Summary: Book One: A Few Pages of History

The narrator explains the causes and consequences of the 1830 July Revolution in France. After Napoléon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the monarchy tries to reassert the rights that it enjoyed before the French Revolution of 1789. Since the post-1815 government has been hampered by unsuccessful military campaigns and social injustice, the monarchy mistakenly believes that it can slowly rescind the rights it granted in 1815. When it attempts to do so, the government collapses, resulting in the July Revolution of 1830.

The new government, however, faces as many problems as the old one. The new king, Louis-Philippe, tries to find a middle ground among the different political factions but succeeds only in alienating all sides. His miscalculations lead to another revolution in 1832. Led by Enjolras, student revolutionaries begin to organize a massive political insurrection in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, a district of Paris.

Summary: Book Two: Eponine

Marius continues to obsess over Cosette. He still does not know her real name and refers to her as “the lark.” He finds a park called the Field of the Lark and goes there every day to soothe the pain of his loss. Little does he know that Eponine, out of her love for Marius, has tracked down Cosette. Eponine tells Marius that Cosette and Valjean are living in Saint-Germain, a Paris suburb. Eponine does not tell Marius that she saw Cosette in the garden of the house while observing the house on behalf of an imprisoned robber. Eponine tells Marius to follow her to the house. He fails to realize that Eponine is in love with him and tries to hand her a five-franc coin. She sadly lets the coin fall to the ground and tells Marius that she does not want his money.

Summary: Book Three: The House on the Rue Plumet

Tucked away in their house on Rue Plumet in Saint-Germain, Cosette and Valjean once again live a happy life free of fear. Nevertheless, problems begin to develop—not from outside this time, but from within. Cosette, who has lived with Valjean since she was eight years old, is blossoming into a young woman. She begins to sense that Valjean has chosen the seclusion of Saint-Germain for reasons other than merely hiding from Javert. Ever since Valjean ended their regular visits to the Luxembourg Gardens, it has become clear that he wants to hide Cosette from other men. Cosette thinks wistfully of the young man in the gardens. Having never had romance in his life, Valjean has no personal experience with love to help him relate to Cosette’s yearnings for a man she has never met. At the same time, Valjean is painfully aware that Cosette is all that he has in life. Losing Cosette would mean losing everything.

Summary: Book Four: Aid from Below or from Above

The street urchin Gavroche overhears Father Mabeuf worrying about his finances. Gavroche slips away and sees the murderous Montparnasse pounce on an old man. With great agility and strength, the old man, whom we recognize as Valjean, defends himself. He pins Montparnasse to the ground and lectures him about his life of crime. He then gives Montparnasse his wallet and lets Montparnasse go. Gavroche deftly picks Montparnasse’s pocket and throws the wallet full of money over Mabeuf’s wall. Mabeuf is ecstatic to find a wallet next to him, and his housekeeper declares that the money must have come from heaven.

Summary: Book Five: An End Unlike the Beginning

After a few months of discord, Cosette and Valjean begin to live in harmony again. Their relationship reverts to the bliss they enjoyed during Cosette’s childhood. Marius, however, interrupts this harmony. He has been spying on Cosette ever since Eponine gave him the address of the house in Saint-Germain. One night, he leaves a declaration of his love for Cosette. The next evening, after Valjean has left for his nightly walk around town, Marius enters the garden and professes his love for Cosette. She reciprocates Marius’s feelings.

Summary: Book Six: Little Gavroche

Back on the streets of Paris, Gavroche continues to practice his unique brand of street-smart philanthropy. He discovers two hungry, abandoned children and uses the little money he has to buy food for them, not realizing that they are his own younger brothers. Gavroche then runs into a woman who is freezing in the bitter cold and gives her enough of his own clothing to survive the night. Gavroche brings the two young boys to his makeshift home inside a giant statue of an elephant near the Bastille prison. Later that night, a number of criminals escape from prison, including his father, Thénardier. Gavroche rescues Thénardier from a rooftop, but his greedy father does not realize that his own son is the one helping him to escape.

Summary: Book Seven: Argot

The narrator devotes several pages to an exploration of the rich vocabulary and origins of Parisian street slang.

Analysis: Books One–Seven

Like the convent before it, Valjean and Cosette’s house in Saint-Germain is a sort of idyllic prison, a tranquil setting that creates tension between Cosette and Valjean. While Cosette no longer has to endure the severe discipline of the nuns, she no longer has any classmates to talk to and has only Valjean and the maid to keep her company. Valjean, on the other hand, appears to think all is well. Delighted to have Cosette all to himself and rid of the threat posed by Marius, he does not realize that his efforts to hold on to Cosette only make her more reluctant to stay with him. If anything, the isolated location of Saint-Germain leaves Cosette with more time to pine over Marius and realize her loneliness.

While Marius’s naïveté is sometimes charming, it also blinds him to Eponine’s feelings and makes him unwittingly insensitive and selfish. At times, his preoccupation with Cosette borders on addiction, resembling Javert’s obsessive pursuit of Valjean more than courtship. Marius is so focused on his love for Cosette that he ignores Eponine, and he goes so far as to recruit her as a kind of carrier pigeon between him and his true love. Without knowing it, Marius insults Eponine by trying to pay her for her services. Eponine’s response to this abuse is tragic, but we do feel some sense of encouragement in seeing a Thénardier act with such selflessness. Eponine’s attempts to ensure Marius’s happiness are both sad and noble, and they are clearly preferable to the cruel cynicism her family has taught her.

Hugo again critiques the French justice system by demonstrating the corruption of the Parisian prisons. He suggests that dangerous criminals such as the leaders of Patron-Minette can effectively move in and out of prison as they see fit, provided they have the right connections and enough money to bribe the prison guards. The ease with which the Parisian crime ring circumvents the justice system contrasts with the tragic circumstances of Valjean, whose petty theft brought him a life of hardship and fear. Harsh prison sentences such as Valjean’s can be justified only if the law comes down even more harshly on murderers. Hugo shows us that such is not the case, however. He implies that in French society justice is a resource like any other and that anyone who is well connected can exploit it at the expense of the unfortunate.