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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 5, Book 1 : Jean Valjean (War Between Four Walls) | Summary



This book begins with some history of two famous and enormous barricades witnessed by the author, which were thrown up during the uprising of June 1848 in the Faubourg Saint Antoine and the Faubourg du Temple. The narrator says this insurrection was caused by "labor demanding its rights. It had to be put down, that was duty, for it was attacking the Republic." In returning to the present moment of the story, the narrator notes Enjolras's barricade at the Rue de la Chanvrerie was a kind of "rough draft" for the future but nonetheless "forbidding."

During a lull in the fighting, the rebels repair the barricade and sort the dead. Enjolras has uniforms taken from four of the National Guard corpses, and Combeferre publicly mourns the dead insurgents. Enjolras then sneaks away from the barricade to do some reconnaissance and returns to tell the people the army and the National Guard are out in force and the people are no longer fired up. "You are abandoned," he says, to which the people respond, "Long live death! Let's all stay!" Enjolras objects and wishes to send home the men with families. There is some arguing, and the rebels determine that five men will go home, sneaking out in the National Guard uniforms. Just then Jean Valjean appears in his uniform, which he removes and gives to the fifth man. After they leave, Enjolras makes a long speech about how the rebels' sacrifice is for the future; he pictures a world in which free human beings live in harmony.

When the fighting begins again, the barricade takes fire from an artillery gun. Marius is a little confused about why Cosette's father is at the barricade and upset that Gavroche is back since he wanted to save him, but he has no time to ponder these thoughts. The barricade will not hold much longer, and they need something absorbent to deaden the hail of grapeshot from the cannon. Jean Valjean, who is not participating in the fighting, takes a carbine and shoots down a mattress that has been tied against the garret window of a nearby building. He then goes out into the street in a hail of bullets and retrieves it for the barricade. Jean Valjean then shoots at two soldiers trying to spy on the barricade from a nearby roof. Their helmets fall off but he doesn't kill them, and they give up their reconnaissance.

The artillery continues to fire, and Enjolras notes they will soon be out of bullets. When Gavroche hears that, he takes a basket from the wine shop and leaves the barricade to pick up cartridge boxes from the fallen Guard. He meanders through the flying bullets, singing as he gathers a lot of ammunition, but just when he seems bullet-proof, he is shot and killed. Marius leaves the barricade to get the child, receiving a superficial wound on his head, and Combeferre brings back the cartridges. The rebels remark on Jean Valjean's odd, nonviolent approach to defending the barricade.

As a platoon of sappers appears at the end of the street, Enjolras orders his men to fortify the wine shop so they can continue fighting from inside. The sappers have been called to help take down the barricade. As they ready for the next phase of the battle, Enjolras orders Javert's execution, and Jean Valjean steps forward and asks to do the honors. Javert says, "That is appropriate," and Enjolras says, "No objection." Jean Valjean then takes his archenemy out beyond the smaller barricade on the Rue Mondétour and unties him and lets him go. He says he doesn't expect to live but gives Javert his address just in case he does. After Javert leaves, Jean Valjean goes back to the barricade and fires a shot so it will appear he has executed the informant. When Marius hears the shot, he asks the name of the informant, and when he learns it is Javert, "[a] dreary chill passed through [his] heart."

The narrator now pauses to comment on the morality of revolution as a method of moving the needle of progress. He notes "Utopia ... compromises her heroism by violence for which she should justly answer ... This reservation made, ... it is impossible for us not to admire, successful or not, the glorious combatants of the future, the professors of Utopia." On balance the narrator urges a peaceful solution for curing evil. Nonetheless, he praises the martyrs of the revolution, declaring the French Revolution as "an act of God" and expresses patriotic admiration for his nation that leads the world in a struggle for liberty.

Returning to the story, the narrator paints a vivid picture of the brave fighters who have not slept or eaten for 24 hours and, every one of them wounded and bleeding, continue to fight off the onslaught of troops. At some point the wine shop is breached, and hand-to-hand combat begins, with all the lieutenants killed except for Marius and Enjolras. Just as a platoon is about to execute Enjolras, who stands majestically waiting for death, Grantaire, who has been sleeping off his drunkenness in the upper room of the bistro, awakens and steps in front of his friend, crying out, "Vive la République," and both men are killed by a hail of bullets.

While this last stand takes place, Jean Valjean picks up Marius after he is shot down and carries him away. When he gets out of the barricade, he sees there is no escape. But a few steps away he notices the grating to the sewer, whose stone frame had been destroyed, leaving the opening unsecured. Thus, removing the stones and lifting up the grate, he climbs down into an underground passage.


In this book Victor Hugo expresses his contradictory ideas and feelings about France's revolutions. The first section of Part 5, Book 1, compares the two monstrous barricades from the uprising of 1848, which were established during the short-lived Second Republic, with the "rough drafts" of 1832. The author has some explaining to do about being on the wrong side of history in 1848. After the government closed down the workshops that had employed so many of the poor, the barricades went up again, and Hugo, a new member of the assembly, took part in the suppression of the people's revolt. Thus he says in Part 5, Book 1, "It sometimes happens that, even against ... liberty, equality, and fraternity, even against universal suffrage, even against government of all by all, from the depths of its anguish ... that great madman, the rabble, protests, and the populace gives battle to the people." This is how Hugo saw the June uprising of 1848—the rabble were revolting against the Second Republic, and the country was in danger of becoming engulfed in another full-scale, violent revolution. After Louis-Napoleon proved himself to be a tyrant, Hugo changed his mind and ended up having to flee his country in 1851.

In this section of the novel, Hugo also expresses his distaste for the violence of revolution, and he shows how people who are caught up as a mob in their cause are capable of both heinous behavior and heroic sacrifice. The men on the barricade know they have no chance of winning and next to none of surviving, which is why they proclaim, "Long live death!" but clearly such a rallying call is the motto of a cult of killing and dying.

The barricade is both a tangible object of revolution—and the French threw them up every time they revolted—and a symbol of the line drawn in the sand when people say "enough." In Part 5, Book 1, the narrator says that the barricades of both 1832 and 1848 were "symbols in two different ways of a terrible situation." Later he identifies the barricade with "chance, disorder, bewilderment, misunderstanding, the unknown." Thus the barricade represents the principle of chaos from which a new and better order sometimes emerges.

While Hugo dislikes the cult of dying, he cannot help but admire such heroics, and he himself took part in violent actions. Nevertheless, his preference is for progress through peaceful means. Hugo's moral structure derives from Christian teaching, and this is why the hero of the story, Jean Valjean, never actually kills or harms anyone.

Jean Valjean has come to the barricade to save the man his child loves, and in the process he must save his nemesis Javert, whom the revolutionaries plan to execute. He saves the inspector because it is wrong to kill a man, especially in cold blood. He is willing to go back into custody, since he knows his life with Cosette has come to an end. For Jean Valjean, life's purpose at first was to become a good man, but after Cosette arrives, the meaning of his life becomes his fatherhood. Thus he is at the barricade as a father.

The martyrs of the revolution, however, still win Hugo's admiration with their heroic sacrifice in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Enjolras is drawn as a pure and ardent soul, married to the revolution, a man who has channeled all of his libido—the energy of the sexual drive that is also the life instinct and the basis of creativity—into his cause. Only 20, he takes charge of the men, many older than himself, establishes barricade justice, shares his vision (for which followers gladly die), and finally exhibits impeccable bravery before his execution. Enjolras has the same conviction of the Christian martyrs who went to their deaths with smiles on their faces, believing in the life hereafter. For his part, Enjolras believes a paradise on earth will eventually be established, based on republican principles. People's willingness to die for a belief is based in the fact that what is more important for human beings is to establish a meaning for their existence, and they will often more readily give up their lives rather than give up the meaning of their lives.

Little Gavroche is another martyr, and in one of the more heartbreaking scenes of the novel, he sings as he picks up ammunition, perhaps to keep his fear at bay as he dodges bullets. It is not clear whether the National Guard is reluctant to fire on a child, or if they just keep missing him, but at some point a soldier deliberately takes aim, and his second shot kills the intrepid gamin.

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