Summary and Analysis
Part 4: St. Denis: Books XI-XV
Gavroche decides to go to war. Without much ado he steals an old pistol from a junk shop and swaggers down the street to the accompaniment of a song from his vast repertoire. Unfortunately, the pistol does not have a hammer. Gavroche, however, is above this or any other disappointment. If his gun is less than lethal, his monologue becomes inflammatory. If he cannot afford a piece of cake, he gets immense pleasure from tearing up billboards or insulting a bourgeois. He has a choice reply to the indignant remarks of three old crones. He hurls a stone through the windows of the barber shop whose proprietor treated his two proteges so callously. Life is a continual adventure.
Now he is about to embark on his supreme adventure. At the Saint Jean market, he meets Enjolras' group and decides to join forces with them. As they march, new recruits, workers, artists, students, swell their ranks. In the Rue Lesdiguières, they enlist a most unlikely fire-brand, the gentle M. Mabeuf. His mind in a trance, but his posture militant, he follows the tumultuous crowd. Near the Rue des Billettes, a tall graying man joins them.
As he passes in front of his own house, Courfeyrac takes advantage of the situation to grab some money and a suitcase. On the way out, he has a few words with a young worker who is waiting for Marius. The worker follows him.
Adjoining the Halles, in a decrepit neighborhood of labyrinthine and somber streets, we find the Rue de la Chanvrerie. One end is blocked by a row of tall houses in which the ancient Corinth wine shop is located. The street would be a dead end if it were not for a narrow passage, the Rue Mondétour, which leads out of it. Inexplicably, since the food is poor, the wine atrocious, and the decor rudimentary, the Corinth has become the hangout of the Friends of the A.B.C.
On June 5, two inseparable friends, Laigle (Bossuet) and Joly, are having lunch at the Corinth. They are joined by Grantaire, who takes his nourishment in liquid form. Indifferent to the trouble brewing outside, he is earnestly trying to do justice to two bottles of wine. Alcohol proves to be a melancholy muse, and he rambles on wryly about the imperfections of man and God. "I hate mankind," he avers. Books are a proliferation of trivia. Women sacrifice their virtue to greed. Brutal self-interest governs international relations. God is an unimaginative creator who must forever correct his work through revolutions, great men, and assassinations. The universe is a shabby place and everything is going wrong.
After his sweeping condemnation, Grantaire attacks his second bottle. He is about to launch into another diatribe when a nine-year-old urchin brings Laigle a cryptic message from Enjolras: "A.B.C." It is his invitation to Lamarque's funeral. But the three companions prefer wine to politics and at two in the afternoon their table is strewn with empty bottles. Grantaire especially is drinking with a vengeance. He has replaced wine with a potent mixture of brandy, stout, and absinthe. Suddenly a tumult interrupts the drunken conversation. Through the window Bossuet spots Enjolras and his armed men looking for a place to erect a barricade. He suggests the space in front of the Corinth. The location is strategically perfect.
In a flash, the houses and streets are stripped. Soon a rampart higher than a man blocks the street. Everyone participates feverishly except Grantaire, who merely looks on and blathers incoherently. Enjolras, irritated, dismisses him with a cutting remark. But Grantaire refuses to leave, promises to sacrifice his life, and collapses in a drunken stupor. Under Enjolras, Combeferre, and Courfeyrac's energetic direction, the fortifications are rapidly completed. To the original barricade has been added another one, closing one side of the Rue Mondétour.
The barricade is now manned by about fifty defenders. They are a motley aggregation, including every age, all kinds of faces, an indescribable combination of arms and costumes. Among these disparate strangers reigns a spirit of perfect fraternity. Gavroche is the life of the party. A perpetual motion machine, he is everywhere. He encourages a worker, goads a student, stings everybody. Only one shadow mars his enthusiasm: he is unhappy with his useless gun.
At dusk the barricade is finished. The men are ready, the sentinels posted, and in the deepening silence the rebels wait calmly. So remarkable is their sang-froid that the younger men recite love poems. Gavroche alone is preoccupied. The man from the Rue les Billettes has a disturbing familiarity. Finally, dumbfounded, the young boy finds the key to the mystery. When Enjolras approaches him to send him on a reconnaissance mission, Gavroche gives him a stunning piece of information: "Do you see the tall man?" "Well?" "He's a spy."
Enjolras immediately interrogates the suspect, who haughtily admits his double identity. His papers confirm his confession. It is Javert, and his orders are to spy on the insurrectionists. He is tied up and condemned to be shot just before the capture of the barricade. Gavroche, exultant, goes out to reconnoiter, but not before laying claim to Javert's gun: "I'm leaving you the musician, but I want the clarinet."
Revolutions, while they breed heroism, also bring out the dark side of man. Thus it happens that a certain Le Cabuc conceives the idea of posting a sniper on top of a tall building. But the fearful tenants have locked the door. Le Cabuc tries fruitlessly to break it down. Attracted by the noise, the porter sticks his head out the window. When he refuses to unlock the door, Le Cabuc shoots him. Without a moment's hesitation, Enjolras grabs the killer by the shoulder and forces him to kneel, gives him a few minutes to prepare himself for death, and executes him. To a silent audience he delivers a funeral oration in which he expresses horror for his necessary act and hopes for a future where the reign of love will replace that of death.
Meanwhile, Marius, overwhelmed by despair, interprets the voice that has called him to join his friends at the barricade as an order from destiny. Driven by a death wish, he makes his way through the crowd, eludes the troops, and finds himself in a no-man's land, an immense, dark vacuum. Only the agonized voice of Saint Merry's tocsin disturbs the silence.
In the total darkness, Marius spots the red light of a torch and goes toward it. He reaches the Rue de la Chanvrerie barricade, but before he steps inside, he stops to examine the flux of contradictory emotions that surge in his heart. First he is proud to imitate his father's bravery; then he shudders at the ignoble nature of the conflict in which he is about to participate. But his despair, his duty to his friends, show him no alternative. Finally an illuminating thought sweeps away his hesitations. Wars are not judged by the identity of the opponents, whether they are foreigners or compatriots. All wars are internecine since we are all brothers. Wars find their justification in their ideal. Consequently, Marius' cause is just since he is about to fight for freedom.
At ten in the evening, the long wait of the revolutionists at the barricade ends. Gavroche sings a warning and regains the barricade, out of breath after his patrol. The rebels take up their combat positions. A moment later, they hear the growing sound of steady, unhurried footsteps. A disembodied voice asks: "Who goes there?" At the reply "French Revolution," a heavy volley shakes the barricade and knocks down the flag. One man volunteers to put it up again: Mabeuf. Like a specter he climbs the barricade, to the awe of the spectators. With a cry of "Long live the Republic!" he falls back, cut down by a bullet.
While the insurrectionists pay Mabeuf their last respects, the army attacks and manages to climb over the rampart. Gavroche and Courfeyrac are in mortal danger. In the nick of time Gavroche's assailant receives a bullet in the forehead and Courfeyrac's is hit in the chest. Marius has joined the fight in a spectacular manner. Immediately a soldier takes aim at him, and his death seems inevitable, but a young worker puts his hand on the barrel of the soldier's gun and saves Marius' life at the expense of his own.
The other insurgents are being pushed back by the army swarming over the barricade. Most of them have taken refuge inside the wine shop. A sudden thundering threat imposes a cease-fire. Marius is standing on top of the wall with a torch in his hand, ready to put it to a powder keg. "Go away," he cries, "or I'll blow up the barricade." The soldiers who are scrambling on the barricade, impressed by his earnestness, retreat in disorderly haste.
The joy of the besieged is dampened by a sobering discovery. Jean Prouvaire, one of their bravest comrades, has been made prisoner. Combeferre suggests that Jean be exchanged for Javert. The plan proves futile, however: no sooner has Combeferre stopped speaking than a vibrant voice cries, "Long live France! Long live the future!" followed by the report of a rifle. Jean Prouvaire has been executed.
While everybody's attention is engaged by the main barricade, Marius decides to inspect the small one, which is completely deserted. He is about to return to his comrades when a weak voice calls, "Monsieur Marius!" He is startled because he recognizes the voice: it is the same one which that morning had called him to the barricades. Shocked, Marius discovers Eponine crawling toward him. She has a wound in her hand, for she was the worker who deflected the bullet aimed at him. But she also has a mortal wound in her body, for she took the full impact of the shot. Marius takes her head in his lap and listens to her pathetic confession, her happiness at finding him at the supreme moment, her jealousy that made her lure him to the barricade in the hope of his death, her change of heart that saved his life at the last moment. She also tells him that she is Gavroche's sister and that she has a letter for Marius.
After Eponine dies, Marius gently kisses her on the forehead as he has promised. He enters the inn to open the letter she has given him, for he feels the impropriety of reading it beside her body. It is a note from Cosette informing him of her departure from the Rue Plumet. He is momentarily elated by this proof of love, but only momentarily since the possibility of their marriage remains as remote as ever. He resigns himself once more to death and makes his last dispositions. He writes a note to Cosette to be delivered by Gavroche. This way he will kill two birds with one stone: assure his sweetheart of his love and save the urchin. Then he leaves instructions to have his body delivered to his grandfather.
Gavroche, afraid he will miss the great encounter, is reluctant to accept the errand. He undertakes it only because he intends to return immediately rather than wait until the next day as Marius has suggested.
On June 4, just before the insurrection, Valjean moves to his retreat in the Rue de l'Homme Armé. So deep is his alarm that he overrides Cosette's unprecedented objections. Once installed in his new quarters, he feels reassured, for the Rue de l'Homme Armé is located in an obscure and neglected neighborhood. Cosette, on the other hand, is deeply distraught. She spends the day in her room and appears only for dinner. Then, pleading a headache, she leaves the table.
Cosette's chagrin does not disturb Valjean's tranquility. He is in an optimistic mood and has radiant visions of renewed happiness in England. A heartbreaking discovery shatters his dream. On the table there is a mirror that reflects Cosette's blotter and rights its inverted message: Cosette's letter to Marius. At first, Valjean refuses to accept the evidence, but the message remains inexorably in the mirror.
Now he who has never yielded to temptation feels himself weakening, for the supreme test is the loss of one's beloved. The voice of the devil is particularly insistent, well-nigh irresistible, when love is concentrated in one person, when one single being is the object of an affection usually divided among brother, mother, and wife, and when a stranger threatens to destroy that love. Jean Valjean, in the tragic despair of old age, succumbs to hatred and goes to sit on the doorstep and contemplate the depth of his misfortune.
There Gavroche finds him, and, touched as always by the radiance of childhood, Valjean engages him in conversation. He hands him some money and indulgently allows him to break a few streetlights. Then with a little lie he persuades the urchin to hand him Marius' letter and tell him where Marius is. Gavroche disappears into the night, breaking another streetlight by way of goodbye.
Gripped by an overwhelming emotion, Valjean hurries to his room and reads Marius' words: "I am dying. When you read this my soul will he near you." His first reaction is an ugly feeling of triumph, of exultation at fate's convenient solution to his problem. But the mood quickly subsides and an hour later he makes his way to the Halles in the uniform of the National Guard.
Returning to his post, Gavroche is singing a love song with unquenchable good humor. On the way he spots a drunken man sleeping it off in a cart, and he requisitions the vehicle for the revolution. He deposits its occupant on the pavement and leaves him a receipt in the name of the Republic. Unfortunately his triumphal march is also very noisy and attracts the attention of a sergeant of the National Guard. Gavroche favors him with a few choice insults and shoves the cart into his stomach. The soldier falls, his gun goes off, and his comrades, rushing to his rescue, fire wildly in all directions for the next fifteen minutes. From a safe distance, Gavroche enjoys his handiwork, then goes on his way with a disrespectful gesture and a farewell song.
In this section, the revolt claims its first lives. The deaths of M. Mabeuf and Eponine, however, have their splendor as well as their tragedy. M. Mabeuf has deliberately committed suicide rather than endure the shameful humiliation of starving to death, and his gesture has its reward. After a lifetime in which he has vainly sought the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens by study and science, his last moments in the incongruous role of freedom fighter win him a lasting glory. As for Eponine, she too has in a sense committed suicide by turning on herself the bullet meant for Marius. For her as for M. Mabeuf, the future held nothing but shame and suffering, and her brief instants in Marius' arms are probably the only moments of real happiness she has experienced since childhood.
The deaths of Le Cabuc and the porter, however, cast a more somber light on this scene of violence. War brings out the baser as well as the nobler instincts in man, and the innocent suffer. Enjolras' prompt punishment of the criminal and his touching vision of a more perfect world temper somewhat the horror of this motiveless assassination, and the fact that he is willing to execute one of his own men also serves to underline the absolute purity and rectitude of his ideals, but Hugo never lets us forget the lolling head of the innocent corpse in the background.
In fact, the scene at the barricades by night is another of the masterly tableaux in black and white that gives Les Misérables much of its power over our imaginations. This time, however, the light comes not from the moon but from a flaring torch that illuminates a splash of scarlet in the background. When Marius arrives, he sees dimly beyond the gathered insurgents "a sort of spectator or witness who seemed to him unusually attentive. It was the porter killed by Le Cabuc. . . . A long trail of blood which had flowed from that head ran down in a scarlet network from the window to the level of the second floor, where it stopped."
Once again Jean Valjean makes one of his extraordinary decisions, expressed in actions rather than words or thoughts. But the meaning of that decision is, like his decision in Part Two to go to Arras, ambiguous until the last moment, and ambiguous perhaps even to Valjean himself.
His hatred for Marius is real, and so is his delight at the thought that the revolution may eliminate him from Cosette's life. Jean Valjean is not a milksop, and his conversion by the bishop did not, as we have seen, guarantee him the exercise of perfect and effortless goodness for the rest of his life. There is, and always has been, evil in him, and if he falls prey to it, the unusual strength and cunning that have made him a remarkably good man will make him an appallingly evil one. Marius was not wrong to mistrust him after the scene in Thénardier's garret; his unusual potentialities will always make him a frightening as well as an impressive personality.
Valjean puts on his National Guard uniform and leaves the house. Why? To join the Guard and make sure Marius dies or simply to make his way safely through the streets? Hugo does not tell us, and perhaps Valjean himself does not know. But, as at M.-sur-M., if his conception of what he is about to do is not clear, his instinctive knowledge of what he is not about to do does not fail him.