Chapter 1 The protagonists of this book are the Infinite and Man, the narrator says. He has had to enter the convent along the road of the narrative, since the convent has long been one of the ways by which Man attempts to perceive the Infinite. There is both a hideous and sublime side to this contemplation.
The narrator now begins to elaborate on the idea with which he had ended the previous Book: the need to examine even less attractive elements in the past to figure out how humans understand themselves and their world.
Chapter 2 History and reason condemn monasticism, which leads to idleness rather than labor, selfishly guarding prosperity rather than seeking to sow it everywhere. Cloisters may have been useful early in civilization, but they are now harmful to its growth. The Catholic cloister is a place of severity close to death, especially in Spain, where they have frayed women’s nerves. Life cannot be found in these places.
The narrator positions himself firmly against monasticism, or the shutting away of religious figures in a monastery or convent so that they do not interact with members of the outside world. At the same time he suggests a dynamic view of history, in which some values increase or decrease with time.
Chapter 3 The forced vocations and violent judgment of convents have created a sort of bombardment of living souls. Nevertheless, now in the 19th century there seems to be a renewed interest in asceticism, which the narrator cautions against. The past should remain the past, to be respected, but not resurrected from the dead. Now it is necessary to destroy monasticism in order to promote progress.
In the previous section, the narrator had described the sterile physical nature of the convent in detail. Now he links that description with the emotional and intellectual deadness of such places—places which, he again stresses, may have once been useful, but are no longer.
Chapter 4 In an “ideal” convent, people enter in order to create an association of equality, join a spiritual family, and care for the poor. Equality and fraternity are to be admired. But the narrator also wants to turn to a convent’s true goal: religious piety.
The narrator acknowledges the impeccable morals of the ideal convent, but then goes on to suggest that these cannot be a defense for the convent’s real (to him mistaken) goal.
Chapter 5 The narrator asks a series of rhetorical questions about the existence of the infinite, contrasting infinite essence and intelligence to mere relative, human existence. There is an infinite without us and within us, he claims, and to pray is to combine these two infinites, allowing men to search for the unknown, embracing mystery rather than fanaticism, belief beyond simple religious superstitions.
For Hugo, the existence of God is a given, not to be questioned, and a clear contrast to the contingencies of human existence. But he wants us to think about what the relationship between the infinite and the relative means in our own lives, so that they no longer remain separate.
Chapter 6 The narrator dismisses materialist philosophy, which can lead only to nihilism, in which the speaker doubts even his own existence, and so nothing has any purpose at all. Philosophy should be a positive energy, leading from contemplation into action, supporting progress towards an ideal, or God.
Here the narrator turns from his main argument to place himself squarely against a popular philosophy of the time—an atheist philosophy focused on the physical rather than the spiritual world.
Chapter 7 A convent is a contradiction, the narrator says, since it seeks suffering in order to attain ultimately mastery in the eternal world.
The narrator suggests, against some other Christian thinkers, that suffering is not necessarily to be actively sought out for salvation.
Chapter 8 The narrator salutes the praying man, but not the church full of intrigues and judgment. One must believe something, and meditate on infinite mysteries: the narrator is “for religion as against religions.” Even though the monastery wrongly directs sacrifice, it still is sacrifice, so there’s a certain grandeur to it. The narrator, then, finishes by respecting what the women in convents believe, even though he does not share their beliefs.
Just as the narrator had contrasted the Bishop of D--- to worldly, greedy official church figures, here he emphasizes the importance of individual, spiritual connection to God rather than the official religious institutions that attempt to secure a monopoly over this kind of relationship.