insurgents fire upon the artillery, but Enjolras shakes his head and says that in 15 minutes there will be no cartridges left in the barricade.
Again the members of the Friends of the ABC, having somberly accepted their own likely deaths, are now freed from further seriousness and can find humor and merriment within their dire situations. This is even more apparent with the knowledge that when the cartridges run out, they’re truly lost.
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Chapter 15 Gavroche, having overheard this, slips out of the barricade and starts emptying the cartridge-boxes of the soldiers that have been killed. Courfeyrac calls out at him to come back inside. Gavroche crawls on his belly, taking advantage of his small size. Bullets begin to rain down around him, and he begins to sing, taking pleasure in teasing and distracting the artillery-men, who laugh as they aim. He plays hide and seek with death, but finally a bullet strikes him. He staggers, then falls. The whole barricade cries out, but Gavroche rises again and begins to sing. He does not finish his song, however. A second bullet strikes him, and he falls.
Gavroche has been constantly looking for a way to prove himself, to claim a place as one of the “real” fighters rather than simply a gamin from the streets. Here, the narrator touchingly describes the mix of jovial playfulness and utter courage that characterizes Gavroche’s movements. The official army’s laughter becomes a sobering perversion of Gavroche’s own humor, even as he is shown as sacrificing himself for a greater cause.
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Chapter 16 At that moment two small children are walking along the Luxembourg garden. These are the boys whom Gavroche had taken in—Thenardier’s, leased out to Magnon. On the morning of June 6th, the Luxembourg is sunny and charming, the statues robed with shadow and light. The abundance of light is somehow reassuring, and the recent rain seems to make everything gleam even more.
Once again, the narrator shifts rapidly to another scene in Paris, where the horrors and chaos of the barricades might as well be nonexistent—yet through the motifs of shadow and light, it’s suggested that there are places for goodness and evil throughout the city at any given moment.
Themes
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The small boy says he’s hungry, and they watch a bourgeois leading his 6-year-old, who is dressed as a National Guardsman. They stop to watch the swans, and the son takes a bite of his brioche and spits it out, crying, saying he’s not hungry anymore. The father tells him to throw it to the swans, and the cake falls near the edge. At that moment, drum-beats and clamors can be heard from afar, and the pair departs. Meanwhile, the two little boys approach the water’s edge. The elder one leans over and grabs the brioche, beating away the swans, and gives it to his brother.
While the members of the National Guard are the enemies on the barricade, we can also see how such figures of official authority (like Javert) are often unthinkingly venerated. The sound of the barricades becomes audible just as the boy desperately tries to grab a piece of bread—suggesting that there’s a connection between their desperation and what the rebels are fighting for.
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Chapter 17 Marius dashes out of the barricade, but it’s too late: Gavroche is dead. Marius barely notices that a bullet has grazed his head, and Courfeyrac bandages it when he returns. Combeferre whispers to Enjolras that the man (Valjean) finds an odd way of defending the barricade even while refraining from killing anyone. It’s a tranquil moment within the tavern as a firestorm rages outside.
Back on the barricade, Marius and the others barely have time to recover from the death of Gavroche before turning to the next issue: the enigmatic presence of Valjean, and why he is fighting but not killing (a reason that the reader understands far better).
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Chapter 18 The narrator notes that a barricade creates a kind of dreamscape, into which one may enter without remembering any of the death and shadows outside of it. The clock strikes midday. Enjolras orders the men to carry stones up to the roofs of the houses. They barricade the window below and secure the wine-shop’s doors. Enjolras tells Marius to stay outside and observe. When the drum beats the assault, the men will rush from the tavern to the barricade. The last man to leave will smash Javert’s skull. Valjean steps forward and asks to be one the one to kill him, and Enjolras doesn’t object.
Knowing that they’re certain to die, the men take every opportunity to ensure that they’ll kill as many National Guardsmen as possible before being definitively vanquished. To Enjolras, it may seem that Valjean has debts to settle with Javert, which would account for the strangeness of his presence at the barricades, but the narrator, of course, wants us to grasp that something else is most likely going on.
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Chapter 19 Valjean is left alone with Javert. He unties the rope. Valjean drags him out of the wine shop, and Marius sees them pass into the Mondetour lane. Valjean and Javert catch sight of a woman’s body—Eponine. Javert says he believes he knows her. He tells Valjean to take his revenge. Instead, Valjean cuts Javert’s cords and says he is free.
For Javert, the only reason for Valjean’s presence that he can comprehend is the desire to seek revenge, following a system of justice that may be outside the law, but that still relies on judgment and condemnation rather than on mercy.
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Javert remains open-mouthed as Valjean tells him his address, in case he should escape. Javert, snarling, buttons up his coat and sets out. Turning around, he shouts that Valjean annoys him—Valjean should kill him. Valjean tells him to be off, fires his pistol into the air, and returns to the barricade.
Javert is both overwhelmingly confused and enraged by Valjean’s decision, which fails to conform to the entire system of justice and revenge that Javert has spent his whole life defending.
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Meanwhile, Marius had realized the inspector was the very man whom he had approached about the Thenardier affair. He had asked Enjolras what the man’s name was, and he’d answered Javert. Marius had sprung to his feet, but then heard the pistol shot and Valjean’s declaration that “It is done.” Marius then felt a gloomy chill.
In another example of dramatic irony, the reader is more knowledgeable than Marius about what really took place between Javert and Valjean. Marius believes that Valjean (for him, Fauchelevent) enacted his revenge against Javert.
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Chapter 20 The “death-hour” of the barricade is approaching, as the masses disown the movement and abandon the insurrection. The houses of the Rue de la Chanvrerie are now closed to the insurgents: fear prevents hospitality. When the search for utopia grows impatient and turns to revolt, it’s almost always too soon, so it becomes resigned and stoically yields to catastrophe. Nevertheless, progress is a general human law, so there’s no reason to despair. Even after catastrophe, it turns out that ground has been gained.
In the crucial first part of the barricade fighting, it still seemed possible that all of Paris would rise up with the rebels, but now it’s apparent that those in revolt have failed to inspire a city-wide uprising. However, for Hugo, such an uprising would not necessarily do more than a small revolt, which still pushes society one step further towards progress.
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However, the narrator notes, sometimes individuals resist the eternal life of the human race. People want to conserve their calm, material possessions, or family life. Insurgents play with death and sometimes err, and yet the narrator says these men are to be admired—especially when they fail. Others may accuse them of criminality; the narrator agrees that peaceful solutions are better, but these men are admirable for their commitment to progress and their courage in facing death. None of the insurgents hated Louis Philippe, but they attacked the idea of divine right in kings, believing that a Paris without kings would result in a world without tyrants.
Once again, the book reveals a complex and ambivalent attitude towards revolutionary activity. We’ve already seen how much suffering and crime can result, even if unwittingly, from such events, and Hugo can’t bring himself to condone that. Yet at the same time (according to the novel), it’s possible to stand for peace and against war even while respecting the individual courage of those who fight for progress (though they may not go about it in the “right” way).
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The narrator claims that France’s grandeur and beauty comes from its love of artistic beauty, another way of saying its ability to see the light. In the future, art will be supported by science and both will work for social betterment. The book which the reader has in his hands—Les Misérables itself—is part of a march, however winding and cut through by exceptions, of evil to good, unjust to just, night to day.
Here Hugo situates his own novel, a work of art, within the general historical march of progress, which paradoxically is both inevitable and has to be fought for. For the first time, art enters into the idea of social “light” and progress, in addition to material progress.
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Chapter 21 The army throws itself on the barricade, which holds firm. As the soldiers retreat, the insurgents fire rapidly at them. Courfeyrac and Bossuet remain in good humor, even as the army closes in around the barricade. The insurgents haven’t slept or eaten for 24 hours, and have only a few more rounds left, but the barricade is attacked 10 times without being captured. The narrator compares it to the battle of Troy. Bossuet, Feuilly, Courfeyrac, and Combeferre are killed. Marius is still fighting but is riddled with wounds. Only Enjolras isn’t struck.
To the very end, the Friends of the ABC maintain their particular mix of sarcasm, humor, and earnest political belief. By comparing the barricade fighting to the battle of Troy, the narrator elevates this event to mighty and historical levels, suggesting that the fighters should be considered as courageous and heroic as those warriors of history whom we tend to think of as heroes.
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Chapter 22 When only Enjolras and Marius remain of the leaders at the two edges, the center of the barricade gives way. A final assault succeeds, and the insurgents retreat confusedly, attempting to enter a locked house. Enjolras shouts at them to enter the wine-shop, and they slam the door to the assailants. Marius alone remains outside, having just been struck on the collarbone and about to faint.
The battle is described in acute detail, as it becomes clear to everyone involved that there is little chance for the rebels to emerge alive. Enjolras seems almost to suffer from being one of the only ones to survive, as he had been eager to condemn himself after feeling obliged to kill Le Cabuc.
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The soldiers begin to lay siege to the wine-shop. They are enraged by the death of their sergeant and by rumors that there’s a headless body of a soldier inside the tavern. Enjolras tells the others that they’ll sell their lives dearly, and then he kisses Mabeuf’s hand (the only kiss he’s given in his life). They rain paving-stones down from the windows. Finally the door yields and the assailants rush in, but don’t find a single insurgent. They’ve gone to the second floor, and now fire down their last cartridges and then take up clubs. The battle becomes monstrous and ignoble.
Mabeuf has become, as he perhaps had hoped to do, a martyr for the insurgents and an example of courage and heroism that they want to follow. Enjolras’s own bravery is juxtaposed with his youth—he’s spent so much time in political affairs that he hasn’t even had time for love. While the narrator has underlined the noble nature of the battle, now he suggests that at its end it loses all dignity.
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Chapter 23 By the time the soldiers reach the second floor, they find only Enjolras still on his feet. He flings away his club and tells the men to shoot him. Suddenly, the chaos stills into solemnity, with the soldiers impressed by the majesty of the disarmed man. A National Guardsman lowers his gun, saying it seems he is about to shoot a flower.
The last fighter surviving, Enjolras suddenly epitomizes for the soldiers the vulnerable, ephemeral nature of the insurgents that they’ve spent over twenty-four hours waging war against, and the vast inequality of resources between the two sides becomes apparent.
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At that moment, Grantaire—who had been in a drunken sleep since the previous evening—wakes up. A soldier shouts to take aim at Enjolras, and Grantaire cries, “Long live the Republic!” and crosses the room to stand beside Enjolras, who presses his hand, smiling. Enjolras is hit with eight bullets, and he and Grantaire fall. The soldiers find and kill the others in the attic, and then search out the fugitives.
Grantaire has been portrayed as somewhat ridiculous throughout the book, but here, by taking his place beside Enjolras and proclaiming his loyalty to the Republic, it’s suggested that he redeems his earlier actions and takes on a kind of heroism himself.
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Chapter 24 At the moment of losing consciousness, Marius had felt the grasp of Jean Valjean, whose role in the battle was only to search out and care for the wounded. As soon as Marius fell, Valjean carried him off behind the Corinthe building. Now Valjean surveys the barricade, the street, and the wine-shop, bewildered at how to extricate himself and Marius. Then he sees an iron grating on the pavement, covering a shallow hole. Valjean lifts Marius into the hole and then lowers himself in. They find themselves in a long, underground corridor.
As Enjolras and Grantaire fall, the battle is definitively lost. Marius has survived, but only by being wounded and fainting outside the tavern shop, the last place of defense. Now it becomes clear what Valjean’s true role was in the battle—not only to ease the suffering of the fighters as much as possible, but also to keep an eye on Marius—even though he hates him—and to ensure, for Cosette’s sake, that he won’t be harmed.
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