Chapter 1 It is in these sewers that Valjean finds himself, passing from midday light to pure darkness. He is blinded by it, but slowly grows accustomed to the dark. He makes his way into a wall of fog, eventually reaching a fork in the path. The only clue to his direction is the slope, since going downhill would lead to the river. If he follows the slope left, he reasons, he’ll arrive at the Seine around the Pont-Neuf, one of the most densely populated areas of Paris. He turns right, trusting fate.
After a historical aside to understand the context of Valjean’s current setting, we are better positioned to understand just how treacherous this underground city is for the characters. Still, Valjean is concerned with making sure he can save Marius, so he knows he cannot simply emerge in a populous part of Paris.
As Valjean drags Marius, he can feel the latter’s breath on his cheek, confirming that he’s still alive. Valjean believes he’s under the Rue Saint-Denis, which runs straight to the Grand Sewer, but he’s actually in the Montmartre sewer, one of the most labyrinthine of the city. Valjean is slowly overcome by gloom, almost horror. He doesn’t know if Marius will die, if someone else will penetrate the sewer, or if they’ll both be lost and die. Suddenly, he realizes he’s now descending, but he knows it’s more dangerous to retreat than to continue on.
The narrator acquaints us with the true layout of the sewers, a labyrinth that can be seen through a bird’s-eye view of Paris, though one that remains unknowable to Valjean, who must instead wander blindly through the sewers. For the first time in much of the novel, we see Valjean in a state of lack of control, not knowing what will happen next or what he can do to stop it.
At some point Valjean realizes that he’s returning to the peaceful part of the city, and hears vehicles and sounds of daily life overhead. Suddenly he sees a shadow in front of him. He turns around and sees eight or ten shadowy policemen moving behind him.
This is another reminder of the huge disparities in life even within geographically contiguous parts of the city, where peace above can easily yield to danger below.
Chapter 2 On June 6th, the police had ordered the sewers to be searched, since it was assumed that the insurgents might take refuge there. While Valjean can see the patrol through their lantern, he remains in the shadow. The sergeant gives orders to turn left towards the Seine, and Valjean remains crouched behind them.
The sewers have already been characterized as a home for thieves and criminals, so it’s here that the police descend, having linked the insurgency to general criminality in the city.
Chapter 3 The policemen of Paris had maintained their regular service even in the midst of insurrection. That afternoon, two men could be seen on the banks of the Seine, one trying to overtake the other, but waiting to seize him until the other might reveal some important criminal meeting-place. The policeman made a sign to the driver of a hackney-coach, who followed them. The first man, in rags, did not climb to the Champs-Elysees (ideal for escaping), but instead continued along the quay towards the Pont de Jena. He ducked behind a pile of rubbish at the water’s edge, and the policeman lost sight of him—he’d disappeared. But then he’d looked below him and seen iron bars leading to a dark vaulted corridor.
This chapter is purposefully oblique and confusing. We’re meant simply to see two men, a policeman and another, probably a criminal, continue along the streets of Paris until the criminal disappears belowground—into the very sewers where Valjean is wandering at the same time. Though we don’t know who the men are, we can assume that one or both of them will re-enter the story, most likely in terms of Valjean’s trajectory within the sewers underground.
Chapter 4 Valjean resumes his march, stumbling along in the darkness. His monumental strength finally begins to give way. At about 3 a.m. he reaches the belt-sewer, with four paths ahead of him. He chooses the broadest, deciding he must descend to the Seine despite the risks. This was the right decision, for had he ascended he’d have reached a wall.
Returning to Valjean, the narrator again distinguishes Valjean’s ignorance from the narrator’s (and our own) knowledge of the sewers. By creating this gap, he increases the dramatic irony and tension of the passage.
Valjean stops to rest a little further on, and he puts his hand on Marius’s heart, which is still beating. He dresses Marius’s wounds and then looks at him with total hatred. He finds the note in his pocket asking that his body be carried to Gillenormand’s address. Valjean continues on, gradually becoming aware, with the growing intermittency of vehicles overhead, that he must have reached the city outskirts.
There’s an obvious contrast between Valjean’s careful attention to Marius and the way he feels about the young man. It is Valjean’s love for Cosette, not his hatred for Marius, that propels him forward, suggesting that moral correctness doesn’t always require an unblemished conscience.
Chapter 5 The narrator compares Valjean to a walker along a beach who slowly realizes that it’s grown more difficult to walk, though his eyes haven’t perceived any change. He turns back to shore, uneasy, and begins to sink into the sand, suddenly realizing that he’s caught in quicksand. If he’s all alone he’s condemned to be engulfed by the tide, but only slowly, over the course of hours. This fate, the narrator notes, was also possible in Paris’s sewers, with a mix of earth and water creating a kind of quicksand—a truly terrible way to die.
Suddenly Valjean is faced with an even more ominous challenge than the general darkness and gloom of the sewers. This entire sequence can be understood as a parable, not only for Valjean’s own journey through moral darkness, but also for society’s wretchedness and misery, in which various obstacles make progress towards the light difficult.
Chapter 6 Valjean now finds himself in such an area of the sewer, as a result of the previous day’s rain. He enters the slime, knowing it’s impossible to retrace his steps. But the water soon comes to his waist, the slime to his knees. He feels he is sinking, and he holds Marius up. Suddenly his foot strikes something solid. Valjean climbs back up, pauses, and prays.
Rather than turning back when facing such obstacles, Valjean charges forward, in another reminder that progress may be temporarily stymied or slowed, but is inevitable as long as members of society embrace it.
Chapter 7 Valjean sets out again, though he’s exhausted by this effort. After a hundred paces, he raises his eyes, and at the end of the vault sees daylight. No longer is Valjean conscious of his fatigue or of Marius’s weight. He reaches the outlet and stops: there’s no way to get out. The arch is closed by a grating, which is clamped by a thick, rusty double-lock, like those used in the prison.
After escaping the policemen, finding his way through the labyrinth, and emerging from the danger of the quicksand, it appears that Valjean has now been definitively barred from the light, which appears all the more excruciatingly distant precisely because he can see it.
Valjean lays Marius down by the wall and seizes each bar, but none of them move. He asks himself how he can retrace his steps, survive the quagmire from before, avoid the police patrol, and then reach other outlets that would undoubtedly be barred like this one. Valjean turns his back to the grating and slides to the floor. He thinks only of Cosette.
Valjean understands that, while it seems he has no hope to reach the light, neither can he return through the various obstacles that had blocked his way. Love for Cosette is shown to be the only thing that sustains him in this moment of hopelessness.
Chapter 8 Suddenly a hand is laid of Valjean’s shoulder, and a low voice says to him, “Half shares.” Valjean thinks he’s dreaming, but a man is in front of him: Thenardier. Valjean is so disfigured and bleeding that Thenardier doesn’t recognize him. Thenardier asks how he’ll manage to get out. Thenardier says he has the key. He assumes that Valjean has killed the man (Marius) for his money, so if he gives Thenardier half, he’ll open the door. Valjean was clever not to have pushed his victim into the mire, Thenardier goes on—the workmen who will arrive tomorrow could trace him back to the assassin. Valjean searches Marius’s pockets, and only finds a few francs, which Thenardier takes. He then swings open the gate and allows Valjean to pass out.
Now it’s become clear who one of the shadowy figures on the Paris quay must have been—Thenardier, escaping the policeman by descending into the gutters. As usual, Thenardier views other people’s distress only in terms of how it can benefit him. He also is quick to assume that anyone prowling the sewers of Paris is, like him, a member of the city’s criminal underworld, where murder is accepted and only the laws of greed triumph. Such an assumption, in this case, actually benefits Valjean.
Chapter 9 All at once, Valjean can breathe easily again. Night is coming on and a few stars can be seen in the sky. Valjean is overtaken by a feeling of serenity, though it’s quickly followed by unease: he turns around, and sees a tall man carrying a bludgeon—Javert. Javert had been in pursuit of Thenardier, who had disappeared. Thenardier had then allowed Valjean out of the sewer, knowing that Javert waited above. Javert doesn’t recognize Valjean, who nevertheless tells him his name. He tells Javert to take him, but to grant him one favor—help him carry Marius to his home. Javert mutters that this man was at the barricade. Javert calls to the coachman of the hackney. The three enter and set out in the coach.
The second part of the mystery described in Chapter 3 is now resolved, and Thenardier’s “generosity” in letting Valjean out for money takes on a more sinister quality. Valjean could have maintained his disguise before Javert, but his desire to conceal himself and his past has disappeared, as he’d already given Javert his address in case he escaped alive. It’s already surprising that Javert agrees to allow Valjean to deposit Marius safely home—perhaps some of the mercy shown by Valjean is having an effect.
Chapter 10 The trio arrives at the Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire. Javert addresses the porter, saying that Gillenormand’s son is brought back, dead. The porter doesn’t seem to understand, but wakes up Marius’s great-aunt Gillenormand, and Basque goes in search of a doctor. Javert touches Valjean’s shoulder, and they descend the stairs. Valjean asks Javert one more favor: let him go home for an instant.
Several more threads in the novel converge, as Javert and Valjean find themselves with Marius at the home of Gillenormand. Javert and Valjean have an unspoken understanding now, that this is one of Valjean’s final moments of liberty before falling into the hands of “justice.”
Chapter 11 Valjean wants to tell Cosette where Marius is and to warn her of what is to come. Suicide is impossible to him: he merely accepts his fate. As they arrive, Javert tells Valjean that he’ll wait for him below. Valjean ascends the stairs, and then looks out the window from the second floor. Javert has gone.
Valjean is convinced that his long road towards redemption is now over, and he must give up his freedom and give up Cosette. He cannot imagine that Javert will suddenly, inexplicably, abandon his pursuit of justice.
Chapter 12 Meanwhile, Marius is carried into the living room. He has a shallow wound in his ribs, slashes on his arms, and a broken collarbone. It’s unclear how serious the cuts on his head may be. Basque prepares bandages as the doctor inspects the patient. Then a pale figure creeps around the door: the old man Gillenormand. He gazes at Marius, astonished, and exclaims that he is dead. Gillenormand wrings his hands and cries that he’s gotten himself killed on the barricades out of hatred for his grandfather—only to cause him misery. The doctor takes his arm, as he calms down and begins to reproach Marius in a low but agonizing voice.
There’s a confusion throughout this scene, both as a result of Marius’s serious wounds and the fact that Javert had announced that Marius was already dead (a mistake also made by Thenardier in the sewers). Gillenormand, as usual, is portrayed as somewhat ridiculous, though he has never stopped loving his grandson, even as he continues to blame Marius’s revolutionary activities both for his grandson’s death and for his own misery.
Gillenormand says that instead of dancing and carousing, as a twenty-year-old should do, Marius has gotten himself killed for the Republic—a reason to drive Gillenormand mad. He yells at Marius that he will not even grieve over his death. At that moment, Marius’s eyes open, and Gillenormand cries out to his “child” and “well-beloved son,” ecstatic that he’s alive—and then he faints.
Gillenormand and Marius have long held fundamentally different views on politics, women, and how to lead a life, and these differences have already foiled one attempted reconciliation. However, the entrenched differences also coexist with Gillenormand’s love for Marius, as this melodramatic scene shows.