Chapter 1 Gillenormand had always been well-received in society because of his wit. Around 1817, he had often gone to see Madame la Baronne de T., whose late husband had been an ambassador under Louis XVI, at her salon or intellectual gathering. The group would gather to complain about the new century’s horrors and would parody the Revolution.
Six years before the events that the narrator is relating in Paris, it’s still the Restoration, and Gillenormand is associated with a group that is nostalgic for pre-Revolutionary days, when the monarchy was not yet challenged.
Chapter 2 At Vernon around that time could be seen a 50-year-old man, Georges Pontmercy, living alone and working often in his garden. He was timid and shy. As a young man, he had fought in the Revolution for Napoleon and against the English in 1805, and then at Austerlitz and Waterloo, among other battles. After Waterloo, where he’d been pulled out of the hollow ravine, he’d been sent to Vernon, on half-pay, as Louis XVIII didn’t recognize the grades or awards he’d received under Napoleon. During the Empire, he’d married the younger Mademoiselle Gillenormand, who had died after giving birth.
Readers might recognize the name of Georges Pontmercy from the end of the section on the battle of Waterloo— Pontmercy had been wounded and Thenardier had attempted to rob him, though Pontmercy believed the man had saved him. The narrator suggests that we feel pity and sympathy for Pontmercy, whose participation in these battles seems to count for nothing because of the change of regime.
Though Pontmercy adores his son Marius, the boy’s grandfather, Gillenormand, had threatened to disinherit him if Pontmercy did not allow Marius to live with his grandfather. Gillenormand never allows the colonel to visit Marius. The boy is the heir of Gillenormand’s sister, who had quite a large fortune. Twice a year, Marius writes letters to his father, but his grandfather hides the return letters.
Gillenormand may be comical and ridiculous, but here the narrator exposes the small, selfish, and even cruel aspect of his character, as he refuses to allow Marius to have a relationship with his father because Pontmercy’s political views differ from Gillenormand’s.
Chapter 3 Marius knows nothing of the world but Madame la Baronne de T.’s salon, making him a grave, melancholy child, his mind filled with stories against Napoleon’s Empire and against revolution. The narrator lists dozens of names, all of whom constitute Parisian high royalist society. Old manners reign there, and men and actions are judged harshly in the salon. The guests are “ultra,” meaning they “go beyond”—they attack everything for not being sufficiently correct, the king for not being royal enough, the night for being too lit up, etc.
By cataloguing the attendees of Madame la Baronne de T.’s salon, the narrator constructs a typology of the different inhabitants of Paris during the first half of the 19th century, along with their complex political affiliations. At the time one had to decide where one stood regarding royalism and the monarchy, Napoleon’s empire, and the French Revolution with its continued revolutionary attitudes.
From 1814 to 1820, this kind of thought is typical of the Restoration. The salon has its own literature, politics, and history, though towards 1820 it begins to disintegrate into absolutism and thus, paradoxically, confused ideals. Marius attends college and law school as a fanatical Royalist, and emerges as a cold but noble, generous, and proud young man.
The narrator suggests that the Restoration milieu is worthy of examination and consideration, but he also looks disapprovingly on royalist attitudes among the young by describing Marius as cold and proud.
Chapter 4 In 1827, Marius has just turned 17, and he returns home one evening to hear Gillenormand order him to set off to Vernon tomorrow to see his father, who is ill and demands his presence. Marius arrives the next evening. A woman answers the door, weeping, and points him towards a ground-floor room. Pontmercy had been attacked by brain fever three days previously, and he has just died; his son has arrived too late. Marius gazes upon his father’s face and a chill runs through him, though his sorrow is that of a man’s death, not his father’s, whom he does not know well enough to love.
Because of the actions of Gillenormand, Marius has never spent time with his father or received his father’s letters, and therefore never really learned to love him. The narrator contrasts the somber gravity of Pontmercy’s death with Marius’s cold, detached response, a juxtaposition that is meant to make the reader reflect on the tragedy of not being able to love another human being, especially a close family member.
The servant gives Marius a note from his father, who writes that he wishes to give Marius the title of Baron that he himself received at Waterloo. He also writes that a sergeant saved his life at Waterloo—Thenardier—and asks Marius to do any good he can to the man should he ever meet him. Marius remains two days in Vernon, and returns to Paris without thinking much more of his father.
The note given to Marius by his father’s servant contains more interesting information for the reader than for Marius, and suggests that several strands of the novel, from the Thenardiers in Montfermeil to Marius and his grandfather in Paris, might find ways of intermingling.
Chapter 5 Marius goes to Mass the Sunday after his father’s death, and as he sits down, an old man tells Marius that he’s taken his place. After Mass, the old man explains that he enjoys sitting in that spot because for the last ten years, he’s seen a father come regularly to catch a glimpse of his child, hiding behind a pillar. The old man, Mabeuf, was moved by this love and this spot has become holy for him. The man, he says, had a father-in-law who threatened to disinherit the child if his father saw him, and he sacrificed himself so that his son could one day be rich. He lived at Vernon and was called something like Pontmarie or Montpercy. “Pontmercy,” Marius suggests, and reveals to the old man that he is the son.
This is another striking coincidence, like others in the novel through which characters learn more about their own pasts and are motivated to change something about their actions or morals. In this scene it is only slowly that Marius comes to recognize that M. Mabeuf is speaking about his own father. While Marius was incapable of feeling true love for his father when he saw him at his deathbed, he now learns the extent to which his father loved him.
Marius accompanies the man home, and the next day he asks Gillenormand for permission to leave for three days for a hunting-party with friends.
Apparently, his realization has prompted Marius to act in some way, though we don’t yet know how.
Chapter 6 After three days (which the narrator will tell of later on) Marius returns to Paris and asks for the law school library’s files of the Moniteur newspapers. He reads all the history books he can find, and feverishly searches for his father’s name among the army bulletins. He goes to see the generals under whom his father had served, and comes to know his father better in that way. He’s so preoccupied that Gillenormand assumes a love affair is the cause.
Just as the narrator has stressed the interpenetration of history and individual lives throughout the novel, Marius now finds that “history,” which he had formerly considered detachedly in salon conversation, is in fact directly relevant to his own past and his relationship to his father.
Slowly, Marius’s opinions and ideas begin to shift radically. Initially astonished by his reading about the Republic and Empire, he stops considering their major characters with terror and scorn but rather considers them heroic and good. He considers the Republic as a moment of mass sovereignty and civil rights, and the Empire as the sovereignty of the French idea in Europe. He realizes how little he had understood his country and his father, and is filled with regret at not having known either.
Having grown up around royalist beliefs, Marius had never thought to question his political views. Not only are his ideas now challenged, but they come to seem highly important, even urgent, to his own character. For Marius, learning about France and French history now becomes tantamount to learning about his own past as well.
From his childhood, Marius had been taught to despise Napoleon as a monster. Only slowly, by reading carefully, does he begin to rehabilitate the man in his mind. As he pores over volumes of army battles, he feels closer to his father and can almost picture the battles in his mind’s eye. He is intoxicated by this conversion and, the narrator notes, embraces a good deal of error while on his way to the truth. Finally, though, he becomes a true democratic revolutionist. Slowly he withdraws from Gillenormand, feeling greater aversion for the man who cut him off from his father. He spends less and less time at home, once attempting to see Thenardier in Montfermeil, though the inn is closed.
Again history becomes personally relevant for Marius, as he begins to imagine his father not as a dead stranger but as a real human being, one who fought, loved, and died in the shadow of some of the most important events of French history. Crucially, it is this personal identification that prompts Marius to transform his political views—a change that the narrator has suggested elsewhere is necessary for people to understand and change their attitudes towards the poor, as well.
Chapter 7 One morning, Marius again asks his grandfather’s permission to take a trip. Gillenormand still thinks it’s for a love affair, but Mademoiselle Gillenormand is starting to be suspicious. Later that day, Marius’s distant cousin Theodule, a lieutenant, whom Marius has never met, arrives unannounced to say hello to his aunt. Mademoiselle Gillenormand asks him if he would follow Marius a little that evening to see what he was up to. That evening, Marius sets off for Vernon in a diligence (stage coach), which Theodule enters as well. He watches Marius buy flowers from a peasant girl and follows him around the corner, where he sees Marius strewing his bouquet across a grave and sobbing before it. The stone is engraved with “Colonel Baron Pontmercy.”
Through the medium of Theodule (and with the prompting of Mademoiselle Gillenormand) we learn how exactly Marius has been spending his time away from home, and just how loyal he has grown to his late father. Marius is now attempting to show love for him in a way he never did while his father was alive. Les Misérables is full of characters who try to conceal some of their actions or their pasts, but this attempted concealment never seems to work, as other characters are just as adept at ferreting out these secrets.
Chapter 8 Marius has come here every time he’s been “sleeping out.” Theodule slips away and decides not to write to his aunt at all. Marius returns on the third day, and quickly leaves his room to take a bath. Gillenormand mounts the stairs to greet Marius. In the empty room, he sees a great coat, with a black ribbon strung to a medallion portrait case, on the bed: he seizes them and goes back downstairs. He and his daughter open the case and read the note from the colonel giving his son the title of Baron. They are stunned. In the pocket of the great coat are dozens of cards printed with “Le Baron Marius Pontmercy.”
Initially, it appears as though Theodule (who has no reason to understand the connection between Marius and a certain Colonel Pontmercy) will keep Marius’s secret to himself. What stuns Gillenormand more than Marius’s concealment of where he’s been going is his sudden shift in loyalties. Taking on the title of “Baron,” which was given to him by his father, suggests that Marius’s political and social worldview has been entirely transformed.
For an hour, the two sit in silence. Then Marius comes downstairs, and sees his grandfather holding one of his cards. Gillenormand asks what the meaning of this is, and Marius, with downcast eyes, says that his father was a hero who served the Republic and France and who loved his son. Gillenormand turns purple and curses at Marius, calling all those men assassins and thieves, traitors who fled the true king. Now Marius grows enraged, but is torn between his father and grandfather. After several moments, however, he cries “Down with the Bourbons and with Louis XVIII!” Gillenormand turns white, and after pacing the room, says quietly that he and a baron like his grandson cannot continue to live under the same roof. He orders Marius to leave.
The climax of tension between Marius and his grandfather takes the form not of a personal battle of wills, but as a duel between conflicting political affiliations and viewpoints. For both Gillenormand and (now) Marius, these political views necessarily shape and define a person’s character, and serve as an insoluble link between the arc of history and the smaller arc of a human life. Neither of them are yet ready to forgive the other for refusing to adhere to one or another of these worldviews.
The next day, Gillenormand tells his daughter to send Marius money every six months, but to never mention his name. Marius, meanwhile, has only 30 francs in his pocket. He heads towards the Latin Quarter without knowing what he’ll do.
It seems that the break between Gillenormand and Marius is definitive. The decision to send Marius money somewhat cushions their separation, though it doesn’t mean Gillenormand forgives Marius.