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Chapter 1 Around this time, a revolutionary air begins to arise in Paris, as various currents of thought intersect. Several organizations begin to spring up among the youths, one of which is called the Friends of the ABC, or “Abaissé,” meaning “debased” or “people.” It’s a small secret society that meets at the little Café Musain near the Pantheon. Most members are students from the southern provinces. One, Enjolras, is from a wealthy family. He’s handsome and passionate about liberty and the Republic. Combeferre is less lofty but more flexible and gentler towards his fellow man. He is clever and intellectual, fascinated by educational questions, and inclined to let progress take its course. Prouvaire is a romantic, Feuilly a self-educated workingman, Bahorel capricious and somewhat lazy. Courfeyrac seems much like Tholomyes, witty and jovial, but has a much deeper center. Bossuet, also known as Laigle de Meaux, is smart but very unlucky, though with a good humor. These men differ greatly; they’re united only by the religion of Progress. Only Grantaire is a skeptic, smiling at the talk of revolution and progress. He adores Enjolras, though the latter disdains him.
This time, it’s the deeply personal battle between Gillenormand and Marius that allows the narrator to transition into a broader political conversation. Their argument then comes to stand for general political changes taking place in Paris around this time. The Latin Quarter, where Marius is now heading, has long been known both as a student neighborhood and as a center for leftist political activity. The narrator then reveals the diversity of characters within this radical milieu, from the romantic Prouvaire to the practical, working-class Feuilly. Rather than describing these characters as affiliated to a political party, the narrator suggests that they have found a common cause in a certain value—one of progress—which is linked to general democracy far more than to one politician or the other.
Chapter 2 One day Bossuet is leaning against the door of the Café Musain when he sees a young man in a cabriolet with a tag on his luggage that says “Marius Pontmercy.” Bossuet calls out to him and says he was looking for him. He hadn’t been in class yesterday, Bossuet says. The professor had called out Marius’s name, and Bossuet had answered “present” to prevent Marius from being stricken off the list and forced to pay a fine. Then the professor heard Bossuet answer to “Laigle” as well, so he crossed out that name—Bossuet’s real name. Marius asks his pardon, but then Bossuet bursts out laughing, saying he never wanted to be a lawyer anyway. Courfeyrac, emerging from the café, invites Marius to stay in his room, and by that evening he’s installed there.
We’ve been introduced to Bossuet as the member of the student gang who has the worst luck, and here his attitude is playful rather than accusatory, reflecting the general tone of the group, which seems to fail to take anything too seriously. The narrator portrays this attitude sympathetically, tying the carefree nature of the “Friends of the ABC” to the kindhearted gesture of Courfeyrac, who invites the newly-arrived Marius to stay in his room.
Chapter 3 In a few days Courfeyrac and Marius are friends, especially once he learns Marius’ political opinions. He invites Marius to the Friends of the ABC, where his head spins at the talk of philosophy, art, history, and religion. Marius had thought his ideas were fixed; now he is thrown into tumult again.
A crucial part of the personal friendship between Courfeyrac and Marius is their political leanings. Indeed, among the Friends of the ABC, politics and friendship are entirely intertwined.
Chapter 4 One conversation is a particular shock to Marius. Grantaire, who has gotten drunk, is shouting that life is a hideous invention and there is no difference between vice and virtue. There is no reason to admire one country over the other: war corrupts them all. Bossuet tries to silence Grantaire, but he continues to spew complaints on man’s cruelty and failure. Meanwhile, one corner is discussing mythology, another the politics of the Touquet Charter. Courfeyrac has seized a copy and is waving it around, dismissing it as a way for the king to pacify the people rather than allowing full democracy.
The narrator relates how the Friends of the ABC embrace political discussion, but the general thrust of the group is against a kind of nihilism like Grantaire’s, even if the others allow Grantaire a forum for his views. The reader is given a vivid glimpse into the political café lifestyle, where the theatrical speeches of people like Courfeyrac mesh with real political questions, and history itself seems to be at stake.
Chapter 5 In the middle of the conversation, Bossuet suddenly refers to a certain date: June 18th, 1815—Waterloo. At that name Marius pays greater attention. Courfeyrac exclaims at this mention of Bonaparte’s fatal number, while Enjolras says it reflects both Napoleon’s crime and proper comeuppance. Agitated, Marius points to Corsica (Napoleon’s birthplace) on a map of France and says this little island has made France great. All grow silent; Marius says that it does not diminish France to join Napoleon to her. He asks what the men admire if not the Emperor, who was as complete a leader as possible, brave and powerful in battle. After an eloquent speech about Napoleon, Marius asks what could be greater than to embrace France as a great nation with armies conquering the earth. Combeferre answers, “To be free.”
Whereas Marius has been in agreement with Courfeyrac and the other Friends of the ABC on the need to do away with royalism and the monarchy, he also retains a deeply-held belief in the greatness of Napoleon. This is due, of course, to his father’s participation in the Napoleonic wars. At this point, the irreverence of the group bothers rather than attracts Marius, who feels the need to pledge allegiance to one leader in particular. Combeferre’s response to Marius’s rhetorical question suggests another way of thinking about political loyalties—adhering to values rather than to a person.
Marius lowers his eyes; when he raises them everyone but Enjolras has left the room. On the stairs, Combeferre is singing a song about preferring the love of one’s mother to the glory of Caesar. Enjolras tells Marius that his mother is the Republic.
The Friends of the ABC suggest to Marius that he shouldn’t adhere to glory in the form of Napoleon, but rather to values such as the love of freedom.
Chapter 6 Marius feels gloomy and wonders if he must reject his new faith. He’s now no longer in agreement with either his grandfather or his friends. He is both progressive and reactionary, and feels doubly isolated, so he stops going to the Café Musain. One day, Courfeyrac comes to his room and asks Marius what he plans to do, since he has no money and has ceased to go to class. Marius says he has a gold watch and coat that he can sell, and he’ll do anything after that, perhaps learn German and translate English and German articles. In the meantime, his aunt has discovered where he lives, and sends him 600 francs in a box. Marius sends them back with a respectful letter saying he doesn’t need them (though he has only 3 francs left). His aunt, who knows her father had said he never wanted to hear the boy’s name again, doesn’t tell Gillenormand.
The narrator has already attempted to show the interlocking relations among different political allegiances, from royalism and Bonapartism to democratic viewpoints. There is some common ground among these, which has allowed Marius to fit in easily with the Friends of the ABC, but now he finds himself once again having to choose between both personal and political allegiances. Even while doing so, Marius remains stubbornly against reconciliation with his grandfather, which for him would mean reconciliation to a now totally alien political worldview.