Chapter 1 Marius is forced to leave the hotel so as not to go into debt, and he begins to go hungry. He learns to endure the locked door at night when the rent is not paid, the laughter of young girls, and the sneers of neighbors. Misery, notes the narrator, can sometimes strengthen the soul, creating obscure heroes, but heroes who still hold their own greatness.
Stubborn in his belief in the personal significance of political values, Marius is willing to go so far as to starve just to refuse his grandfather’s money. Here the narrator again contrasts voluntarily chosen misery with misery thrust upon people.
Marius is finally admitted to practice as a lawyer, and he tells his grandfather in a cold but respectful letter. Gillenormand trembles as he reads it and then throws it into the trash. But he later mumbles to himself that one cannot be both a baron and a lawyer.
The narrator makes it clear to the reader that Gillenormand has not lost his love for Marius, even if he too is too stubborn to reconcile himself with his grandson.
Chapter 2 Finally Marius’s misery ends up becoming bearable. He learns German and English; he translates articles and does other small tasks for about 700 francs a year. He moves into the Gorbeau hovel, where he eats meagerly but sometimes splurges on a dinner at the Restaurant Rousseau. With all his expenses, he usually has fifty francs a year left over. It has taken several years of hard labor and destitution, but he’s never been in debt, which he considers the first step to slavery.
Marius’s lifestyle immediately brings to mind the contrasting values and lifestyle of the Thenardiers, who think nothing of going into debt, spend extravagantly, and would rather do anything other than make an honest living for themselves. However, the narrator also suggests that Marius may be somewhat immature in his insistence on clinging to his own freedom.
Marius never forgets two names: that of his father, and that of Thenardier. He had been distressed at hearing of the man’s ruin at Montfermeil, and has never been able to find him since, though he’s traveled through the whole country, and he vows to continue to look. He dreams of finding Thenardier and bringing him out of misery.
This passage is a textbook case of dramatic irony: Marius holds one view of Thenardier, which the narrator and the readers know to be utterly mistaken, but which continues to serve as a trigger for Marius’s actions as he searches for Thenardier.
Chapter 3 Three years after he left, Marius still imagines that Gillenormand had never loved him, although his grandfather had adored him despite his severity. Gillenormand secretly had hoped his grandson would return. When Guillenormand asks himself if he’d act the same all over again, his pride answers yes, but his age and sadness answer no. He misses Marius and thinks of him constantly. His daughter, meanwhile, thinks of Marius less and less. At the same time Marius thinks of Gillenormand without bitterness, and is happy to have suffered for his father’s sake. He feels that he has become a man: misery has been good for him. He perhaps has spent too much time in meditation, not understanding that contemplation can become another form of idleness.
Here the narrator notes explicitly just how much Gillenormand has sacrificed for his pride and for his political opinions—opinions which, if he is honest with himself, count for less than the love of his grandson. The narrator contrasts this viewpoint with Marius’s perspective—in his youth he is less needy for the love of others. The narrator is sympathetic towards Marius, but again suggests that his monastic, pure lifestyle might be blinding him to other ways of doing good.
One publisher offers to take Marius into his house, lodge him, give him work, and pay 1500 francs, but that would mean giving up his liberty and his dignity, so he refuses. He remains friends with Courfeyrac, though he no longer frequents the Friends of the ABC. His one other friend is the old man named M. Mabeuf, the warden at church who had been responsible for reintroducing Marius to his father.
Once again the narrator portrays Marius as admirable, but ultimately somewhat immature in his stubborn insistence on living as a free man. In doing so, he’s able to remain loyal to his own values, but he also is prevented from establishing truly close relationships with others.
Chapter 4 Mabeuf understands little of how he himself impacted Marius’s political opinions, and he prefers to think less about politics than about plants and books. He has never loved any woman as much as a tulip bulb. He once told someone that he has forgotten whether or not he was ever married. Mabeuf lives alone with an old housekeeper, a spinster. Marius enjoys spending time with Mabeuf when he’s tired of reading about wars and military glory.
With Mabeuf, the narrator introduces us to yet another of the unique and often eccentric figures that populate Hugo’s Paris. In this case, Mabeuf is not meant to represent a notch on the continuum between good and evil or condemnation and redemption, but rather is an odd, harmless character whom the narrator portrays fondly.
In 1830, Mabeuf’s brother dies, and a notary’s mistake results in him receiving no inheritance. The July Revolution brings a publishing crisis, and the first books to cease to sell are the ones about flowers. Mabeuf is forced to leave his house, sell some of his prints, and move into a tiny thatched cottage near the Salpetriere. But Mabeuf remains calm and serene.
By depicting Mabeuf as an eccentric and absentminded but well-intentioned old man, the narrator makes us sympathize with him in his bad luck. This is another reminder that a downward spiral towards misery can have little to do with one’s own actions or merit.
Chapter 5 When he’s not seeing Mabeuf or Courfeyrac, Marius takes pleasure in his long walks on the boulevards, the Champs-de-Mars, or in the Luxembourg Gardens. Sometimes he goes to visit his father’s old generals or comrades, though he only attends their parties on days when it’s freezing cold, since he can’t afford a carriage and doesn’t want to arrive with dirty boots (from the unfrozen ground).
Marius is slowly establishing a routine and a lifestyle for himself away from his grandfather, who’s been replaced not only by Marius’s radical political friends but also by friends of his father, men whom Gillenormand would consider the ultimate political enemies.
Even with the Revolution of 1830, Marius’s opinions stay the same, though he thinks of human affairs as largely small and petty. Still, he has pure ideas and aspirations for the future, and the narrator notes that a man’s real character is to be found in his aspirations. Towards the middle of 1831, the old porter tells Marius that his neighbors, the Jondrettes, are being turned out since they have not paid their rent of 20 francs. Marius has thirty francs saved up in a drawer, and gives 25 to the porter, telling her to give it to them without telling them that it was him.
The Revolution of 1830 ultimately only resulted in a change of dynasty. For Marius, not only is such change not enough, but earthly politics itself is not as important as the valiant heroism and other idealistic values that Marius has embraced. The narrator seems to suggest the inadequacy of this point of view, even if Marius does show signs of generosity in the “real” world.
Chapter 6 Theodule’s regiment arrives in Paris for garrison duty, and Mademoiselle Gillenormand decides to plot to have Theodule take Marius’s place as the heir. She tells her father that Theodule is coming, but he cares little. Instead he grows enraged by what he’s reading about, a students’ conflict with the Minister of War. The schools of law and medicine plan to “deliberate” on the War Minister’s actions at the Place du Pantheon that day. He angrily imagines Marius there with them. At that moment, Theodule arrives, and Gillenormand begins a monologue about the absurdity of the radical young students, and how idiotic Marius was to leave and become a republican.
While Mademoiselle Gillenormand’s plan seems ideally positioned to take advantage of Gillenormand’s anger about Marius’s political leanings, Gillenormand himself is so obsessed with his grandson’s potential activities that he has little time to think about anything else. Gillenormand’s obsessive behavior reminds us that he still harbors profound love and affection for Marius, even if he can’t bring himself to ask him for forgiveness.
Political disagreements are now devolving into chaos and disorder, Gillenormand says, growing more and more dramatic. At each pronouncement, Theodule says that his uncle is right, nods his head, or remarks at his eloquence. Finally, Gillenormand pauses, looks Theodule in the eye, and says he is a fool.
Theodule is portrayed as a dutiful, somewhat boring character, whose careful deference seems calculating and doesn’t fool Gillenormand. Theodule can’t understand Gillenormand’s eccentric way of showing his love for Marius.