Hugo opens this section with a sentimental tribute to the Parisian gamin, or street urchin. The gamin is for him a pearl of innocence hidden under outer depravity and squalor. He uses slang, talks to prostitutes, frequents bars, wears rags, sings obscene ditties, and sneers at religion. Yet for all his apparent immorality, he elicits admiration. His skepticism mocks sham and convention. It is served by a lively wit and a picturesque vocabulary. At times, when he is sufficiently aroused, the gamin rises to the sublime. To use Hugo's image, this handful of mud becomes Adam when it is sparked by the divine breath. And he is happy in spite of his wretched poverty. The street is for him an ever-exciting domain full of marvels, fraught with adventures. In the evening, he loses himself in the magic of the theater.
Nine years have elapsed since the events related in the second part. Hugo now introduces Gavroche, a boy of eleven or twelve — spirited, free, hungry, slightly larcenous, dressed in hand-me-downs, a typical Parisian urchin. There is a tragic background to his life, however. He has been callously abandoned by his parents, brutally kicked out of the nest. Yet in spite of the estrangement, every few months he goes to see his mother in the Gorbeau House. The visit is invariably depressing. Gavroche is greeted by abysmal poverty, hunger, and, worse, indifference. The conversation is laconic and matter-of-fact:
— Where have you come from?
— The street.
— Where are you going?
— Back to the street.
— Why did you come?
By now we are used to Hugo's dramatic technique of shifting us abruptly from the known to the unfamiliar, in a plot dislocation that is more apparent than real, and we are confident that if we are patient he will eventually bring us back to Jean Valjean.
The problem of the abandoned child has already been evoked with Cosette. Hugo reverts to it here by introducing Gavrocbe, who is — in more ways than one, as we shall see — a sort of little brother to Cosette but even more unlucky than she. Where misfortune stupefied her, however, it has only sharpened Gavroche's wits.
In 1830, the average life expectancy of a bourgeois' child was eight years; of a worker's, two. This statistic goes a long way to explain the phenomenon of the Paris gamin: those children who survive parental neglect and the urban death rate have already proved themselves remarkably flexible and sturdy and are, in a sense, the pick of the crop. With keen observation and tender empathy, Hugo portrays their courage and their sufferings, their irreverence and their audacity, and glorifies them as symbols of that spirit that makes Paris the capital of the world. And finally, he uses them as a telling argument in favor of universal schooling: If they, unlettered, show so much ingenuity, intelligence, and wit, what could they not achieve with education?