Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 4, Book 1 : Saint-Denis and Idyll of the Rue Plumet (A Few Pages of History) | Summary

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Summary

The first book of Part 4 explains the political situation right before the uprising of 1832. The country is exhausted from two periods of revolution, first led by Mirabeau and then Robespierre, followed by Bonaparte's reign, followed by the restoration of the Bourbons. The Charter of Louis XVIII concedes some rights to the people, and he is able to keep the nation at peace. But he dies and the crown goes to Charles X, who angers the people in 1830 when he institutes the July Ordinances that sought to return all the power to the crown—for example, by suspending freedom of the press. Charles sought to rein in democracy, and the result was the July Revolution of 1830. But the Revolution was "arrested midway," stopped by the bourgeoisie who called "halt" to progress. Thus Louis-Philippe was put on the throne. The new king was more moderate and restored the modest but hard-won gains of the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, under Louis-Philippe, the economy worsens, and much unrest in other parts of Europe contribute to unrest in France. The Faubourg Saint-Antoine, a hotbed of radicalism, "was coming to a boil," and revolutionaries began to prepare for another uprising. Enjolras and his group are among those who organize men for the coming confrontation. Although Enjolras and others like him are from the privileged classes, they want to see rights extended to both the bourgeoisie and the working classes.

Analysis

Victor Hugo recounts his version of French history, assuming a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader. The first French Revolution (1789–1799) occurred in two parts. The first phase, beginning in 1789, was more moderate (led by Mirabeau), while the second phase under Robespierre instituted the Reign of Terror (1793–1794) in which mass executions took place. The new government established in 1795 was weak, however, and various factions continued arguing. Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d'état in 1799 and ruled France until 1815, when the Bourbons were put back on the throne. Victor Hugo makes an important point in this book: the class behind the revolutions in France, as in other nations, is the bourgeoisie, the middle class. Hugo defines the bourgeoisie as "the contented portion of the people. The bourgeois is the man who now has time to sit down. A chair is not a caste." Thus it is the class with some power and privilege that decides whether the status quo is good enough (as when the bourgeoisie called a halt to the July Revolution) or whether it is time to change the government.

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