“If it had not rained in the night between the 17th and the 18th of June, 1815, the fate of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, decided the downfall of Napoleon. All that Providence required in order to make Waterloo the end of Austerlitz was a little more rain, and a cloud traversing the sky out of season sufficed to make a world crumble.”

In “Cosette,” Book 1, Chapter 3, Hugo describes Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo. That “a few drops of water” essentially “sufficed to make a world crumble” illustrates the idea that great change can hinge on minor details—Napoleon loses not because of his own failure or the success of the British, necessarily, but because of an unyielding external force. By including this, Hugo suggests that misfortune is often arbitrary and unfair, not unlike Valjean’s imprisonment.

“Encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.”

In “Saint-Denis,” Book 1, Chapter 4, Hugo explains what went wrong after the July Revolution of 1830. The new king, Louis-Philippe, has tried to find a middle ground among the different political factions but succeeded only in alienating all sides. Hugo argues that what is needed to achieve “mortal and material greatness” is not a compromise that satisfies all parties and essentially upholds the status quo, but rather the undertaking of certain egalitarian measures such as universal property, education both compulsory and for its own sake, support for the poor, protection of the weak, and, in general, the production and distribution of wealth.

“Facing these men, who were ferocious, we admit, and terrifying, but ferocious and terrifying for good ends, there are other men, smiling, embroidered, gilded, beribboned, starred, in silk stockings, in white plumes, in yellow gloves, in varnished shoes, who, with their elbows on a velvet table, beside a marble chimney-piece, insist gently on demeanor and the preservation of the past, of the Middle Ages, of divine right, of fanaticism, of innocence, of slavery, of the death penalty, of war, glorifying in low tones and with politeness, the sword, the stake, and the scaffold. For our part, if we were forced to make a choice between the barbarians of civilization and the civilized men of barbarism, we should choose the barbarians.”

In the first book of “Saint-Denis,” Hugo juxtaposes the revolutionaries, considered “barbarians,” with “other men”—those who maintain the social order, impeding progress. Though the revolutionaries’ methods are “ferocious,” Hugo argues this is only because of what they are up against: a centuries-strong institution that imposes its own violence on France’s citizens every day. He describes these “other men” in great detail, contrasting their outward “civility”—their “silk stockings,” their “varnished shoes”—with the evil ideas they support: slavery, the death penalty, war. That is, while these men sit at a “velvet table” and politely espouse barbarism, the revolutionaries forgo politeness in an effort to dismantle structural inequality. Hugo goes on to say there is another choice—“progress with a gentle slope,” meaning that the violence of the revolution, though perhaps understandable, ultimately renders their efforts futile. Still, he makes it clear here that men thought to be “civilized” are not actually all that civilized.