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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 4, Book 7 : Saint-Denis and Idyll of the Rue Plumet (Argot) | Summary



Since the previous book (Part 4, Book 7) makes liberal use of argot, the author now writes a book that is a gloss on argot, the language of the underclass. Argot is deliberately different enough from the mainstream vernacular (language) to exclude outsiders from understanding it. The narrator says that argot is "the language of misery." While the narrator allows that argot is common in particular trades and professions and even across social classes, he means argot can be defined as any idiomatic vernacular that differs from the formal or mainstream language. However, he is referring to the language of the underclass, which is a language of both misery and combat. Although he celebrates the vitality of this street language, he also calls it "a beast made for the night, just wrenched out of its cesspool." At times the narrator extends his discussion across a wider philosophical range. For example he muses about whether the earth itself is like a jail, and man may be "a prisoner of Divine Justice." He then goes on to parse some of the idioms of argot and note their origin. At the end of his discussion he returns to philosophy: "Our civilization, the work of twenty centuries, is at once their monster and their prodigy. It is worth saving ... All the labors of modern social philosophy should converge toward this end. Today's thinker has a great duty, to auscultate [listen with a stethoscope] civilization."


Hugo seems to be having some fun in this chapter. Here is a man who was a poet before he was a novelist, and his extensive use of metaphor in this novel testifies to his virtuosity with words and his love of them. All writers love idiom because of how it reinvents language. Thus, since this novel is about the underclass, it makes sense for a man who loves words to write about their idiom. Language can be used as a cudgel, to express anger, and this is partly what argot does as the "language of misery." At the same time, Hugo equates argot with "slime and darkness," and at the end of the novel, the language of the metaphorical cesspool, which is spoken by the misérables, becomes the literal sewer through which Jean Valjean, a misérable par excellence, must descend to perform a rescue.

The author as narrator takes time out from eliciting the reader's compassion for the "chastened"—those miserable ones—to broaden readers' compassion to all of humanity. A careful look at life will reveal punishment is everywhere. "Are you what is called a lucky man?" he asks. Well, every day has grief, doesn't it? "In this world," the narrator says, "clearly the vestibule of another, no one is happy." According to the narrator, the world is divided into the "luminous" and "the dark," and the aim of life should be to diminish the dark.

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