The assailants of the barricade keep up their fire, hoping to provoke a riposte, exhaust the defenders, and then charge. But Enjolras does not fall into the trap. Impatient and curious, the army dispatches an observer to a roof overlooking the barricade. Valjean hits him squarely in the helmet and does the same to his successor. Bossuet asks why he did not kill him; Valjean does not answer.
Another cannon is brought up, and the attack suddenly becomes destructive. Aimed at the top of the barricade, it shatters the paving stone, and the flying fragments force the insurgents to withdraw. The wall, left undefended, is now ripe for an assault. Enjolras sees the danger and orders the artillery men put out of commission. A well-aimed salvo kills two-thirds of them, but it is a Pyrrhic victory. Too many bullets have been wasted.
Gavroche casually decides to remedy the situation. Like a housewife doing her shopping, he grabs a basket, jumps outside the protective wall, and empties into his basket the cartridge-bags of the dead soldiers lying in the street. He is temporarily protected by a thick curtain of smoke, but his boldness leads him too close to the enemy line; the soldiers notice him and begin to shoot. Undeterred, he continues his harvest; in fact, he stands up straight and sings a little ditty. As the bullets rain around him, he jumps, darts, disappears, reappears, plays a frightening game with death. Finally his magic fails him, and he falls wounded. Gavroche, however, will not die without a swan song. He manages to sit up and sing another stanza of his mocking song. Then another bullet, this time fatal, cuts him down.
As Gavroche falls on his face and stops moving, two waifs are wandering hand in hand through the deserted Luxembourg Gardens. They are the two brothers whom, unknown to himself, Gavroche took under his wing. Today, June 6, 1832, the gardens are an earthly paradise, a riot of flowers, birds, and insects, bathed in sunshine. But to this festive tableau the two little boys add a somber accent, for they are hungry.
Their solitude is disturbed by a prosperous bourgeois accompanied by his six-year-old son, who is listlessly eating a brioche. The father is giving his offspring such edifying instruction as the maxim "The wise man is happy with little." When his son tires of his brioche, he advises him to feed it to the swans, to teach him compassion. With laudable thrift he tries to attract their attention before the brioche sinks. Then the noise of the insurrection grows louder and the father, as prudent as he is wise, takes his son home. As soon as the pair is out of sight, the older Thénardier boy fights the swans for the soggy brioche and shares it with his brother. It is their meal, both food and drink.
Back at the barricade, Combeferre and Marius run out to retrieve the basket and carry back the child's body. Gavroche's cartridges are distributed to the men, fifteen apiece. Valjean refuses his share. Paradoxically, as the situation grows more hopeless, the occupants of the barricade become calmer. They seem to ignore the imminence of death. The tranquility, however, only masks an apocalyptic mood. The barricade fighters experience the ultimate emotions, anticipate the future, sink to unplumbed depths of feeling, touch eternity.
At noon, Enjolras orders paving blocks brought up to the windows of the wine shop and has axes readied to cut down the stairs and bars to barricade the door. He has, however, one last job before they retreat:
to execute Javert. Valjean offers, as he puts it, "to blow his brains out." His offer is readily accepted. As the bugles sound outside, he cocks his pistol. But to the last Javert retains his calm bravado and observes sarcastically, "You are no better off than I am."
As the besieged rush to the defense of the barricade, Valjean leads his prisoner outside and over the side wall, out of sight of the rest. Javert calmly invites Valjean to take his revenge, but instead the ex-convict cuts his bonds. "You are free," he tells him, and adds, "I live under the name of Fauchelevent, at No.7, Rue de l'Homme Armé." Javert is not an easy man to surprise, but Valjean's incredible behavior stuns him. He leaves slowly, then turns around to once again invite Valjean to kill him; Valjean orders him to go away. After Javert's departure, Valjean fires his gun in the air and announces that the execution has been carried out.
Meanwhile, Marius too has slowly recaptured the memory of Javert and their previous encounter. Enjolras confirms his identity, and at this precise moment he hears the pistol shot and Valjean's announcement. Marius is filled with a sensation of cold horror.
At this point, Hugo breaks off to discuss, in Chapter 20, the failure of the general populace to rise in 1832. He is convinced that in the long run, the natural, inevitable direction of mankind is forward, but he recognizes that this march is not steady. Sometimes a specific generation places its own happiness above the general welfare. Hugo is not severe toward this selfishness; he recognizes the individual's right to prefer his own interests to those of humanity. In general, he observes, people are resistant to the more violent forms of progress such as revolutions and insurrections. They are afraid of violence and incapable of understanding the ideals that motivate them. But self-interest, however understandable, must not and will not be man's guiding principle. Paris' rejection of the insurgents was a temporary aberration, a sickness. Mankind is basically healthy. With all its relapses, failure of nerve, intermittence, it is surely marching toward its ultimate apotheosis.
At the barricade, the government troops launch an open assault. The insurgents retaliate vigorously and once more push back the assailants. Marius and Enjolras are the two poles of the resistance. On one side, Marius exposes himself impetuously. On the other side, Enjolras, more self-controlled, fights with deadly efficiency.
For a while, the military situation remains a stalemate. The rebels in their almost impregnable fortification fend off the enemy, but they cannot defeat an inexhaustible supply of troops. Gradually the successive waves of soldiers sweeping over the wall wear them down. Their weapons are gone. Many are killed, almost all are wounded. Their defense is a magnificent epic. It invites comparison with Homeric deeds or medieval heroes.
The inevitable breakthrough finally takes place. The infantry makes a breach in the middle. At last, after an eternity of heroism, a few begin to weaken. First they try to take refuge in one of the houses, and then fling themselves inside the Corinth. Enjolras, the dauntless warrior, covers their retreat and manages to bar the heavy door. Marius, however, has not been able to follow the others. He begins to faint and, as he falls, feels himself supported by a vigorous hand.
Now begins the assault of the wine shop. If possible, the defense becomes even more ferocious. Paving blocks rain from all sides. Shots are fired from the cellar and the garret. When all else fails, the rebels resort to horrible weapons, bottles of nitric acid. The battle is no longer Homeric. It is Dantesque. When the soldiers finally manage to break into the wine shop, they find only one man standing, Enjolras. His execution is immediately ordered. Enjolras crosses his arms and serenely accepts his death. So magnificent is his courage that the enraged attackers suddenly fall silent.
The silence has an unexpected result. Grantaire, dead drunk, has slept through the most savage moments of the battle, but the unusual quiet wakes him up. With the peculiar gift of some drunkards, he is not only awake but completely lucid. He takes in the whole situation at a glance. As the firing squad prepares to shoot, he cries, "Long live the Republic!" and takes his place next to Enjolras. "Kill two birds with one stone," he suggests. Then he gently asks Enjolras: "You don't mind?" A second later, Enjolras is hacked against the wall pierced by bullets and Grantaire is lying at his feet.
Meanwhile, Jean Valjean has picked up Marius as he falls and carried him off with the swiftness and agility of a tiger. Around the corner from the Corinth he finds a temporary haven, but it is unfortunately also a trap. Behind him is a wall, in front a squad of approaching soldiers. His only avenue of escape is underground. As he looks wistfully downward, he suddenly notices an iron grating covering a shaft resembling a well. His bitter knowledge of escape techniques stands him in good stead, and in an instant he lowers Marius to the bottom of the shaft. He finds himself in a kind of subterranean corridor. The feeling is strikingly reminiscent of his descent into the convent with Cosette. The tumult of the outside world has abruptly vanished to be replaced by a profound peace, an overwhelming silence.
Upon the sacrifice of women and old men follows the sacrifice of children and heroes, and the tragic atmosphere deepens. Eponine and M. Mabeuf wanted to die; the Friends of the A.B.C. did not, though they accept their fate with gaiety and courage. Indeed, they had a great deal to live for: forty years of shaping a better world; and it is just this dream of a fuller life that brings them to their deaths. Moreover, Hugo suggests, through France's indifference to their dream, France has lost the flower of their generation. Each of them was a young man of intelligence and ability, and in the revolution they have given proof of their ability in action as well as thought, of bravery as well as brilliance. Even Grantaire, cynic and drunkard, dies as gracefully, as courteously, and as courageously as his friends.
The death of Gavroche is an even greater tragedy, for he possessed the talents of all of them combined: courage and ingenuity, humility and joy, wit and compassion; and society had even less time to profit from his gifts. The world is poorer without him — a truth that Hugo underlines by the vignette of the two lost boys scrabbling for the swans' bread after his death.
Only Jean Valjean and Marius escape, and this is not really due to any deliberate act of will or heroism on Valjean's part. He has made no attempt to shield Marius during the battle; indeed, he seems rather to be waiting for fate to decide whether it will be Cosette's father or Cosette's lover who survives. In any event, it is Javert's unexpected presence that decides the question. As the situation evolves, it becomes apparent that it is not in Valjean's nature to kill Javert in cold blood; if he cannot kill Javert, he has lost Cosette anyway. Marius survives, Valjean picks him up, and carries him off — not out of kindness to Marius, but because it is perhaps the last gift he will ever be able to give his child.
And yet the self-sacrifice implicit in the rescue of his rival is genuine. Physically, he could have killed the snipers on the roof, could have killed Javert, could have left Marius to die. Morally, he cannot, and this was as true when he arrived at the barricade as when he left it. The obscure forces of character in him have not changed; they have simply emerged, tough and unscathed, from the ultimate test. Jean Valjean has been a good man for so long that he cannot do evil even when he would.