Summary and Analysis Part 4: St. Denis: Book X



An insurrection is a sudden conflagration that spreads without pattern, fed by every disappointment, from disillusioned idealism to vile resentment. But for all its destructiveness, it is not ipso facto reprehensible. Insurrections are wrong when they are an attempt of the minority to frustrate the general will. When they serve the aims of democracy, they become sublime. "Insurrection," says Hugo, "is sometimes resurrection." According to this distinction, and in spite of appearances, the uprising of 1832 was legitimate. Furthermore, it gave rise to such acts of heroism that even its critics speak of it with respect.

When a situation is sufficiently combustible, it takes but a spark to light the fires of revolt. In 1832, the occasion is provided by the burial of General Lamarque, hero of the Empire and later a political leader of the left. On June 5, the funeral procession crosses Paris followed by a seditious crowd, armed and prepared for action. The dimensions of the popular unrest worries the government. It has posted 24,000 soldiers in Paris and 30,000 in the suburbs. Near Austerlitz Bridge, someone — no one knows who — fires three shots, and the storm breaks. A vast and lethal improvisation changes Paris into an armed camp. Flags are unfurled, weapons requisitioned, arms factories pillaged. In less than an hour, 27 barricades go up in the Halles district alone. The center of Paris, transformed into an impregnable citadel, becomes the heart of the insurrection.

The authorities retaliate by mobilizing all their forces, including the National Guard. But the military leaders hesitate to give the order to attack. A dreadful feeling of suspense hangs over the city, for the population senses that it is not a few disgruntled acts of protest, but a large-scale uprising that is in prospect.


Hugo's account of the revolt of 1832 is taken from his own memories of the uprising as it appeared from the passage du Saumon, where he himself was stationed; from the experiences a friend, Jules Resseguier, recounted to him; and from a book on the revolt, Le Cloitre Saint-Mery by Ray-Dusseuil. In this book, there appear a real gamin and a real student who play the roles and suffer the fates of Gavroche and Enjolras in the novel, but as we have seen, Hugo has made both full-fledged characters in his book. As is natural with such sources, the whole account breathes the realism and immediacy of eyewitness testimony.

The chapters on the revolt form a counterpart to the book on Waterloo, and Hugo uses the same mingled irony and pathos, poetry and action, to arouse our emotions. Chapter 3 is an excellent example of his technique. He has already compared the coming rebellion to the natural phenomenon of a gathering storm, and he describes the progression of the revolt here in terms of the same metaphor. He describes first the "rumors" among the populace — the first faint rumblings of thunder on the horizon; then the massing, aligning, and re-mingling of the mob behind the cortege that, watched by the hidden eyes of fearful women and children, resemble the rapid shifting and massing of the thunderclouds; and finally the shots that, like the first lightning bolt, open the sky for the deluge. Interspersed with these images are precise and convincing details of conversation, visual impressions, and incidents, and two observations that underline the historic irony and grandeur of the moment: the Duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon's heir, is dying at the same moment the crowds are considering him as their next king; and Lafayette, hero of the American War of Independence, serves as rallying-point for this new insurrection in the cause of freedom.