Chapter 1 A small house in the Rue Plumet with a garden of about an acre and a half used to belong to the mistress of a chief justice in parliament in the last century (the 18th). The house has a secret back entrance in the Rue de Babylone, so that the chief justice could come and go as he pleased. After ’93 the house had fallen slowly into ruin, but towards the end of the Restoration it began to be occupied again.
The narrator describes in detail another hidden corner of Paris, this one geographically located within the real, historical city. This anecdote gestures towards the scandals of pre-revolutionary Paris, but its main function is to show how architecture can bear the imprint of a city’s history.
In October 1829, an older man had rented the house in the sorry state it was in, and after some repairs moved in with a young girl and elderly maid: Valjean, Cosette, and a woman named Toussaint, whom Valjean had saved from poverty. At the convent, he had been happy, reflecting that Cosette would probably become a nun and he could thus grow old with her. But then he wondered if he was being selfish: perhaps she should see the world before she renounced it. Once Fauchelevent died, he begged the prioress to accept 5,000 francs for them to leave—for Cosette’s education, since she wouldn’t immediately become a nun. He left the convent with his little valise (traveling bag), whose key he keeps on his person at all times. Cosette laughs at him for this peculiarity.
Once again, Valjean moves from one battered house to another, always attempting to keep himself and Cosette one step ahead of his past. As has been the case before, Valjean struggles between wanting to keep someone he loves (in M.-sur-M., the townspeople, and here, Cosette) close to him, and asking himself whether he’s acting selfishly in doing so. Here we also have a hint that Valjean does to an extent keep a part of the past with him (through the valise).
Valjean now lives under the name Ultime Fauchelevent. He has two other Paris dwellings, so that he might be able to slip away and not be caught unprepared like he was the night at the Thenardiers’.
Valjean retains some of the tricks and deceptions more befitting members of the Patron-Minette gang, but here he uses them in the interest of protecting Cosette.
Chapter 2 At the Rue Plumet Valjean tells Toussaint that Cosette is the mistress of the house. Cosette manages their small budget, and each day they walk in the Luxembourg and then go to give alms or charity to the poor in the nearby neighborhoods. Since he had been included in the 1831 census, Valjean was required to patrol as part of the National Guard three or four times a year (he didn’t want to tell anyone that he was over 60). Toussaint venerates Valjean: when a butcher tells her that he’s a “queer man,” she replies that he’s a saint. Valjean leaves the Rue Plumet garden uncultivated so as not to attract attention. This is perhaps a mistake, as the narrator notes.
Though Valjean lives modestly in terms of his own spending, he is wont to spoil Cosette—if not financially then in the way he worships and lavishes attention on her. Valjean is not so cautious about revealing his identity as to give up on his visits of charity, visits for which he’d become known in the past as the “beggar that gives alms.” This chapter allows us to see Valjean’s delicate balance between concealing his past and maintaining a high moral standard.
Chapter 3 The garden at the Rue Plumet is overgrown and mysterious, with a stone bench in one corner and several old statues. It is like a thicket or forest more than a garden. The revolution, the crumbling of old fortunes, and forgetfulness of forty years have rendered the place wild. The narrator muses about the interconnectedness of natural things, and the way in which nature is constantly self-fulfilling and self-rejuvenating, all as a result of God’s will.
Again, we are meant to note how much history—revolution and the transformations it enacted among so many in Paris—is directly and materially visible even in such supposedly insignificant spaces as a small garden tucked away in the corner of the city.
Chapter 4 This garden has become the ideal place for love to show itself. Cosette had left the convent as an ungainly, homely 14-year-old, having been taught religion, history, and some music, but still largely ignorant. This was charming but also dangerous, the narrator notes, since women should be enlightened, even if slowly and gradually. In particular, Cosette had never had a mother to explain to her certain things about the world. Upon leaving the convent, Cosette had fastened onto the Rue Plumet garden’s romantic mysteries, and she would play in it often.
Once again, the narrator critiques the social and political place of the modern convent, which in the novel’s view is stuck in the past and no longer able to participate in human progress. Part of this progress, according to Hugo, is the education of women, an essential means of lifting all people out of poverty and misery, though women’s dismal fates are particularly emphasized.
Cosette adores Valjean. She enjoys asking him why he prefers to keep a cold, severe room and eat black bread, while her room is heated and has carpets, and her meals are far nicer. She vaguely remembers Valjean having rescued her from a forest where she had gone to fetch water. Valjean never tells Cosette her mother’s name, perhaps fearing that a shadow would be cast over their ideal life. He thanks God for having allowed him, a wretch, to be so loved.
Though Cosette occupies a unique place in Valjean’s heart, even she is not welcomed in to share the darkest secrets of his past. He keeps this burden not only for his own safety but also out of love for her. Valjean still struggles with whether he truly deserves such love, which for him would mean that his past crimes have been redeemed.
Chapter 5 One day Cosette looks at herself in the mirror and realizes with a shock that she’s somewhat pretty. The next morning, she tells herself she was imagining things. But then she overhears Toussaint telling Valjean how beautiful she’s grown, and she feels a secret delight. Yet Valjean feels wounded by the change. He only wants Cosette to continue to love him; he fears she’ll be stolen away from him.
Cosette is described as charming and loving, but also subject to the same vanities of any teenage girl (perhaps more so, given, as the narrator has mentioned, the lack of education for girls at the time). Valjean continues to struggle between selfless and selfish versions of his love for her.
Soon Cosette, whom Valjean never refuses anything, develops a taste for fashion and style and becomes a well-dressed Parisienne. She begins asking Valjean to go out, whereas before she had preferred to remain with him inside. She has lost the grace of not knowing her beauty, but she’s gained great charm.
As Cosette grows up, she naturally begins to grow away from her singlemindedly adoring relationship to Valjean. Though she still loves him, this gradual move towards independence wounds him.
Chapter 6 Thus Cosette and Marius were drawn together by destiny. The narrator notes that the idea of love at first glance has grown suspect, but claims that this is how people fall in love. Marius’s glance had allowed Cosette to realize how beautiful he also was. Shaken by his coldness one day, she had decided to take revenge by walking a little closer and teasing him—but that day their glance changed everything, and they began to adore each other. Cosette loves so passionately because she does not really know what love is, having spent so many years in the convent.
Throughout this chapter the narrator is unclear on how exactly he defines love, and what it means in the context of Cosette and Marius. In some ways, he defends their love at first sight, but in other ways, he seems to suggest that love is only possible within a broader web of social relationships, so that Cosette, lacking such social knowledge, is not yet ready to truly love.
Chapter 7 Slowly, Valjean begins to notice Marius in the Luxembourg. Only once does he mention him, saying that the young man has a pedantic air. Cosette only repeats, “That young man!” as if she’s looking at him for the first time. Valjean then thinks it was he who pointed Marius out to her. Valjean concludes that the boy is in love with Cosette, who doesn’t know he exists. Valjean had thought he could no longer feel malevolence, but he now hates Marius. He despairs that he’ll lose Cosette, his life and joy, just because a young man wanted to lounge around in a park.
On the one hand, Valjean’s ignorance of Cosette’s true feelings is a poignant reminder of their gap in age and life experience. In addition, it’s suggested that Valjean is still capable of some of the violent emotions of his past, even if he now can refrain from acting upon them—and, crucially, this hatred is somehow motivated by love.
After realizing that Marius has followed them home, Valjean stops the trips to the Luxembourg. Cosette doesn’t complain or ask questions, but grows sad, and Valjean, who has no experience of this kind of misery, doesn’t understand. Finally, after 3 months, he asks Cosette if she’d like to go to the Luxembourg: a ray of light illuminates her face, and she says yes, but Marius is no longer there. The next day she sadly responds no to his suggestion that they go to the park. Valjean is hurt but also stunned by her gentleness.
It does seem as though Valjean might be actively refusing to read the signs by stopping the visits to the park and then feigning ignorance at the reason for Cosette’s despondency. Valjean continues to love and admire Cosette throughout this episode, and is always able to pick out what he finds remarkable in her character.
Meanwhile, Cosette feels anguished at Marius’s disappearance, though she tries to put on a sweet face for Valjean. For the first time, they suffer side by side, though without anger, and smiling all along.
Cosette and Valjean may want different things, but the narrator stresses how careful the two are not to hurt each other, in a strong sign of love.
Chapter 8 Since youth has its own radiance even in suffering, Valjean is more unhappy than Cosette is, especially as he lacks a total proof that Cosette is in fact slipping away from him, but he also isn’t sure that she’d stay for him. Sometimes Cosette and Valjean rise early to walk and see the sun rise, and they continue these strolls even after they’ve grown melancholy. One October morning in 1831, they set out near the Barrière du Maine, as the sun is beginning to light up the peaceful boulevards.
During this period, while Valjean and Cosette remain committed and loyal to each other, there is also much more than ever before that they cannot find a way to talk about. Rising early to take strolls together is one way to recall and mimic their earlier intimacy, even in a new and different period in Cosette’s life.
Cosette exclaims that someone is coming towards them: it’s seven wagons, fixed to four horses each. Twenty-four men are tied to each truck, wearing iron collars and all attached to one long chain. Their clothing is battered and ragged, their faces blotchy and grim. As the sun rises, the light seems to set fire to this mournful procession, which suddenly makes it more jovial, and the men begin to sing. An old woman among the passers-by points to them and tells a five-year-old next to her to let this be a warning for him. Others in the crowd curse at them gleefully.
Cosette has no knowledge of galleys or prisoners. She might as well be one of the passers-by, for whom this procession may be ominous but is also a kind of detached entertainment. The narrator contrasts the dark faces and clothing of the prisoners to the harsh light shone on them, as if allowing the crowd to see just what moral depths the prisoners have descended into.
Valjean seems to be seeing a vision. He tries to escape but is unable to move his feet. Cosette is terrified, though she doesn’t understand what’s happening. Valjean says that these are convicts going to the galleys. Trembling, Cosette asks if they are still men. He replies, “sometimes.” On the way home, Cosette plies him with questions about convicts. That evening, Valjean hears her say to herself in a low voice that she should die just from seeing a convict like that approach her alone. The next few days are festival days in Paris, so Valjean takes Cosette to see them, and hopes she’ll forget what she’d seen before. But a few days later, Cosette is playing with flowers in her garden, seeming joyful and without a care, when she suddenly asks Valjean what the galleys are like.
In this passage, Valjean’s past and present brutally collide, as all that he’s attempted to conceal from Cosette is now introduced to her directly. Cosette may not know Valjean’s relationship to what she’s seen, but what proves heartbreaking for him is how she views the convicts—as dark, evil creatures whom she has no hope of understanding, much less embracing as fellow human beings. That the innocent Cosette is capable of such judgment underlines how widely spread societal condemnation of prisoners is.