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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 5, Book 2 : Jean Valjean (The Intestine of Leviathan) | Summary



The narrator glosses the chapter to follow with a meditation on the sewers of Paris, in which he points out the city is wasting five million a year by throwing its waste into the sea when it could be using it for fertilizer. Furthermore, the waste is polluting the water and spreading disease. He then provides a history of the Paris sewer, which dates back to the Middle Ages and was improved and expanded after being mapped by Bruneseau from 1805 to 1812. Nonetheless, only after the cholera epidemics did the city undertake a massive reconstruction of the sewers. During the period in which the story takes place, the sewers were still ancient in many places.


This book prepares the reader to understand the Herculean task that has been assigned to Jean Valjean—to navigate the Paris sewers with the unconscious Marius on his back. The social critic in Hugo also takes the opportunity to chastise those in power for allowing the unsanitary conditions created by the antiquated sewer system to continue when they could have spent money on fixing the problem. He points out that the filth in the river creates a stench and breathing problems for the inhabitants of Paris and is also a breeding ground for disease and pestilence. The narrator also notes the sewer is the "conscience of the city," because the more Paris tries to bury its "social slippage," the more it is displayed. In this sense the sewer is a metaphor for France's broken political system.

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