In the neighborhood around the Temple, there lives a curious character. M. Gillenormand, vestige of another age. His ninety years have in no way diminished his vigor. He walks straight, drinks with gusto, speaks loudly, sleeps soundly, snores vigorously. He has given up women but not without some lingering regrets. When a former maid in the house tries to claim he is the father of her baby boy, he flatly denies it, but he pays for the child's keep just the same, and for that of his little brother later on.
He is authoritarian and cannot brook contradiction. He still beats his servants in the grand old tradition and even punishes his fifty-year-old unmarried daughter. He has retained the Enlightenment's cynicism about the world. Europe, to him, is a civilized version of the jungle. Of course, he finds contemporary society particularly repulsive. He declares peremptorily: "The Revolution is a bunch of rascals."
M. Gillenormand has outlived most of his relatives. He still has, as we have just mentioned, an old maid daughter, a lackluster creature. In her youth, she dreamed of a rich husband, prominence, an imposing butler. Now she has turned into a prude and a bigot. She defends with a heavy fortress of clothing a non-threatened virtue. She fills her day with religious practices, says special prayers, belongs to the Association of the Virgin, and venerates the Sacred Heart. She is, moreover, abominably stupid.
Her younger sister, now dead, was her exact opposite. She breathed poetry, flowers, and light, dreamed of falling in love with a remote heroic cavalier, and married the man of her dreams. She has left behind a son, Marius, who lives with M. Gillenormand. Marius is a sensitive child who trembles before his gruff grandfather, for the latter speaks to him severely and sometimes raises his cane to him. Secretly, however, M. Gillenormand adores the child.
Even though the boy lives under his grandfather's care, he is not an orphan. His father lives in very straitened circumstances in the little town of Vernon. Practically a hermit, he has only one occupation:
the cultivation of a magnificent garden.
This humble and peaceful retirement, however, is the poignant conclusion to a stormy existence. The father, Georges Pontmercy, was for most of his life a soldier in Napoleon's army. He had a heroic career, distinguishing himself in all the emperor's campaigns. He captured a British ship, was severely wounded, and won the highest military decoration. At the debacle of Waterloo; he achieved the peak of valor by capturing the flag of the Lunebourg battalion. The emperor, delighted, shouted, "I'm making you a colonel, a baron, an officer of the Legion of Honor."
The Restoration did not look with favor on one of Napoleon's staunchest partisans, and Pontmercy was retired on half pay. Worse, the reactionary M. Gillenormand detests him, calls him a "bandit," and pressures him into giving up his son under the threat of disinheriting the child. Marius knows that he has a father, but he is completely indifferent to him. From the disapproval his name evokes in his royalist environment, he has gathered that his father is a man to be ashamed of.
He is tragically mistaken. Georges Pontmercy was not only a heroic soldier, he is a loving father. Unable to bear total separation from his child, he periodically comes to Paris and stealthily enters St. Sulpice church to watch his son at mass. His sacrifice has brought him a small consolation. It has won him the friendship of the curate of Vernon, M. l'abbé Mabeuf. This priest is a brother of the churchwarden of St. Sulpice, who has noticed Pontmercy, his scars, and his tears during his secret visits to the church. On a visit to his brother at Vernon, Mabeuf recognizes Pontmercy; the two brothers pay the colonel a visit and learn his story. This confidence has created a friendship based on mutual admiration.
In 1827, Marius has just turned seventeen. One evening as he comes home, his grandfather hands him a letter.
— Marius, says M. Gillenormand, you are to go to Vernon tomorrow.
— To see your father.
The colonel is ill and has asked to see his son. Marius is not anxious to go because he feels that his father has deserted him. Nevertheless, he sets out for Vernon the next day. He is too late, however. Georges Pontmercy is dead. Marius is not grief-stricken: He feels only the sadness caused by the death of any stranger. He leaves forty-eight hours later, taking with him a note, his only legacy from his father.
The note reads: "To my son: The Emperor named me baron on the battlefield of Waterloo. Since the Restoration questions the title I won with my blood, my son will take it and bear it. It goes without saying that he will be worthy of it." On the back, the colonel adds: "At the same battle of Waterloo, a sergeant saved my life. The man is called Thénardier. Lately I believe he has been running an inn in the vicinity of Paris in Chelles or Montfermeil. If my son meets him he will be as helpful as he can."
One day Marius' indifference to his father is shaken by a fortuitous encounter with the churchwarden who knew and admired Georges Pontmercy. A casual conversation brings Marius the momentous revelation of his father's selfless love and the explanation of his apparent neglect. Marius is stunned. The next day, he asks his grandfather's permission to leave for three days. What he does will be explained later. On his return, he goes straight to the library and asks for the collection of the newspaper Le Moniteur. He devours it and everything else he can read concerning the Republic and the Empire. He hardly ever comes home. The old man, judging from his own past, suspects a love affair. It is something of the sort. Marius has begun to worship his father.
His emotional upheaval is accompanied by a transformation in his political views. The Revolution, which in the past seemed to him one of the darkest chapters of history, now impresses him with its battle for civil rights for the masses; the Empire becomes the standard-bearer of democracy in Europe. Likewise, Marius reconsiders his ideas about Napoleon, who ceases to be the monster of Marius' childhood and is transformed into the victorious captain who swept away the last remnants of the Old Regime. One stormy night, overwhelmed by the majesty of the hour, Marius completes his conversion by the fervent exclamation, "Long live the Emperor!" He is now entirely his father's son; he goes to a printer on the Quai des Orfevres and orders visiting cards with the inscription "Baron Marius Pontmercy."
At the same time, Marius draws away from his grandfather. He has always found him uncongenial; now his dislike becomes more specific. He blames the old man for the stupid prejudice that deprived him of a father's love. He becomes distant and cold, and frequently takes short trips away from home. During one of these, he goes to look for Thénardier, his father's rescuer, but Thénardier has gone bankrupt, the inn is closed, and its owner has disappeared.
Marius' periodic absences have aroused the curiosity of Mlle. Gillenormand, especially since she scents a juicy scandal. She sends another nephew, Théodule, who has never met his cousin, to find out what Marius is doing. Théodule does not obey, but he accidentally finds himself on the same coach and travels with Marius to Vernon.
At Vernon, both young men get off the coach, and Marius buys a beautiful bouquet from a flower vendor. Théodule follows him, expecting to observe a tender rendezvous. Instead, he finds a somber tête-à-tête with a tomb. Marius has taken his flowers to a cross on which is inscribed the name "Colonel Baron Pontmercy."
Théodule does not report what he has learned, but later on, M. Gillenormand investigates Marius' room and discovers Pontmercy's note to his son and the visiting cards. When Marius returns, there is a heated confrontation and bitter words are exchanged, words too bitter to be forgotten. Marius leaves his home forever. With thirty francs in his pocket, his watch, a few clothes, and only vague plans in mind, he sets out for the Latin Quarter.
M. Gillenormand is an exceptional human being, as tough for an old man as Gavroche for a gamin, but in quite a different social sphere. Gavroche belongs to the slums of the nineteenth century, the octogenarian to the salons of the eighteenth, and everything about him, from his profanity to his bed hangings, breathes the atmosphere of another age. He has all the virtues of the eighteenth-century upper classes — their elegance, gaiety, and charm — and their worst failing: callous class egoism. M. Gillenormand is not, however, cruel or mean; he is generous with money, kind enough to support two bastards who are not even his, and in fact he and his grandson are very much alike. Unfortunately, their differences grate on particularly sensitive points. Marius' attitude to his fellow man, as we shall see, is more fraternal than patriarchal; he believes it is a virtue to feel strongly, while M. Gillenormand thinks it is in bad taste. The egoism of youth is as stubborn as the egoism of age.
Even so, no separation would have come between them except for an accident of history. M. Gillenormand has an emotional horror of everything that has to do with the Revolution, and Marius cannot endure to deny a second time a father he has already involuntarily neglected. Like many Frenchmen of their age, Marius and his grandfather suddenly and unhappily find themselves on opposite sides of the widening chasm between the Old Regime and the young Republic.