Chapter 1 Number 62 on the Rue Petit-Picpus resembles every other door, but it is gloomy on the inside, with bare walls and severe furnishings. If one rings the bell, a woman’s voice asks for the password to enter, and with the correct word one enters into a small kind of theater-box across from a barrier of black shutters. A voice emerges from the other side. It belongs to the porter of a cloister, the Convent of the Bernardines of the Perpetual Adoration. It is a strictly walled convent, one which only the narrator has access to on behalf of the reader.
Now that Valjean has learned where he and Cosette are—a convent and boarding school—the narrator takes the opportunity to expound in greater detail on the nature of this new, even if temporary, home. The narrator notes that he has privileged access to this small, contained world, just suggesting how many secrets might lie behind the many walls of Paris.
Chapter 2 The Bernardines have orders all throughout Europe, and are one of the strictest orders of nuns. They are clothed in black and fast all year round, abstaining from meat, chanting from one to three in the morning, never lighting fires, and swearing obedience, poverty, and chastity. The priest is always hidden from view: the women are forbidden from interacting with men. Each woman takes turn making “reparation,” prayers for all sins committed on earth, by praying all day with a rope around her neck. They possess nothing of their own, calling everything “ours.” None has any privacy, and each confesses aloud in front of the others each week. In five years, three of them have gone mad.
The narrator launches into a litany of the privations suffered (though voluntarily) by the nuns in the Petit-Picpus convent. This is a different kind of religion than the one embodied by the Bishop of D---, for instance, which had embraced and participated in the world outside rather than barring itself from that world. Still, the convent constitutes a kind of universe itself, one that replaces the individualistic (and capitalistic) world of modern Paris with a communal, sacrificial ethos.
Chapter 3 A boarding-school is attached to the convent. It teaches girls to be terrified of the world outside. They are only permitted to see their relatives in the parlor, and are forbidden from embracing them.
Not only do the members of the religious order bar themselves from the world, but they teach others to do so too, underlining their anti-modern philosophy.
Chapter 4 Nevertheless, the youthfulness of the girls gives the convent greater joy and charm. They compose poems and tell silly stories, and they name the rooms of the convent things like Spider Corner and Cricket Corner. For certain holy processions, there is a distinction made between “virgins” and “florists,” and the little girls can be heard asking each other, “Who is a virgin?”
The narrator suggests that despite the strict requirements imposed on the girls by the adult nuns, there is a joy in childhood that cannot help but slip through—just as Cosette made a doll out of a knife when she lacked anything else.
Chapter 5 In the refectory there’s a prayer on the wall saying that the girls should repeat the Passion of Christ three times before bed each night. The meals are plain and the children are required to eat in silence. Anyone who disobeys must lick the ground in penance. Still, some of the outside world’s passions do enter. There is one woman, Madame Albertine, who is not a nun but treated with great respect. She is quiet, cold, and spectral, and the students all wonder what is her story. One day a young priest, Le Duc de Rohan, was giving the sermon, and when she saw him, she rose and said “Ah! Auguste,” before sighing and becoming an emotionless corpse once again. The event fed directly into the girls’ imaginations.
These descriptions have the effect of allowing the reader to visualize not just a static portrait, but a dynamic scene in action of daily life within the convent, complete with details like the punishment of licking the ground. The universe of the convent includes its own gossip and intrigues, as much as the sisters might want to deny them, suggesting that the external world (and the past of the convent’s inhabitants) does manage to intrude at some points.
Chapter 6 In the Petit-Picpus there is the Great Convent where the nuns live, the Boarding-school, and the Little Convent, where nuns of other orders, who had been exiled during the Empire, had come to live. Some old society women also retire there. The public is only admitted to the church, but the members of the cloister never see a face from the outside world.
The narrator maps out a topography of the convent into which Valjean and Cosette have fallen, and finishes describing its inhabitants—stressing once again the sharp divide (even if some porousness does exist) between it and the world outside.
Chapter 7 From 1819 to 1825, the prioress is Mademoiselle de Blemeur, or Mother Innocente. She is around 60 years old, short, and the only merry woman in the convent. The narrator lists the dozen or so other most esteemed sisters. All the women, severe to themselves, are gentle towards the children and care deeply about them. It is for this reason that the only men they are allowed to see are old and ugly.
After recounting in detail just how strict and un-merry the life of the convent is, the narrator turns to suggesting that the women manage to show kindness and compassion in their own way (even if this means barring them from seeing men and thus being “tempted” by them).
Chapter 8 The convent is composed of several buildings and a garden, and is enclosed between the Rue Droit-Mur, Rue Petit-Picpus, Rue Polonceau, and the closed lane Aumarais. Bushes line the walls, separating the convent from these streets, which are some of the most ancient in Paris.
This geography is invented by Hugo, as he creates a parallel but imaginary Paris with its own ancient streets, bushes and walls, and lanes—a geography that will define the characters’ relationship to the city.
Chapter 9 The narrator asks permission for one other digression about the character of the cloister. In the Little Convent is a centenarian who had been in society before the Revolution. The girls tend to laugh at her Picard accent, but also listen enraptured to her stories about provincial customs. She keeps one mysterious treasure, which she hastily locks up if she hears footsteps in the corridor. When she dies, the women rush to her cupboard. They find a Faenza platter representing little gods of Love flying away, pursued by boys with enormous syringes. The “moral” is “Love conquered by the colic.”
This lighthearted anecdote serves to make yet another contrast between the convent and the world outside, while simultaneously challenging this division and suggesting that the nuns’ pasts can never be entirely done away with. The centenarian from a far-away province is shown to have had her own dramas, love affairs, and small triumphs and sorrows, and the narrator suggests we respect this history.
Chapter 10 The convent’s dark, sepulchral parlor is far more severe than that of others, such as the garden of the Rue du Temple convent, with its famous ancient chestnut tree. The Benedictines split in the 17th century, with the Petit-Picpus convent established by those who wanted to follow a stricter order.
By contrasting a physical description of the Petit-Picpus convent’s parlors with another Parisian convent’s courtyard entrance, the narrator fleshes out his characterization of Petit-Picpus as a place with stricter, more rigid laws.
Chapter 11 At the beginning of the Restoration, the Petit-Picpus convent is beginning to decay, like many other religious orders. The narrator notes that contemplation and prayer are necessary to humanity, but the Revolution will ultimately transform them so that they’re amenable to human progress. By 1840, the school will have disappeared, the nuns dwindling from 100 to around 28. The narrator has dwelt upon this convent, he says, in respect even without understanding, because it is necessary to know and study the past, even if only to turn away from it.
The narrator has already called attention to the vast changes that have taken place in Paris between the time of the narrative and of the novel’s composition, usually in a tone of nostalgia. Here, however, he suggests that change can be positive and can contribute to progress. Still, he underlines the importance of knowledge and studying the past even if it is somewhat unpleasant, to inform and change the present.