Summary and Analysis
Part 5: Jean Valjean: Book I, Chapters 1-10
The barricade, on the Rue de la Chanvrerie, far from yielding, has been fortified. The wounded have been bandaged, lint prepared, and new bullets made. On the other hand, food has run out and the defenders are beginning to suffer from hunger. Since there is no food, Enjolras forbids the men to drink.
Dawn is coming, and the insurgents, unwilling or unable to sleep, are chatting. The conversation does not reflect their desperate position. Its tone is optimistic: humorous, literary, or philosophical. This mood, however, is shattered by Enjolras, who brings back from his reconnaissance the disastrous news that a large force has been assigned to take the barricade and that the populace as a whole has not joined the uprising. Optimism gives way to despair, but not to defeatism. The insurrectionists swear to fight to the last man.
But Enjolras refuses to accept such a sacrifice. He brings out four National Guard uniforms that he has laid aside for just such an emergency. They will provide a safe passage out for four men. No one, of course, wants to go, but Combeferre points out the uselessness of heroism and calls on the family men to leave and carry on the fight by protecting young girls from prostitution and children from hunger. In a sublime competition of generosity, each married man then pleads with the others to go. Finally five are taken out of the ranks — but there are only four uniforms. At this moment, a fifth uniform drops on top of the others. It is that of Jean Valjean, who has just entered the barricade. He is welcomed as a friend and a savior.
At this supreme moment, Enjolras is immune to fear; instead, he is carried away by a utopian vision of the future and predicts the reign of equality, justice, and liberty — the enlightenment to be brought about by education, the harmony to be born from their sacrifice. Marius does not share Enjolras' exaltation. He is still numb with grief and the world has for him the unreality of a dream. Even the arrival of Cosette's "father" makes little impression on him.
The drama of the night has driven Javert from everyone's mind. After the departure of the five married men, Enjolras suddenly remembers him, gives him a glass of water, and ties him more comfortably on the table. The action attracts Valjean's attention, and he recognizes his old enemy. Javert turns his head and without surprise recognizes Valjean.
At daybreak, the attack begins with the thundering rattle of an approaching piece of artillery. A cannon appears and Enjolras yells: "Fire!" The rain of bullets misses its target and the cannon moves forward, but its first shot falls harmlessly on the pile of debris that forms the outer section of the barricade. Simultaneously with the shell, Gavroche lands in the barricade with a cheerful "Present!" His arrival is hailed with delight by his comrades but with dismay by Marius, who had hoped to spare him this ordeal. Gavroche, however, knows no fear and with insouciant courage requests a gun.
The cannoneers rectify their aim and ricochet grapeshot off the wall. This time they are more successful: two insurgents are killed, three wounded. Enjolras carefully points his gun at the sergeant commanding the battery, squeezes the trigger, and kills him. But he feels no sense of triumph, only grief at the death of his enemy. The cannoneers, however, prepare to fire again. A mattress is needed to absorb the shots. Valjean spots one protecting a window and, with prodigious marksmanship, shoots at the ropes holding it and cuts it down. Unfortunately it falls outside the barricade. Coolly, Valjean steps out in range of enemy fire and retrieves it.
At dawn of this same day, Cosette wakes after a sweet dream of Marius. Believing he has received her letter and will soon come to see her, she rises and dresses quickly, and goes to her window to watch for Marius. Finding she cannot see the street from there, she cries for a short time, then hears the sound of cannons. Cosette does not recognize the sound and becomes absorbed in watching a family of martins nesting just below her window.
Jean Valjean, ex-convict and wanted man, is out of place among the forces of "law and order." Arriving at the wine shop, he takes off his uniform and jumps the barricade.
Once inside, Valjean instantly belongs there. He is the right man, arrived at the right time with the right gift. And it is perfectly fitting that he, who has been one of Les Misérables and who has spent much of his life helping them privately and secretly, should at the moment of reckoning act openly on their behalf. Neither Javert nor Marius are truly among the "miserables," however, and his attitude toward both of them remains ambiguous.
The short chapter concerning Cosette is a welcome relief from the agonies and excitement of the insurrection.