Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – Part Four: The Idyll Of The Rue Plumet And The Epic Of the Rue Saint-Denis


At the outset in this Part, Hugo demonstrates his understanding of the French society he’s haunted to yet another degree, that of the political ramifications of social unrest in the early nineteenth century. He begins with a sharply focused discourse on the July 1830 revolt. Here, the monarchy is restored and the bourgeoisie are the main recipients of the revolt’s outcome. Louis-Philippe, the new king, seems, in Hugo’s view, a nice guy representative of the status quo – hardly the leader France needed in a time of continuing turmoil.
Then we’re back to the aftermath of Javert’s raid on the Thénardier family. Of course, Cosette and M. Madeline are no longer strolling the streets, and Marius is a bit distraught over his “loss” of Cosette. The Thénardier daughter, Éponine is attracted to Marius, and to gain his favor, she tells him she can take him to the girl’s home.
Meanwhile, Valjean and Cosette have seen prisoners beaten on their way to prison and are disturbed enough by this to begin taking food and clothes to the poor. Little gamin Gavroche sees Valjean attacked by the robber Montparnasse and hears Valjean’s lecture on the wages of such sin. Gavroche apparently takes the lecture meant for Montparnasse to heart and finds Valjean’s purse, throws it to the financially struggling M. Mabeuf, thus becoming a benefactor of sorts.
Marius does locate Cosette, leaves a love letter for her. They meet and their romance begins for real.
Then Gavroche encounters Montparnasse once more. The thief shows the boy and three of his friends a large hollow elephant statue, in which they can find shelter.
Next in this dizzying Part Four, we gain another digression from Hugo, this time an extended one on slang. Hugo’s detailed linguistic analysis is there to make a point, I think. He wants the reader to understand that the language of the streets is as organic as the life there, that it’s as vital as the lives of these struggling people.

Then Marius decides to visit M. Gillenormand, his grandfather, to ask his permission to marry. The old man refuses.
Soon, it’s the summer of 1832, and Paris is a-twitter with revolt—touched off by the death of a General Lamarque, who is revered by the proletariat.
Marius, who is depressed over his grandfather’s refusal to allow him to marry, decides to throw in with the revolutionaries, as does Gavroche, who has stolen a pistol. Throughout Hugo’s subsequent dialogue, the gamin seems to be the most radical of the bunch.
This ragged lot makes its way to the Rue Saint-Denis. There, they begin to erect the story’s famed barricade and to fight the Republican Army. Éponine emerges from this fog of war to step in front of a bullet and save Marius’ life.
There’s no shortage of irony here. A few examples:
• The French Revolution was—as most revolutions tend to be—a partial one, benefitting few. The 1789 revolt was socially widespread and ousted France’s Bourbons. But the people weren’t ready to rule themselves, and the rest of Europe felt threatened by the monarchy’s overthrow. That led to Napoleon, who became an emperor, and his grand designs within Europe. The most significant role in this revolution was played by the Republican Army, which drew from all walks of life in a slightly more egalitarian way. Then, the revolt of 1830, which benefitted the bourgeoisie. This in turn led to the revolt of Hugo’s story, that of 1832. Once the door to revolution is opened, and despite obstacles, it goes to completion.
• The poor of Paris lived low but lived creatively. The hollow elephant, despite its almost comical nature, proves to be Hugo’s strongest metaphor for this ability. As if mere survival weren’t enough to depict this creativity, Hugo shows us how the poor of Paris changed the French language.
• Extreme poverty creates no inherent spiritual debasement in people—that comes from the manner in which people treat one another. Hugo’s best-characterized examples of this were Gavroche, who seems more politically aware and more humane than many of Hugo’s poor adults. And Éponine, who sacrificed her life simply out of unrequited love for Marius. And to further the irony, both Gavroche and Éponine were children of the wicked Thénardier family.
In the final Part Five of Les Misérables, we’ll tie up all the loose ends Hugo has strewn across France, Paris in particular.

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