Tag Archives: Revolution


Part four opens with an extended description of French politics in the years 1830-1832, much of it focused on King Louis-Phillipe and the July Revolution that installed him as (to hear Hugo tell it) a compromise candidate between people who wanted a king and people who wanted a leader who wouldn’t infringe too much on people’s rights. Naturally, no one’s quite satisfied with the results, leading to an ongoing, simmering unrest below the surface.

Despite the specifics to the July Monarchy, there are a lot of universal issues: political philosophy breaking into factions, solving both the production and distribution of wealth (Hugo disparages both communists and unrestricted capitalism on the same page), etc. “At times the conscience of the honest man caught its breath, so great was the unrest in the air, with fallacies and truths intermingled.” That sounds sadly familiar.

It does eventually get back to the ABC Society, and their efforts to maintain ties with various groups of people in the city. Grantaire, trying to impress Enjolras, insists he’s perfectly capable of both walking to the quarry to meet with the marble workers (his shoes are capable too!) and talking revolution with them. I know stuff!

Naturally he ends up playing literal dominoes instead of setting up figurative ones.

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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.


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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Part 32: Passing Peak Ammunition

We take a break from the barricade for a brief interlude at dawn: Cosette wakens, unaware of what’s happening in the rest of the city, and wonders why people are slamming doors so early in the morning. Like Marius, she knows she cannot live without him. Unlike Marius, she takes that to be proof that he’ll arrive soon.

“The reader may at a pinch be introduced into a marital bedchamber, but not into a young girl’s bedroom.” Hugo then goes on to hint at this, that and the other thing about her pajamas and morning routine for another page before saying that “Even to have hinted at them is too much.” Uh, sure…


When a well-equipped army faces a street barricade, they’ll often just keep up steady fire, hoping to trick the insurgents into using up their ammunition and then launch an assault when they run out. Enjolras is too smart to fall for it.

The scale of the forces available really points up the silliness of musical-Javert’s fake intelligence report: when they can fill the street with soldiers, why would they choose to “concentrate their force” on one side?

Jean Valjean shows his marksmanship again when look-outs appear on the roofs. He shoots two helmets in a row, and they back off. He won’t answer when Bossuet asks why he aimed for the helmets instead of kill shots. Combeferre remarks, “He’s a man who does kindness with bullets.”

The commander of the guard at the Rue de la Chanvrerie is a hothead, and attacks too early. Not only do the rebels fight them off, but they get caught by their own cannon too. Enjolras is infuriated. “‘The idiots!’ he exclaimed. ‘They’re getting themselves killed and wasting our ammunition for no reason.’”

The rebellion actually gains a little momentum that morning in several places around the city, but the army crushes it swiftly before it can spread. “When we get the old women emptying chamber-pots on our heads we’re done for.”

Bossuet admires Enjolras’ ability to be brave without a mistress to rob him of his wits like the rest of them. Enjolras is basically asexual, his whole being focused on social change, but in a sense, he does have a mistress: Patria, he whispers: the homeland.

When the army brings up a second cannon, things start getting serious. They repel the attack just barely, but it takes most of their ammunition.

Death and Rise of an Urchin

Gavroche at the BarricadeCue Gavroche, who sneaks around under the smoke collecting bullets, singing rude songs about Voltaire and Rousseau, and thumbing his nose at death. I checked the original French against the concept album: Schönberg and Boublil set the actual words to music in the first version of what later became “Little People.” The scene in the book is even tenser than it is in the play (well, the original version, where you can actually see him, as opposed to the 25th anniversary version where they can’t turn the barricade around). “A Paris urchin touching the pavement is a giant drawing strength from his mother earth.”

Let me just say: Watching or reading Les Misérables is really different before and after you have kids.

Interlude: Gavroche’s anonymous brothers, roughly five and seven, are still alive, still on the streets, though they’ve somehow managed to get into the Luxembourg Gardens. I wasn’t expecting to see them again. A middle-class gentleman is there, with his son, who has decided not to finish his cake. The father advises him to throw it to the ducks — not to the two ragamuffins who clearly need it more than the ducks do. “We must always be kind to animals.” But apparently, not to one’s fellow man. The boy reluctantly tosses it, and they leave, but the older boy retrieves it, offering the larger part to his brother. The implication is that they’ll be okay…or at least as okay as any Paris urchin is.

Back at the barricade, Marius retrieves Gavroche’s body, seeing an echo of their fathers’ encounter at Waterloo — only Col. Pontmercy had still been alive. Gavroche is laid on the table with M. Mabeuf: the oldest and youngest of the defenders.


Hugo briefly discusses the sense of unreality that pervades both the experience and memory of street warfare.

At midday, Enjolras decides it’s time to reinforce the tavern with paving-stones, forming a fortress with the tavern as keep and the barricade as its outer wall. He also finally allows them to bring out the wine bottles that he confiscated at the beginning of the whole thing. The wounded are locked into the kitchen.

By this time Marius has recovered somewhat and is able to actually help run things again. A good thing too, since they’re down to twenty-six from the original fifty. And that presumably includes Valjean, who refuses to shoot anyone.

Enjolras “felt that since men such as these were about to die, their death must be a masterpiece.”

Removing Javert

Enjolras: “The last man to leave this place will blow out this spy’s brains.” Random rebel: “Here?” He suggests taking him over the lower barricade to the alleyway.

Valjean asks that he “may be allowed to blow that man’s brains out.” Javert looks up, nods slightly, and says, “That’s fair.” Everyone else rushes out to deal with an attack, and Javert calls after them, “It won’t be long!”

It’s interesting how calm Javert is in the book. In the musical, he’s seething with contempt and frustration. Here it’s only contempt.

Javert is the first person at the barricade to actually recognize Éponine, or the fact that she’s a woman, without prompting.

“A knife-thrust! You’re quite right. That suits you better.”

Valjean does indeed give Javert his address (and his current alias). Javert repeats it back to him to make sure he got it right.

“I find this embarrassing. I’d rather you killed me.” He doesn’t even notice switching from familiar tu to formal vous. That’s something that doesn’t really come through in translation, since English has long since dropped the formal/familiar you/thou split, so it has to be conveyed in footnotes, or in titles, or in narration. In this case, Hugo remarked on it himself to drive the point home.

You know, Javert doesn’t call Valjean by his prison number even once. “24601” is such a powerful hook for identity in the musical, and with Javert I think it serves as a replacement for tu, but it’s merely an incidental detail in the novel, mentioned only twice: once in Valjean’s backstory, and once in a chapter title when he’s recaptured.

Back in the stronghold, Marius has just put two and two together and recognized the inspector who gave him those two guns way back when. And as near as he can tell, Valjean has just executed him in cold blood. This will be important later.

Next: The last stand.

Pages covered: 1015-1041, the middle third of “War Within Four Walls.” Image by Flameng from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 31: Barricades of Future Past (Plus Cannon Geekery)

And now we’re into the last of the five main divisions of Les Misérables: Part Five: Jean Valjean. Naturally, it starts with a history lesson. Not about 1832…but about 1848, reasoning that his 1860s audience would be more familiar with the barricades of the June 1848 revolt.

I was reading this and thinking, “Another digression? Now? Eh, I guess it’s still thematic.” I turned the page, and read the sentence, “Where the theme is not lost sight of there can be no digression.” Well, then, there you go!

Hugo contrasts the two main barricades of that event: One in the Saint-Antoine neighborhood, massive, three stories high and seven hundred feet long, a jumble of anything that could be scrounged up and manned by a passionate leader, the other in the Temple neighborhood, built seemingly overnight of paving-stones lined up with the precision of a mason, and defended silently…but with ruthless efficiency.

Victor Hugo refers to himself in a number of places, but always obliquely — except here, when describing the silence of the no-man’s land in front of the Temple barricade: “I remember seeing a butterfly flutter up and down that street. Summer does not abdicate.” It surprised me enough when I first read the book that I remembered it, and it’s not a translation error. The original French reads “Je me souviens d’un papillon blanc qui allait et venait dans la rue.”

Back to the Past

Marius’ time as leader lasts about five minutes before he discovers he has something to lose after all, and sinks into paralyzing despair.

Continue reading

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Part 30: Hey Barricade, Who’s in Charge Here?

Initial skirmishes on the barricade, the first deaths, Marius’ suicide mission, Gavroche pushing things a bit too far, and Valjean reaching another crisis point.

Back to the barricade. Night falls, and the defenders are gearing up for an attack. There’s a wonderfully creepy description of the glimpses they see of the soldiers at the far end of the darkened street, a “multitude of metallic gleams, needle-thin, scarcely perceptible and constantly in motion.”

The soldiers really do ask “Who’s there” and Enjolras really does respond, “The French Revolution!” Now I feel like an idiot for thinking it shouldn’t be in the movie. Of course, now that I’ve read up to this point, it’s clear that the ABC Society feels like they’re the heirs to the original revolution, keeping its spirit alive.

The First to Fall

80-year-old Pere Mabeuf has been sort of lost in his own little world since he arrived, talking silently to himself and not noticing events around him. But when the first hail of bullets hits the barricade, stunning the rebels and knocking down the flag, he stands up, walks over to Enjolras, picks up the flag, and climbs the barricade. “Long live the Revolution! Long live the Republic! Fraternity, Equality – and Death!”…with predictable results.

Enjolras does what he does best, which is to quickly spin it into motivation: He’s set an example for the rest of us, and we’ll fight with his bloodstained coat as our new flag. Basically what he does with Éponine’s death in the musical. I remember thinking that ability and focus was impressive the first few times I saw the show, but these days I want to shake him and shout, “Give them a moment, for pity’s sake!”

Marius to the Rescue. No, Really!

Marius shoots the guardsmanThe next attack almost takes the barricade. Bahorel is killed (the first of the students to die), Courfeyrac is shot, Gavroche faces a bayonet thrust…

And then Marius rushes in, guns blazing. The fact that he has two is important, because he doesn’t have to stop and reload. One shot saves Courfeyrac, the other Gavroche. Who the hell knew the “little nincompoop of a lawyer” could aim?

Irony: Gavroche was armed with the pistol Javert had been carrying, which hadn’t been loaded, while Marius was armed with the pistols Javert gave him four months earlier, which have been loaded since February. (But not as loaded as Grantaire.)

It’s only a few seconds, but it’s enough of a reprieve to rally the group, and they hold out long enough for Marius to grab a full powder-keg and threaten to blow the whole place sky-high — rebels, soldiers and all — if they don’t retreat. Since he actually wants to die, they take him seriously and run like hell.

Marius asks who’s in charge. Enjolras says you are now. It’s not exactly what he had in mind. I find myself thinking of the missing comma in The Prisoner: “Who is Number One? You are, Number Six.”

Jean Prouvaire dies next, captured in the melee. They’re just about to trade Javert for him, when they hear him shout, as the chapter title puts it, his last poem: “Long live France! Long live the future!” — then a gunshot. It’s reminiscent of how Javert doesn’t get executed later on.

One of the things that I always wondered about is why the army didn’t just go around and come at them from the other side. Hugo actually addresses this as “a peculiarity of this type of warfare” and the risk of getting trapped in narrow, winding streets. I guess it depends on where you build it. There’s something to be said for making your own battleground.

A Breath Away

Marius is trying to absorb what’s happened, when he hears his name and sees a shape crawling along the street toward him. It’s Éponine, who, as it turns out, had just saved his life by thrusting her hand in front of a gun that was aimed at him, deflecting the bullet. I can’t help but picture her dragging herself along the ground like the Terminator skeleton at the end of the first film.

“What are you doing?” “I’m dying.” Eh, give him a break. He’s not very observant.

Éponine confesses her role in sending him here, and the fact that she had a letter from Cosette (with their alternate address) that she couldn’t bear to deliver to him. She also identifies Gavroche as her brother. Her life has basically sucked, so she doesn’t mind dying…as long as she dies with him, and first. Her last words are an understated confession: “You know, Monsieur Marius, I think I was a little bit in love with you.”

I don’t think it’s raining at this point, but it has been off and on all day.

“Éponine was responsible for everything.” Everything? Wow! Busy girl. Seriously, though, she has been playing puppet master the last few days in her efforts to separate Marius and Cosette from each other: Keeping her father and Patron-Minette out of the picture, convincing Valjean to leave the Rue Plumet, holding onto Cosette’s letter so Marius can’t find them, telling Marius to go to the barricade…

Any hope Marius had of focusing on the rebellion is now gone, just minutes after being appointed leader. Ashamed by his failure to protect Thénardier’s daughter, he sets upon a scheme to save her brother and bid a proper farewell to Cosette at the same time by sending him as a messenger. Gavroche only agrees because he figures he’ll have time to get there and back before the fighting starts. So much for that idea.

Valjean Finally Catches On

“Man the individual is a deeper being than man in the mass.” In mass they’re dumb, panicky animals and you know it.

Ah, that makes sense: the “inseparable” box contains the child’s clothing that Valjean bought for Cosette way back when he rescued her from the Thénardiers.

At the point Gavroche reaches the remote house in the Rue de l’Homme Arme, Valjean has just spotted the blotting paper which Cosette had used when writing her note to Marius the day before. He goes into full papa bear mode…but he’s also deathly afraid of losing the one thing that’s made his life have meaning, as he hasn’t been able to love anyone other than Cosette.

“For the first time in their life together her wishes and those of Jean Valjean had shown themselves to be separate matters.” Not the first time they’d been separate, but the first time he’d noticed.

And since Valjean is sitting out on the curb, Gavroche is happy to just leave the note with him and leave. Especially since Valjean has already handed him a coin. (Still trying to make up for that autopilot theft, perhaps?) “He had heard of five-franc pieces, he knew them by reputation, and he was delighted to see one at close quarters.”

We cannot be said to read when in a state of violent emotion. Rather, we twist the paper in our hands, mutilating it as though it were an enemy, scoring it with the finger-nails of our anger or delight. Our eyes skip the beginning, hurrying on to the end. With a feverish acuteness we grasp the general sense, seize upon the main point and ignore the rest.

True. And yet it contradicts the statement made during Marius’ dilemma about reasoning calmly and detached even under great stress.

Valjean is relieved to realize that the boy threatening to take Cosette away from him will soon be dead. Yaaay!

Strangely, we step out of Jean Valjean’s head just before he decides to leave for the barricade. It might be that he wants to be there to make certain, or it might be like Spike deciding “I’d better help her out” after convincing himself he should let Buffy die in “Once More With Feeling.” After such a detailed account of his thought processes up to the moment of the decision, it’s odd to lose that perspective…and we don’t get it back until after the flight through the sewers. The thought process in “Bring Him Home” is entirely hidden from the reader. Update: I have some more thoughts on this after reading it a third time.

Gavroche, meanwhile, has an adventure on the way back to the barricade: breaking street lamps, stealing a cart (yes, he leaves a receipt), and singing at the top of his lungs until he almost gets shot by a patrol. The adventure of one small boy running amok has since entered the folklore of the neighborhood, remembered as a horrific nighttime attack.

And that brings us to the end of Part Four! I may be able to finish this by the end of the year after all! Next: future revolt and overnight at the barricade.

Pages covered: 953-984. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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