Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 3, Book 3 : Marius (The Grandfather and the Grandson) | Summary



In previous days Gillenormand, known for his wit, was the darling of Royalist salons. Accompanying him to these soirées was his grandson, whom people pitied because his father was a Bonapartist. Colonel (Baron) Georges Pontmercy was a career soldier who fought at Waterloo, leading a squadron of cuirassiers. He was made a baron and an officer in the Legion of Honor; he is also the man Thénardier saved on the battlefield. After Marius's mother dies, Pontmercy gives his son up so Gillenormand will not disinherit him. Every few months Pontmercy comes to the church in Paris where Marius attends Mass and cries quietly when he glimpses his son. The priest, Abbé Mabeuf, and his brother, a warden at the church, befriend the colonel and learn his whole story.

Marius grows up as a Royalist and enters law school. He has a fanatical and austere streak in his personality, with "little love for his grandfather, whose gaiety and cynicism wounded him." Otherwise, he is "an ardent but cool lad, noble, generous, proud, religious: honorable to the point of harshness, pure to the point of unsociability."

In 1827, when Marius is 18, his dying father asks to see him, but Marius arrives too late. He inherits a note from Pontmercy that says he has a right to the title, bestowed by Napoleon. Further he mentions the "sergeant" who saved his life, one Thénardier, and says his son should do him service if he gets the opportunity. Marius thinks no more about it until one day at Mass, the churchwarden, Monsieur Mabeuf, approaches him and inadvertently tells him Pontmercy's story. "He looked at the child and wept. This poor man worshipped the little boy," Mabeuf says. When Marius realizes this "poor man" is his father, he is horrified. He begins researching his father's life, learning the details of his stellar career as a warrior and coming to idolize him, and his political opinions begin to change. Since he is spending time away from home, the Gillenormands snoop in the young man's room and uncover the note from his father and calling cards that say "Baron Marius Pontmercy." When Gillenormand confronts Marius, he sings his father's praises as one who served the Republic of France. The old man becomes enraged, and Marius replies, "Down with the Bourbons and that great hog Louis XVIII!" The grandfather then throws Marius out of his house, but he tells his daughter to send him money.


This book begins to bring together the plot threads that involve Marius with the Thénardiers. The young man is passionate and idealistic, with a disposition more like his father than grandfather. Moreover, he is positioned to carry the torch of republican values passed from father to son, and he exemplifies the idealistic hopes of the new generation. Even before learning the truth about his father, he does not naturally gravitate toward Gillenormand because the old man is conventional and shallow. Marius takes life seriously and is morally upright by nature, even if he has a tendency to be judgmental. Once he learns how his father loved him, he feels great remorse for not reciprocating that love, although this was through no fault of his own. When he begins delving into his father's past, he feels even more remorse when he learns about Pontmercy's bravery and character. For years he has been ashamed of his father because of the impression created by his grandfather that his father was a dishonorable man. While he owes respect to the man who raised him, he now feels hatred and resentment toward him as well for lying to him.

As a young man with an ardent nature, he naturally looks for a male role model to follow. Clearly he cannot follow his grandfather. So he begins to follow his father, radically changing his political viewpoint. He also wants to carry out his father's wishes, which is why he now calls himself baron. And in subsequent chapters he will attempt to fulfill his father's request to do Thénardier a service. Here is another example in which the wishes of a dead person need to be honored, although in this case a good motive will end in misguided action.

Marius's estrangement from his grandfather is inevitable. They have reached an impasse, making it impossible for the two of them to live under the same roof. The same will happen to France, when the country can no longer live under the monarchical values that continue to guide the Restoration era. Marius will not disavow his new devotion to his Bonapartist father, so he leaves without hesitation when his grandfather throws him out.

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