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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 2, Book 1 : Cosette (Waterloo) | Summary



Book 1 of Part 2 opens with the narrator's relating that the author visited, in May 1861, the site of the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated by the British and forced into exile (in the year 1815). He is visiting Hougomont, now a farm, but a chateau when the battle took place. This was where the English took a stand to fight the French. On June 18 Napoleon made a crucial mistake in waiting to engage. It had rained the previous night, and he wanted the ground to firm up before driving artillery over it. The narrator explains Napoleon won his battles through the skillful use of these big cannons, so on that day he was counting on the artillery, especially because the French outgunned the English. The left wing of the French army attacked the chateau just before noon, with the intention of making the British general, Wellington, concentrate all his forces to defend it, but the allied troops defending the chateau held their own, and Napoleon's diversion failed. At one point the English seemed to fall back, and Napoleon was ready to declare a victory. He ordered the cuirassiers (cavalry) to take the plateau, and as they charged, they came upon a hidden ravine, created by the bad weather, and fell into it. Nonetheless the cavalry fought valiantly on this plateau, Mont-Saint-Jean, which resulted in many casualties on both sides. In the end the English gained the advantage when the Prussian army arrived. The narrator attributes Napoleon's defeat to God's will: "The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the equilibrium," he says. "Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall decreed."

The narrator then pays patriotic tribute to Cambronne, commanding the last of the imperial guard, who is said to have defiantly yelled "Merde!" at the British when they asked the Frenchmen to surrender. In the narrator's view, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo advanced the cause of liberty. "Waterloo, by cutting short the demolition of European thrones by the sword had no other effect than to continue the revolutionary work in another way," he says. Although the monarchy of France was restored, the counterrevolution was "involuntarily liberal," and the future made its entrance, he says, with the star of liberty on its brow.

The last part of this book on Waterloo returns to the main storyline, with a vivid description of the human vultures who scavenge the battlefield, stripping the bodies of their valuables. One such vulture feels a hand pulling his cape, and he digs the man out from a pile of corpses and puts him on the side of the road. The rescued man is an officer of rank, and the scavenger steals as much as he can from him, including the cross of the Legion of Honor. The officer suddenly wakens fully and thanks the vulture for saving him, not realizing he is a thief. The vulture, named Thénardier, pretends to be a sergeant. The man he saves is named Pontmercy, who vows to remember the savior's name.


This book is the first of what seems a diversion that has nothing to do with the story. In fact Waterloo is important because the novel begins in the same year of the battle, after Napoleon's defeat and the restoration of the Bourbons to the French throne. Since this is both a historical novel and a novel of social protest, the author wants his readers to understand the progress of liberty in France as well as the conditions to which the poor were subjected as a result of the flaws in the legal and social systems. At the time Hugo is writing, France's Republic was far from completed. His novel is meant, in part, to be a critique of the government under Napoleon's nephew, Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III), who became the elected leader of the Second French Republic and then a self-appointed emperor, after his term was up and he successfully launched a coup d'état (overthrow of the government) in 1851. The accession of Louis-Napoleon and his repressive regime were the reasons Victor Hugo went into exile in the same year. Waterloo is a watershed event, which first restored the French monarchy. Hugo is ambivalent about Napoleon Bonaparte, seeing him as both an agent of change and as holding back progress toward democratic government.

Moreover, Hugo does not like violent revolution, and he sees the defeat of Napoleon as one more step in the right direction. The French Restoration, which followed Napoleon's defeat, was less repressive, and all of Europe was moving in the direction of constitutional monarchies. The author also believes God is on the side of liberty, as evidenced by Napoleon's loss of a battle he could just as easily have won if the fates had been aligned in his favor.

This book also provides more back story on the despicable Thénardier, the worst villain in the novel, who early in his checkered career stole from corpses on the battlefield. The reader now understands the meaning of the tavern's name where the Thénardiers ply their trade—The Sergeant of Waterloo, which is also decorated with a painted sign of a man carrying a general. This is a story Thénardier circulates—that he saved Pontmercy—but he leaves out the part about robbing him. Later in the novel this connection between the villain and Pontmercy will resurface and create problems for Jean Valjean and Cosette.

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