Part 33: Last Stand at the Barricade

The barricade, and the wider insurrection it’s a part of, is doomed. We get another philosophical chapter, as Hugo contrasts the revolt which has the support of the populace with the revolt that doesn’t. Even if the revolution is noble in purpose, “One cannot goad people into moving faster than they are prepared to go.”

“Victory, if it is in accord with progress, deserves the applause of mankind; but an heroic defeat deserves one’s heartfelt sympathy.”

Nice: “We say to them: ‘You are robbing Hell of its pavements!’ To which they might reply: ‘That is why our barricade is built of good intentions.’”

Every once in a while, Hugo reminds the reader that, however socially progressive he might be, he still has his own blind spots. He wants society to stop exploiting women, but doesn’t want to fully enfranchise them. Here he comments on the need for civilization, and revolution, to have artists…but that “a civilizing race must be a masculine race.” It’s a bit jarring, even when you consider how imbalanced the cast is in both size and agency.

“The modern ideal finds its prototype in art and its method in science.”

“…in this play which centres upon a social outcast, and of which the real title is, Progress.” Well, it’s certainly easier to spell.

Page 1048: Hugo lays out the main theme of the whole book in a single paragraph.

The book which the reader now holds in his hands, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its details, whatever gaps, exceptions, or weaknesses it may contain, treats of the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from limbo to God. Matter itself is the starting-point, and the point of arrival is the soul. Hydra at the beginning, an angel at the end.

Fall of the Barricade

It’s still broad daylight when the army makes its full attack. Waves of soldiers attack, are repulsed, attack again. The army has a huge advantage in numbers, weaponry, and having actually eaten in the last day, but the barricade has the advantage of position…and being manned by idealists.

Enjolras is keeping himself out of sight while trying to keep track of the entire battle, while Marius “I want to die” Pontmercy sets himself up as a target.

“The defenders’ ammunition was running low, but not their sarcasm.” Bossuet asks what Courfeyrac did with his hat. “It was taken off by a cannon-ball.” Combeferre remarks of those who said they would join but didn’t, “There are people who observe the rules of honour as we do the stars, from a very long way off.”

After several waves of attacks, most of the defenders are killed, and the barricade is breached. Marius and Enjolras are the last of the students/leaders to survive, Marius drenched in blood from head and shoulder wounds, Enjolras remarkably unscathed because someone’s always there to hand him a new weapon when he needs one.

The last few rebels fall back to the tavern, Enjolras covering them alone while Marius collapses from loss of blood. They’re so focused on breaking into the tavern that no one notices Valjean carrying Marius off.

By the time the soldiers breach the door, the rebels have all retreated to the upper floor and cut down the staircase. Paving stones, the last few bullets, and finally those wine bottles serve as weapons.

Last Stand

Enjolras and Grantaire at the Firing SquadThe soldiers climb up to the second floor, where they find Enjolras standing there, alone, surrounded by his dead comrades, saying, “Shoot me!” Come at me, bro!

One of the soldiers lowers his musket, remarking that he’s too pretty to kill. “I feel as though I’d be shooting a flower.”

Grantaire has slept through the whole battle in a drunken stupor, and awakens in the silence. Realizing what’s happened, he interrupts the firing squad, walks over to Enjolras, and says, “Might as well kill two birds with one stone.” Then he turns to Enjolras: “If you don’t mind.”

The man dedicated to the ideals of the movement, and the man who rejected them all but idolized their leader, die together. While I think Hugo was going more for rebuffed hero worship here, I can definitely see a parallel between Marius/Éponine and Enjolras/Grantaire.

A few minutes later, the soldiers take the last few holdouts in the attic and cellar, and it’s all over.

Trapped

Valjean has spent his time tending to the wounded, shoring up the barricade, and other support jobs, not willing to take part in the fighting. This makes his request to be the one to execute Javert stand out even more than it would otherwise.

We start to see into his head again as he tries to figure out how to escape with the unconscious Marius, calling back to the chase through Paris years before, but we still have no sense of why he’s there, except that it involves Marius. The epiphany portrayed in “Bring Him Home” takes place entirely off the page, and it’s not clear when he reached the decision to rescue him, or even whether it was made deliberately or on the spur of the moment.

It’s strange that, because of the staging of the show, I can’t help but picture this as happening at night, when it’s actually early in the afternoon.

As the battle rages inside the tavern, offering a few minutes of cover, Valjean desperately looks for a way out, finally spotting an iron grate in the street. Into the sewers!

Pages 1041-1060, concluding the epic “War Within Four Walls” chapter. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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