After he exhausts his last resources, Marius finds life cruel. He suffers in body and soul. He has no bread and no fire, and his clothes are shabby. He bears the insolence of shopkeepers, the laughter of working girls, taunts, humiliation. At one point, his coat wears out and he has to accept castoffs from his friends. But poverty is a crucible that destroys the weak and tempers the soul of the strong. Marius proves himself firm in the face of adversity and slowly manages to create a bearable existence. He earns a modest living as a literary factotum, writing prospectuses, annotating editions, translating newspapers, and compiling biographies. He lives in a monkish room in the Gorbeau House — the same building once occupied by Cosette and Jean Valjean. He eats frugally and never drinks wine.
Marius is at peace with the world, for his austere way of life is in keeping with his ascetic temperament. He lives like a hermit, avoiding even his own family. Unaware that his grandfather secretly regrets his behavior, Marius never goes to see him. He has given up his circle of student friends, cultivating only Courfeyrac and the old churchwarden, M. Mabeuf, who knew his father. Solitude suits him. It allows him to abandon himself to a life of contemplation that provides him with moments of veritable ecstasy. Marius is in the process of becoming a visionary.
Consequently, he is completely indifferent to any woman whom chance puts in his path. For a year now on his regular walks in the Luxembourg Gardens, he has frequently encountered an old man with a pleasant countenance and the modest air of a Quaker, accompanied by a little girl thirteen or fourteen years old. Marius is favorably impressed by the "father" but finds the "daughter" of no interest.
Then, for no particular reason, he interrupts his visits to the park and does not see the unknown couple for six months. A momentous event has taken place during his absence: The little girl has become a ravishing young woman. So striking is the transformation that Marius has to observe her attentively to make sure it is the same person. Yet this new beauty does not at first dispel his indifference.
Later, however, their eyes meet, and Marius' whole life changes. In this one glance he finds a depth, a mystery, a charm that intoxicates him. Suddenly he is ashamed of his old clothes, and the next day he appears at the Luxembourg Gardens resplendent in his new suit. Resolute, proud of his appearance, he walks toward the bench on which the young girl sits with her father. As he draws near, however, his emotions overwhelm him and he has to turn back. Once again, he attempts the difficult adventure and this time manages to pass the bench, but not without acute embarrassment. Then he sits down at a respectable distance and a quarter of an hour later leaves in a trance. That night he forgets to have supper.
For two weeks, he continues to stroll past the bench, nothing more. Then a cataclysmic event takes place. M. Leblanc, as Marius has decided to call the old man on account of his white hair, decides to take his daughter for a walk and they stroll in front of Marius. Ineffable moment: he is dazzled by the pensive and gentle look she gives him. Her beauty reminds him of an angel, of the heroines of Petrarch and Dante. He is floating on clouds and painfully aware of the dust on his boots.
When he is not in the Luxembourg Gardens, Marius is, like all lovers, afflicted with a touch of madness. He is alternately thoughtful and uproarious. He embraces strangers. He makes remarks out of context. A whole month goes by, and he never misses a day at the Luxembourg. But restrained by timidity and caution, he does not again parade in front of the bench. With apparent casualness, he stands near a statue or tree, exhibiting himself to the young girl and sending her tender looks. She, in turn, manages to return his glances with meaningful looks of her own while talking to her father.
A few miscalculations, however, put an end to Marius' discreet courtship. One day M. Leblane changes benches and Marius follows. Then he comes without his daughter and Marius, by leaving immediately, makes it obvious that he has been interested in her. He has picked up a handkerchief initialed "U" that he thinks she has dropped, and he has christened her "Ursula" in his private thoughts; and finally he tries to follow "Ursula" to her home. This last mistake is irreparable. He asks the doorman about her; the doorman tells "M. Leblanc" of the inquiry, and a week later, the old man and the girl have disappeared without a trace.
The description of how Marius lives on 700 francs a year is a passage straight out of Balzac's type of realism, and it has all the mathematical fascination of a well-worked-out equation. Marius however is not, and never will be, one of Les Misérables. Unlike Gavroche and Jean Valjean, he does not expect suffering from life; he chooses it and thereby adds a halo of glory to the rosy glow of youth that already surrounds him. Marius' natural environment is not the slums but the Luxembourg Gardens; he belongs to the world of the wealthy, the leisured, the fortunate, and no matter how shabby his pants, he always wears them like a gentleman.
In Marius, Victor Hugo is painting his own portrait as a young man — the same political views, appearance, and youthful struggles — but it is a fair portrait, not retouched. Hugo recognizes what is admirable in Marius — his integrity, his generosity, his imaginative fervor, his genuine idealism, and his capacity for feeling; but he does not extol them beyond measure, and he does not fail to point out Marius' faults: the unconscious cruelty with which he makes his grandfather suffer and the humor as well as the beauty of his grand passion. To fall in love forever, without a word spoken, on the strength of a single glance, is sublime — but it is also incredibly stupid, and so, in some respects, is Marius.