Chapter 1 The narrator notes that he has been absent from Paris for many years, though he adores the city, and in those years it has been transformed. He asks permission to speak about this old Paris of his youth as though it still existed, for, he says, you are indifferent to your native city as long as you are no longer there, but as soon as you are forced to leave its details become precious.
Hugo, in fact, wrote Les Misérables while in exile, so here narrator and author merge (as they do at other times). He suggests another reason for describing the setting in such detail: not only to preserve historical particularity, but also to preserve Paris in his memory.
Valjean and Cosette move through the streets at night. Cosette asks no questions, having grown used to Valjean’s peculiarities. Both of them trust in God. Valjean has no plan, just a suspicion that he shouldn’t return to the Gorbeau house. They cross the labyrinthine streets of the Mouffetard quarter. Near 11:00, they reach the Rue Pontoise opposite the police commissary. Valjean sees three policemen pass under the lantern, and he hastily leaves the street, reaching a square where the Rue des Postes, a 13th-century street, begin. He hides in a doorway. At that moment, four policemen with large cudgels in their hands halt in the middle of the square and point in the direction that Valjean had gone. One of them is Javert .
While Valjean and Cosette have remained on the edge of the city, and of society, in the Gorbeau hovel, only now do they penetrate Paris proper. The Mouffetard quarter, on the Left Bank, is one of the oldest parts of Paris and the student neighborhood (home to the Sorbonne, for example). To this day its streets are darker and windier than most of the rest of the city, and are remnants of Paris’s medieval past. Here, the benign student quarter is colored with danger, as it appears that the police are on their trail.
Chapter 2 Valjean and Cosette slip away towards the Jardin des Plantes. Valjean begins to carry Cosette. He reaches the Pont D’Austerlitz, a bridge where he must pay 2 sous to cross. Entering a small street, he looks back and sees four shadows enter the bridge.
Paris’s bridge toll reminds us that at this time Paris, at least for many people, was the extent of one’s travels. In crossing to the Right Bank, Valjean and Cosette enter a totally different world.
Continuing on, Valjean reaches a fork and takes the right path, which leads towards the open country. He arrives at a wall. To the right the road leads to a blind alley, while to the left a more welcoming street beckons. But at the end of that lane he suddenly sees a large black form. At the time of writing there are brand-new, wide streets in Paris but at the time of this tale, the roads are unpaved and winding. All four guards are blocking the possible exits.
Today, the roads leading from the Pont d’Austerlitz are all built-up sections of the city, but at the time of the story, much of today’s Paris did not yet exist. In addition, this Paris is characterized by its alleys, walls, and dead ends, complicating Valjean’s attempts to escape.
Chapter 4 Valjean looks up at the wall and realizes that he might be saved if he can get on the other side of it. On the side of the Rue Droit-Mur, there are a number of pipes on the walls, but Valjean doesn’t see how he can hoist Cosette up in addition to himself. There are two locked doors abutting one of the walls, and he cannot force either of them.
As seen from his action on the ship Orion (as well as his four escapes from the galleys), Valjean is quite adept at the getaway. Here, however, his concern for Cosette requires him to find a new path, or else sacrifice himself, since he won’t leave her.
Chapter 5 Valjean glances around the corner and sees 7 or 8 soldiers advancing behind Javert. From his time as a convict, Valjean had learned to mount walls and climb obstacles—a skill he prefers not to use as an honest man. But he’s desperate. Suddenly he sees a rope attached to a gas-lantern, and rushes to fetch it. Cosette says she is afraid, but he tells her to be quiet: he says it’s Madame Thenardier. He fastens the rope to Cosette, climbs up the wall himself, and then hoists her up the wall. As they duck under a linden tree, he hears Javert’s voice from below telling the soldiers to search the alleys.
It appears that Valjean never entirely lacked an escape route. This recalls the scene in which he saved Fauchelevent by lifting up the carriage. Both then and now, Valjean has been wary of using what he learned as a convict and criminal, however, in both cases, he ultimately chooses to use this skill (just as he utilized his literacy, learned in jail, to teach Cosette to read) in order to save both her and himself.
Chapter 6 The two find themselves in a vast garden beside a building in a sort of ruin at the corner of the Rue Droit-Mur and Rue Petit-Picpus. It is wild and solitary. Valjean leads Cosette into the garden shed. Suddenly he hears women’s voices singing a hymn. Both of them feel a need to kneel in awe. They enter a garden shed, and Valjean puts Cosette to sleep.
Until now, the narrator has led us through a Paris that corresponds to real-life, historical Paris, but now the narrator introduces two imaginary streets, and we find ourselves in a city somewhere between fact and fiction.
Chapter 7 In the middle of the night, Cosette awakens, shivering. Valjean wraps his coat around her and slips outside. He creeps along the large building and peeks in through the windows, where he sees a vast hall; a human form is lying on the ground, covered in a sheet. Sweating and breathing heavily, Valjean continues to stare at the form, transfixed, not knowing if it’s dead or alive, and confused as to the nature of the place. He flees back to the shed.
Having essentially fallen from the sky, Valjean and Cosette now find themselves in a new, unknown part of Paris, whose mysteries Valjean has yet to probe. The human form covered by a sheet suggests a dead body. This gives Valjean a concrete form on which to focus in his continued fear and insecurity.
Chapter 8 As Valjean watches Cosette sleep, he feels calmer. But then he looks out and sees someone in the garden. He picks up Cosette and hides her behind a heap of old furniture. When he touches her hands they’re icy cold; she’s pale. He rushes back out, vowing he’ll find her a bed and fire within the hour.
Having done his utmost to protect Cosette, even at a risk to himself, Valjean now finds himself facing another threat, one he can only resolve by figuring out where he’s arrived.
Chapter 9 Valjean walks up to the man he had seen in the garden, and cries out, “100 francs!”, the amount he’ll pay for shelter. The man cries out that it’s Father Madeleine. He removes his cap, trembling, and remarks on Valjean’s wretched state. He turns to the light, and Valjean recognizes Fauchelevent. He had come out to cover his melons from the cold, he says. He wears a bell on his knee so that he might be avoided, since there are only women in this house: it is the Petit-Picpus convent, where Fauchelevent, crippled by the fall from his cart, had entered to work two years earlier. Valjean asks if Fauchelevent could save his life, as he once saved Fauchelevent’s. Fauchelevent says it would be a blessing. Valjean asks him not to tell anyone about him, and asks him to lodge him and Cosette in his hut behind the convent.
This scene reflects Hugo’s penchant for the almost unbelievable coincidence, but it also underlines a recurring theme in the novel: the question of the possibility of redemption, which is linked to the constant intrusion of each character’s past into the present. While this intermingling has haunted Valjean before, here the narrator presents a distinct way in which the past can redeem, rather than betray, the present. Valjean, as Madeleine, had saved Fauchelevent’s life, giving the man a chance to now repay the favor. Valjean’s good deeds linger just as much as his crimes do.
A few minutes later, Cosette is lying asleep in the gardener’s bed, and Fauchelevent remarks that it is bad that Valjean forgets those whose lives he saves.
Fauchelevent’s remark is good-humored rather than accusatory, as he too reflects on the coincidence.
Chapter 10 The narrator explains things from Javert’s perspective. When Valjean had escaped from the town jail, the police assumed he went to Paris. Javert had gone there immediately, and had proved central to Valjean’s recapture. In December 1823, he saw news of Valjean’s death in the newspaper. But not long afterwards, he saw a police report about the abduction of a child in Montfermeil: a small child named Cosette, the daughter of a woman named Fantine, had been stolen away by a stranger. Javert recognized the name Fantine, and remembered that Valjean was going to Montfermeil when he was arrested.
Valjean had slowly come to suspect Javert before, and then was suddenly pursued by him across the city—but this gave him no time to understand how or why Javert wanted to pursue him. Javert, the narrator makes clear, is clever, and not a brute like Thenardier. Javert knows how to piece together elements of other characters’ (other potential prisoners’) pasts to be able to track them down.
Javert had then gone to Montfermeil, where multiple people told him different versions of the tale. But Thenardier, whom he questioned, realized it is never smart to stir up a prosecutor’s interest, so he refused to speak anymore about the subject. Thenardier just told Javert that Cosette’s “grandfather,” Guillaume Lambert, had taken her away. Javert returned to Paris, convinced Valjean was really dead.
As with the tale of Boulatruelle, fact and rumor meld together so that it grows difficult to distinguish them. Still, rather than speaking out directly against Valjean (the “stranger”), Thenardier is eager to protect himself as much as possible, even if it means giving up the chance to betray the traveler.
However, in March 1824 he heard about the “beggar who gives alms” in Paris, a man who had come from Montfermeil. Javert dressed up as a beggar, and believed he recognized Valjean when he stooped to give him money. But Valjean was supposedly dead. After Valjean and Cosette had fled, Javert asked for backup, without explaining his suspicions. At the time, the police had a reputation of interfering with individual liberty: he didn’t want to make a mistake. He was sure that this time Valjean wouldn’t escape.
The narrator reveals definitively that Valjean wasn’t just being paranoid—here, ironically, it’s a benign aspect of his past (his penchant for giving alms and charity as mayor of M.-sur-M.) rather than his earlier life as a convict that returns to potentially challenge Valjean’s ability to make a new life with Cosette, and fully redeem himself for good.
Still, it was only in the Rue Pontoise that Javert positively recognized Valjean, thanks to a lamplight. He then asked for more reinforcements and followed the pair across the bridge, surrounding him around the Rue Petit-Picpus like a spider surrounds its prey. When he failed to find Valjean at the center of his web, Javert was enraged with himself for being too cautious. He returned to the police prefecture, his pride wounded.
Light, in Hugo’s formulation, doesn’t lie, but here, interestingly, the truth it reveals is manipulated for ill by Javert, in his identification and subsequent pursuit of Valjean. Increasingly, Javert’s pursuit is becoming a matter of ego (see his wounded pride) rather than a nobler pursuit of justice.