Chapter 1 Today, when Parisians enter the basket-maker’s shop on the Rue Rambuteau, they don’t know what horrors happened here. This was once the Rue de la Chanvrerie, the site of a famous barricade. The narrator suggests imagining an “N” touching the Rue Saint-Denis on the summit and the Halles on its base, with the three bars forming three different streets, and the Rue Mondetour cutting these three strokes at crooked angles—all of which created seven unevenly cut up islands of houses.
Earlier, the narrator had exclaimed how different the Paris at the time of the novel’s writing is from the Paris at the time in which the novel takes place. These streets can all be mapped onto today’s Paris, such that the novel takes on a stunningly exact historical reality, into which novelistic narrative enters .
At the bottom of one of these cul-de-sacs is a 300-year-old tavern called Corinthe. It was passed down from family to family and now belongs to the Hucheloups who live on the second floor. Corinthe is the meeting-place of Courfeyrac and his friends. Father Hucheloup was an amiable man who enjoyed hosting them, but died in 1830, and his devastated widow continues to keep the shop. The wine and food has deteriorated, but the group keeps coming anyway.
The narrator has situated the following scene within a historical and contemporary Paris, but now he returns to the literary setting of the novel, filling out the imagined characteristics and inhabitants of real streets, such that Paris seems simultaneously known, familiar, and dizzyingly enigmatic.
Chapter 2 Laigle de Meaux and Joly are two good friends from among the group. On June 5th, they meet for breakfast at Corinthe with Grantaire, who quickly drinks half a bottle of wine. They talk of the procession that had just gone by, and then Grantaire begins rambling about women he’s been with and wrongs that have been done to him. He dismisses talk of the revolution, saying that he can’t imagine God could want to lead the human race through so many twists and turns and repeated revolts. Revolutions prove that God hasn’t been able to make both ends meet, which means creation must be bankrupt.
Grantaire was the Friends of the ABC member who was more interested in being friends with Enjolras than in pursuing political and social questions. Grantaire’s character is portrayed in a clearly disapproving light: he both challenges social revolution and mocks God’s power—two major axes around which the novel itself turns. Grantaire is thus shown as simply spewing nonsense.
Joly and Laigle pay little attention to this lecture, and instead start discussing Marius’s apparent love affair. Grantaire begins his next bottle and starts another speech, but at that moment a small ragged boy enters and asks Laigle if he is Monsieur Bossuet (his nickname). He says a tall blonde man on the boulevard said to tell Bossuet “ABC” from him. Laigle hands 20 sous to the boy, who says he’s Gavroche’s friend Navret. When the boy leaves, Grantaire begins to describe a list of categories of urban gamins, while Laigle muses that ABC must mean the burial of Lamarque. Rubbing his hands, Laigle says that now they’ll touch up the 1830 revolution. Grantaire says he doesn’t think much of this revolution: the government isn’t fantastic, but it isn’t evil either. The group stays at the tavern all day.
Paris has become an interlocking network of messengers, all of whom are helping spread the news about what’s happening in the city. This friend of Gavroche’s plays one part in this network. Grantaire’s speeches, meanwhile, grow increasingly ridiculous. While Laigle and Joly are depicted as more serious, the novel seems to suggest that there’s a thin line between entertainment and politics at this moment—the scene takes place in a tavern, after all. Hugo portrays this phenomenon ambivalently.
After midday, Grantaire moves on to other kinds of alcohol, and the others grow drunk as well. All at once, that evening, they hear a tumult and cries of “To arms!” They see an armed rabble running behind Courfeyrac and Gavroche down the Rue Saint-Denis. Bossuet shouts that they can make a barricade here in order to defend themselves from the National Guard as they continue to drum up support. Courfeyrac signals to the crowd to stop.
As Joly, Grantaire, and Laigle embrace the event’s opportunity for entertainment, others are attempting to marshal a motley group into action and defense. These two elements merge at the tavern, in a reminder of the interconnectedness of Parisian social and political life.
Chapter 3 The street is narrow and well-adapted for a barricade. All the street’s inhabitants immediately close their shutters and crouch inside, afraid. The crowd heaps up barrels and stones until they form a high rampart. Bossuet calls out to the driver of a traveling omnibus, and a minute later it’s overturned in front of the barricade. The widow Hucheloup takes refuge on the second floor, and the serving-girl Mateloup tries to follow her. Grantaire catches her around the waist and exclaims that she’s homely, with her lead-colored hair, and will fight well. Enjolras calls out to him angrily not to disgrace the barricade, to go drink somewhere else. Grantaire seems shocked and suddenly sober: he sits down and declares he’ll sleep. Enjolras looks at him disdainfully, while Grantaire looks back tenderly and then falls asleep.
This scene portrays a mixture of military-style plotting, cheerful preparation for a battle, and pure chaos. The narrator shows how even Paris’s residents are divided on whether or not to join those in revolt. By closing their shutters, the street’s inhabitants make clear that, even if they’re not ideologically against the group, they wish to have no part in a fight against the National Guard. Such a fight is probably doomed from the start anyway, because of the vast inequality in resources between the two camps.
Chapter 4 Courfeyrac reminds the widow Hucheloup how she was complaining about the law the other day, since she had had to pay a fine for a patron who shook a pane out of her window, and he says they’re avenging her through the fight. The crowd smashes the street lanterns and builds several other barricades. It’s a motley crew, but they all work together jovially even though they don’t know each other’s names. Gavroche is a kind of whirlwind, available everywhere at once, shouting orders and asking for a gun. He says he’ll take Enjolras’s if he dies first.
Just as Gavroche reminded the group of women why it’s in their best interests to fight, Courfeyrac attempts to show why passersby such as the widow Hucheloup shouldn’t mistrust the members of the uprising—instead, he claims, the group is acting on behalf of and in the interest of others who don’t have the resources to speak for themselves. This seriousness of purpose coexists with a continued joviality.
Chapter 5 The front of the barricade is made of an impenetrable block of paving stones, beams, and planks. There is an opening on one extremity, where a red flag fastened to the pole of the omnibus flies over the barricade. Once this is finished, Courfeyrac puts a chest on a table outside the tavern, and begins distributing the cartridges inside it. The fighters load the guns, then lie in wait as twilight deepens, with a tragic, terrifying air about the neighborhood.
Red flags in French history are tied to leftist political movements—and decades after this event they’d be connected to communism—so this flag situates the group’s barricade-building (another common element to Parisian riots) within a longer history and adds a greater political resonance.
Chapter 6 During these hours of waiting, the students recite love verses, one of which the narrator transcribes. Meanwhile, a torch is lit in the large barricade, illuminating the scarlet of the flag.
The narrator keeps his promise to record the idiosyncratic, personal touches within a broader historical and political narrative.
Chapter 7 The long wait suggests that the government is collecting its forces. Gavroche spies a man with a large musket who’s entered the tavern. When the man sits down, Gavroche springs to his feet and begins to tiptoe around him, suddenly giddy and gleeful. At that moment, Enjolras accosts Gavroche, telling him to slip out to the streets to report on what’s happening. As Gavroche is about to go off, he indicates the man in the tavern, and says he is a police spy.
Gavroche doesn’t give away all his cards straightaway. Instead, he merely grows even more cheerful thanks to the special kind of knowledge that he’s accustomed to using in order to make his way around Paris. Here, that means knowledge of who the policemen are, even when they try to disguise themselves.
Enjolras approaches the man and asks who he is. The man smiles disdainfully, saying that he’s an agent of the authorities named Javert. Enjolras makes a sign to four men around him, who immediately throw Javert down and search him. They find a note from the police prefect, ordering Javert to find out whether the “malefactors” have established intrigues on the Right Bank, near the Jena bridge. The men tie Javert to a post in the room’s center. Enjolras tells Javert that he’ll be shot ten minutes before the barricade is taken; but they’ll save their gunpowder for now.
Javert retains the same characteristics he’s had from the start, including a kind of coldness linked to his loathing of shame. Javert is constantly on the front lines of the police force when attempting to penetrate Paris’s underworld, whether of crime or of revolution, though this is the first time that Javert has allowed himself to enter a scene with a measure of vulnerability.
Chapter 8 The narrator feels obligated to relate an event that will help flesh out the picture of “social birth-pangs in a revolutionary birth.” One man among the street crowd, whose name appears to be Le Cabuc, sits down in the wine-shop and looks at the large house at the edge of the barricade, exclaiming that they should shoot from there. The others tell him that the house is closed, so he says they should break it in. He races over, knocks, and then starts to batter the door with a gun. At that point, a tiny window opens on the third story, showing the terrified face of an old man—the porter—holding a candle. He says he cannot open the door, and repeats thus, not seeing Le Cabuc aiming his gun at him in the dark. Le Cabuc fires and immediately kills the man.
“Social birth-pangs” is the term that the narrator uses to describe how, even in the midst of a revolution whose goals may be just, evil still might occur. The Bishop of D--- had debated this phenomenon with the dying member of the revolutionary Convention, and here the theme returns, as the narrator describes a purely gratuitous, meaningless crime committed by Le Cabuc. This seems to be one of the peripheral figures the narrator had mentioned earlier, those who take advantage of moments of tumult to commit crimes.
Le Cabuc turns around to see a white-faced Enjolras, who orders him on his knees, and knocks him to the ground. Enjolras seems the embodiment of wrath. He tells the man he has one minute, then grabs Le Cabuc by the hair and shoots him in the head. Many of the onlookers turn their heads so as not to watch. A silence falls, and Enjolras declares that what Le Cabuc did and what he himself did are both horrible, but he had to kill the man, since insurrection must be disciplined. He obeyed justice in killing him, but now also must condemn himself. He says that in the future there will be no more ignorance nor retaliation: better things will come, and it is for that that they die now.
Enjolras seems here to enact a kind of pre-modern justice, an “eye for an eye” punishment. Yet he feels obligated to kill Le Cabuc not just because Le Cabuc killed someone else, but also because Le Cabuc’s action threatens both the social harmony of the group in revolt and the broader social ideals that they’re fighting for. Enjolras himself seems to despise this notion of justice, carrying it out even while holding out hope that another system might replace it.
Later, it will be determined that Le Cabuc was none other than Claquesous, who left no trace—his life was shadows and his end was night, according to the narrator. After this tragic episode, Courfeyrac catches sight of the small young man who had asked for Marius that morning.
Once again, night and darkness appear as the converse to the symbol of light, and are tied to evil, unhappiness, and lack of a moral system— here in the person of Claquesous, who literally once painted his face black as a disguise.