Les Miserables

Les Miserables

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Les Miserables Volume 5, Book 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter 1 The narrator calls Paris’s sewer system its intestine—heaps of filth and mud that could directly contribute to flowery meadows and nourished earth, were they not to be deposited through France’s rivers into the Atlantic. If only a drainage system could conduct pure water from fields into the cities, and send human waste back to the fields, production would increase and the problem of misery would be lightened. Instead, there is waste and disease. Beneath one Paris is another Paris of sewers, with its own streets, squares, alleys, and circulation of filth.
Hugo interjects a specific idea for social progress, questioning the idea of “waste” by showing how something that people tend to recoil against could actually prove beneficial and could combat social misery. He also begins to describe a parallel city here, though one of darkness rather than light, suggesting its association with evil and wretchedness.
Themes
Justice and Injustice Theme Icon
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Chapter 2 If Paris were to be lifted off like a cover, the sewers would look like a large tree grafted onto the river, with branches and twigs stemming out of it. The sewer of Paris is ancient and impressive, notes the narrator. It has served as a tomb and an asylum, a hiding place for thieves. The narrator calls it the “conscience of the city,” with shadows but no longer secrets. All civilization’s filth is laid bare, rather than concealed as above ground. The social observer, then, should enter the sewers so as to better understand society, and reconstruct the city from the cesspool.
We’ve already seen how Paris is an intricate network of streets and alleys, one that often proves overwhelming to the many but can be mastered by the few. Like this aboveground Paris, the underground city of sewers may reveal unpalatable realities about society, but as usual, the narrator stresses the importance of looking these realities straight in the face in order to understand them.
Themes
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
Chapter 3 At some times in Paris’s history the sewer has been flooded, sending filth back into the city and spreading mud across the plazas and streets. Even at the beginning of the 19th century the sewer was a mysterious place, where few people ventured or cared to think about trying to clear. The sewer was considered the lower world. Nevertheless, one day in 1805, the Minister of the Interior told Napoleon that an intrepid man had declared he wanted to visit the sewers of Paris. This man’s name was Bruneseau.
The narrator makes another historical excursion, this time to trace the development of the sewer system and show its relationship to other social realities of the time. Returning to the age of Napoleon (and that of Marius’s father), we are introduced to Bruneseau as an almost heroic figure, the only one willing to enter darkness in order to truly understand it.
Themes
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
Chapter 4 Once Bruneseau had crossed the threshold of the sewers, eight out of twenty laborers refused to follow him further. The job necessitated cleaning, counting grates and vents, mapping the branches, and tracking the currents. They found vaults from the 17th and 18th centuries and the hollows of ancient dungeons. The visit took seven years, from 1805 to 1812, and during this time the entire sewer was disinfected, tamed to some extent, so that it was no longer the terrifying, wild cavern of the past.
Just as the Paris of above ground would slowly lose some of its mysterious alleyways and wild character over the course of the 19th century, so the underground city of the sewers is shown to have been somewhat tamed as well. This process is one of progress, but as we’ve seen, Hugo also retains some nostalgia for the wildness of the Paris of the past.
Themes
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon
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Chapter 5 Today the sewer is clean and cold. It’s been transformed by a man the world forgets: Bruneseau.
Again, history is often only understandable by studying individual figures within it.
Themes
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Chapter 6 However, Paris’s underground labyrinth is now ten times as large as it was at the start of the century. The ground upon which the city is built is inhospitable to the construction of sewers, difficult to dig into but quick to crumble. In 1832, the cholera epidemic—which led to a vast sewer reconstruction—had not yet arrived. So in some places it was still the same sewer of antiquity, with enormous ditches and uneven terrain, a cesspool of disease.
Even despite Bruneseau’s now-better-understood reforms, the sewer is still shown to be a place of disease, filth, and danger, difficult to traverse and assumed to be just as wild as it was in the ancient past. The cholera epidemic would in fact contribute to a major modernization of Paris so as to limit such disease.
Themes
History, Revolution, and Progress Theme Icon
Mystery and Knowledge in Paris Theme Icon