Chapter 1 The narrator describes revolt as a small bit of electricity that quivers and grows at random, rising from bitterness, enthusiasms, repressed instincts, youthful courage, empty dreams, and a whole host of other causes. Some theories say that a small amount of revolt strengthens governments that are not overthrown. The Revolution of 1830 had let out social grievances without resolving them, but the revolts that followed were not worth the bloodshed. The narrator instead claims that one popular movement must be distinguished from another. Each uprising must be considered on its own merits and causes.
Once again, the narrator begins a new section of the novel with a rumination on broader social, political, or historical affairs, all of which will turn out to be somehow relevant to the plot. Hugo held a complex attitude towards revolution, and throughout this section it’s difficult to identify a clear-cut opinion on it, and the extent to which it’s justified (a complexity that perhaps is best suited to this novel in particular).
Chapter 2 For the narrator, an uprising or revolt is a perversion of democracy, whereas an insurrection is in the right, being the war of the whole against the faction (rather than of a faction against the whole). The same cannon pointed against the people can be right at one historical moment and wrong at another, and this has been true throughout history. The narrator lists a number of events in French and Roman history that can be characterized as uprisings.
This is a complicated, nuanced view of history—it’s impossible to think up laws or rules that would apply to all nations and all uprisings throughout history. This belief can be related to the understanding of historical narrative as deeply tied to individual experiences and lives within it.
Riot is defined as coming from a material situation, whereas insurrection is always a moral affair. Nevertheless, an insurrection always begins as a riot. Sometimes this riot gets lost in some moral swamp rather than continuing on the path of justice and reason towards justified insurrection and revolution. Universal suffrage, by giving the vote to insurrection, takes the power of arms away from it, so that in the future, wars must inevitably grow increasingly rare.
Hugo goes on to complicate the definitions that he’s laid out already, by showing how one affair—a riot—can bleed into another. Again, he is careful to stress how difficult it is to tell whether these movements are morally justifiable or not, since they may or may not swerve off the path of justice.
But for the bourgeois, the narrator notes, these subtle differences are lost: they see everything as treacherous rebellion. The narrator asks what the movement of June 1832 was—a revolt or insurrection. It began rapidly and with grandeur, but was extinguished in melancholy. It can only be referred to with respect. The narrator claims he must insist on describing petty details and personal stories, which are often lost in history. Apart from a few names being altered, the story he will tell is true and genuine.
Hugo is clear to distinguish himself from one camp—indeed, for him, the bourgeois understanding of rebellion is to be dismissed precisely because it holds an overly simplistic view on how to think about social uprisings. We are promised once again a view of history that values individual voices rather than simply the decisions of great leaders.
Chapter 3 The spark for the June events was the death of the beloved General Lamarque in June. On the day of his burial, June 5th, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was filled with rumors, and people began to arm themselves. Workmen assembled at the Rue de Bercy, whispering together with revolutionary agents. That day the funeral procession, with the National Guard beside its wound through the streets of Paris. Behind the official figures came a massive crowd of students, refugees, children, carpenters on strike, and other workers. The government watched them uneasily, as the enthusiastic majority of the people mingled with some true criminals who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to steal and plunder.
The Faubourg Saint-Antoine is a particular neighborhood of Paris that will come to stand, in the novel, for revolutionary sentiment and activity—a corner of Paris that can be identified and described politically. The narrator shows how disparate and, to an extent, motley this politically motivated group is, though in a way that suggests they are united by being particularly vulnerable and fragile members of society. We’re also reminded that amid this crowd are some whose intentions are less noble.
The hearse passed the Bastille and stopped at the bridge of Austerlitz. There an official, Lafayette, gave a farewell to Lamarque. Then a man on horseback with a red flag rode into the middle of the group. Someone shouted, “Lamarque to the Pantheon!—Lafayette to the Town-hall!” and young men began to drag the hearse across the bridge. The cavalry was deployed to the bridge. Suddenly, three shots were fired: one hit the chief of the squadron, another killed an old woman at a window, and the third glanced off an officer’s shoulder. Something snapped, and a fight began. A barricade was thrown up and the crowd dispersed, the men shouting, “To arms!” as they fled.
It’s difficult to tell exactly what’s going on in these passages, or what triggered the descent into chaos—in fact, this lack of clarity is probably an intentional rhetorical tool, since it mimics the confusion of the moment for the characters, as tensions rise between the official political mourners (led by Lafayette) and the city residents who believe that, in his defense of the poor and vulnerable, Lamarque truly belongs to them.
Chapter 4 The narrator muses on the difficulty of tracing how a riot spreads and grows. Within 15 minutes, in streets throughout Paris, one group pillaged a small-arms factory, some men looted a store, others pursued National Guard officers, and students distributed arms—all taking place simultaneously, with 27 barricades springing up in one neighborhood alone. One young man carried passwords from one barricade to another and the wine-shops were converted to guard-houses. One man later killed was found to have on his person a map of Paris showing its most intricate and narrow streets.
Just as the narrator has traced the paths and detailed the movements and monuments of Paris in other sections, here he underlines the pulsing, living element of the city. A riot seems to spread almost like a virus, exponentially but without anyone being able to witness exactly how. The map on the body of the man later killed highlights how closely tied riots and revolution can be to the very nature of Paris, at least according to the novel.
On June 5th the center of Paris becomes a massive but winding fortress, with battlegrounds at countless street corners. The soldiers are disconcerted by this confusing battlefield, while the students and other citizens move through the streets easily.
In this account, Paris seems to belong most of all to people like students and others who are generally dismissed as irrelevant.
Chapter 5 As usual, the parts of Paris beyond the rebellious neighborhoods remain calm, the inhabitants remarking casually that fights are going on in that general direction. The theaters keep on their shows, and passers-by continue to dinner. A year earlier, a fusillade in one neighborhood had been stopped to allow a wedding party to pass, without anyone batting an eye. This time, however, the city seems more afraid. Rumors travel quickly about hundreds of warriors hidden in a cathedral, or about Lafayette wounded or ill, or about a possible evacuation of Paris. By 9:00, over 800 people are arrested. Many remain at home and wait for the first cannon shot.
In some ways, given that Paris is an ideal city for revolt—its streets and alleyways are conducive to barricades, and those most likely to revolt are also those best acquainted with the city’s secrets—these kinds of uprisings don’t take on much historical importance. Interestingly, June 1832 might be considered one of those less important riots, and the narrator does not yet explain why the novel presents an alternative perspective.