Summary and Analysis
Part 4: St. Denis: Book I
Hugo interrupts his narrative to give a historical sketch of the background and beginning of the July Monarchy, which was established by the Revolution of 1830. After Napoleon fell, he was followed by the two Bourbon kings Louis XVIII and Charles X, who reigned from 1814 to 1830. This period was known as the Restoration, and it was marked by a great longing for peace, a great weariness after the heroic days of the Republic and the Empire. However, the people were not so passive that they did not demand the retention of the freedoms won by the Revolution. These the Bourbons grudgingly granted, but they acted in bad faith. When, in 1830, Charles X felt himself sufficiently strong to do so, he attempted to abrogate his concessions. It was a grievous miscalculation. The nation rebelled and the king was deposed and exiled.
Unfortunately, the revolution was captured by opportunists. Pleading the need for peace and order, they restored the monarchy. Their choice fell upon Louis Philippe, a representative of the Orleans, the younger branch of the royal family. While the move was designed to protect the privileges of the bourgeoisie against the people, it was, however, not a complete retrogression. It confirmed certain democratic gains, though it stopped short of giving the people full sovereignty.
The hybrid character of the revolution is illustrated by the king it selected. Louis Philippe, nicknamed Egalité (equality), was, in spite of his royal ancestry, sympathetic to liberal ideas. Unlike his predecessors, he had been on the side of the people during the events of 1789 and had even participated actively in them. During his reign, he not only respected the prerogatives of his subjects but actively concerned himself with their welfare. He frequently intervened, for instance, in favor of political prisoners. Nevertheless, the beginning of the king's reign was not auspicious. On the one hand, Louis Philippe was attacked by the conservatives who could not resign themselves to the loss of their privileges. On the other, he was not acceptable to the republicans, for whom any monarchy, however enlightened, was a betrayal of their ideal.
Behind the visible resistance, a quieter, more pervasive opposition was growing to the whole concept of monarchy and government by the propertied classes. Socialist thinkers were critically reexamining the whole structure of society and undermining its old foundations. Thus, two years after the overthrow of the Bourbons, radical ideas, international tensions, and popular discontent already were forming heavy clouds on the political horizon. In April 1832, the situation has become explosive. The Saint Antoine section, the most volatile in Paris, is openly planning revolution. Discussion groups examine the legitimacy of the government; militants gird for action. Extremists manufacture bullets, and the police report that a veritable arsenal is being collected.
Inevitably, the revolutionary fever spreads. Secret societies, increasingly defiant, proliferate and spread like a cancer through the body politic. First Paris is infected, then the provinces. Marius' old friends take an active part in the seditious activities. A.B.C. leader Enjolras dispatches his lieutenants to various groups of students and workers to organize them for the revolution. Enjolras reserves for himself the group known as La Cougourde. On his way to meet them, he mulls over the situation and optimistically foresees a glorious uprising leading to the ultimate emancipation of the people.
A slight disappointment, however, mars his grandiose vision. In passing he decides to inspect the work of his friend Grantaire, the cynic who has only become a revolutionary out of admiration for Enjolras. Instead of haranguing the workers whose revolutionary fervor he was supposed to excite, Grantaire is engaged in an absorbing game of dominoes with them.
Hugo's long discussion of the political evolution of France from 1815 to 1832 is primarily a republican political document. It is intended to hearten French republicans by reminding them that, despite many checks, republicanism has steadily gained ground in the nineteenth century and to encourage his readers to oppose the Empire, which subverted the Republic of 1848. And as usual, Hugo, the political exile, is a very effective propagandist. The book, however, also serves as an introduction to the revolt of 1832, which will involve most of the characters we have met so far in Les Misérables; and the activity of Enjolras and his group foreshadows this important plot development.