Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 3, Book 5 : Marius (The Excellence of Misfortune) | Summary



Marius begins a period of extreme poverty, in which he goes without food, warmth, and light. The young man bears his indigence nobly and manages also to gain admission to the bar, and he writes his grandfather to inform him he is now a lawyer. After Marius learns English and German, he gets translation work and does other tasks for the publisher that improve his financial circumstances. During this period he has also been looking for Thénardier. When he finds the inn at Montfermeil, he learns the owner went bankrupt. Of course he cannot find Thénardier because he has changed his name to avoid creditors. Marius, now 20, assumes it would be useless to attempt a reconciliation with his grandfather.

Marius thinks his grandfather doesn't love him because he always treated him harshly. "In reality ... Gillenormand worshiped Marius," the narrator says. The old man is suffering terribly because of the banishment, although he is too proud to initiate a reconciliation. Marius continues as a freelance man of letters rather than practice law so he can have time to contemplate. His needs are modest, and he does not have a desire to make a lot of money. As friends he has only Courfeyrac and Mabeuf.

Mabeuf is a botanist and gardener who lives alone with a housekeeper and loves books—of which he has many. After his brother died, he lost their money, and his self-publishing of his botanical text has slowed since the Revolution of 1830, which replaced one Restoration monarch with another. Thus he sells his books and moves to a smaller place. However, Mabeuf is gradually sinking further and further into poverty. Marius is less concerned with politics and thinks he belongs to "the party of humanity." When he learns his neighbors, the Jondrettes, are being turned out, he pays their back rent.


Marius proves to be a young man of character. He has chosen poverty because he is too proud to take money from his family. Although he is no longer bitter against his grandfather, he still feels indignant about the treatment his father suffered at the hands of the old man. Thus he feels honor bound to stand on his own. In keeping with his duty to the idealized image of his dead father, he also spends money and time trying to track down Thénardier, who is actually living right next door to him; of course he has no way of knowing that fact. Still, his tendency toward reverie and over-contemplation is a fault. Perhaps if he had taken the time to get to know his neighbors, he might have figured out the connection. Because he doesn't pay much attention to externals, he learns very late they are being thrown out.

Mabeuf is a more extreme example of the dreamy Marius. He has lost his savings as well as his source of income, but he remains somewhat oblivious to a looming financial catastrophe because he lives mostly in his head.

Gillenormand, first introduced as a shallow bourgeois with aristocratic pretensions, has become a much more sympathetic character. His feelings for his grandson are profound, and the reader can't help but feel for him as he pines for the missing child. When his daughter starts encouraging her favorite grandnephew, Théodule, an officer, to come around with the idea of replacing Marius, the old man calls the lieutenant a fool. Clearly Gillenormand loves his grandson much more than his politics. Once again the orphan motif is at play: Marius has been deliberately orphaned. Now Gillenormand is paying the price for disowning his son: he is being deprived of his grandson.

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