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The revolutionaries are temporarily victorious, but their
morale falls when they learn that the rest of the city has failed
to join their uprising. The army prepares another attack on the
barricade, prompting Enjolras to urge all revolutionaries who have
wives and children to return to their families. Though the men refuse,
Enjolras insists, and the group votes on which five men to send
away. Enjolras, however, has only enough army uniforms for four
men to slip out in disguise. Out of nowhere, Valjean appears and
offers to give up his own uniform for the fifth man.
Valjean is a valiant fighter but makes a point of not
killing any of the enemy. Enjolras expresses regret at taking lives,
but he is willing to kill for his beliefs. When the revolutionaries
run low on ammunition, Gavroche bravely scrambles over the barricade
to gather ammunition from the bodies of dead army soldiers. He almost returns
to the barricades unharmed, but at the last minute he is shot twice
and dies. Realizing that the army is about to storm the barricade,
Enjolras orders Javert’s execution, and Valjean eagerly volunteers.
Once they are alone, however, Valjean tells Javert his address and
sets him free. Valjean fires a shot in the air so the others will think
that he has executed Javert. When he rejoins the group at the barricade,
Marius looks at him with dread.
The revolutionaries can no longer stave off the attackers,
so Enjolras orders a retreat. They fall back into the Corinth wine-shop. Marius
is shot, but Valjean catches him as he falls and carries him off.
When the troops enter the wine-shop, they find only Enjolras. He
is executed as the army hunts down and kills the remaining revolutionaries.
Valjean, with the unconscious Marius slung over his shoulders, searches
for an escape. All exits are sealed and the troops are fast approaching.
Luckily, Valjean discovers a sewer grate and carries Marius down
into the sewers with him.
The narrator bemoans the fact that Paris spends huge sums
collecting bird droppings for fertilizer while washing out all the
human waste that could serve the same purpose. We learn that the
Paris sewers were once nightmarish places and are told of the great
flood in 1802, which covered large parts
of the city with waste and filth. A man named Bruneseau began an
extensive redesign of the sewers. The work was finished years later,
after a cholera outbreak.
It is clear that Marius desperately needs a doctor. Valjean
can barely see in the darkness of the filthy sewers, but his instincts
guide him toward the river Seine, and he rushes ahead to bring Marius
to safety. Avoiding police patrols and fighting fatigue and hunger,
Valjean finally stumbles upon an exit. To his dismay, he finds that
the gate is locked and cannot be forced open. Thénardier appears
out of the darkness, demanding money in exchange for opening the
gate. Thénardier does not recognize Valjean and assumes he is merely
a criminal who has killed a wealthy man. Marius has no money, and Valjean
is carrying only a paltry sum. Thénardier reluctantly takes the
money and opens the gate. He also rips off a piece of Marius’s jacket
so that he can later identify Valjean’s victim.
Valjean emerges on the banks of the Seine, but his freedom
is short-lived. Javert, who has been chasing Thénardier, is waiting
at the sewer entrance. Valjean is so covered in mud and slime that
Javert does not recognize him, but Valjean turns himself in anyway. Valjean
begs Javert to let him return Marius, who is dying, to his grandfather.
Javert agrees and takes them to Gillenormand’s house. After Valjean
and Javert drop off the wounded Marius at Gillenormand’s house,
Valjean asks Javert for one more favor: he wants to see Cosette
one last time. Again, Javert agrees to Valjean’s request. Valjean
goes up the stairs to see his adopted daughter with a heavy heart,
but when he looks out the window, he is surprised to see that Javert
Valjean’s offer to execute Javert for the revolutionaries
turns out to be a gesture of compassion and concern, and befuddles
the hard-hearted Javert. When Valjean brings Javert into the empty
courtyard, Javert thinks that Valjean is finally going to punish
him for his years of obsessive pursuit. It turns out, however, that
not only does Valjean have no intention of executing Javert, but
he also goes out of his way to save his tormentor’s life. By faking
Javert’s execution, Valjean ensures that no one else kills the inspector.
Javert is floored by Valjean’s inherent goodness, and his belief
in his cause starts to waver. Unlike before, when Valjean has to
beg Javert to let him retrieve Cosette in Montreuil, Javert now
allows Valjean one favor, permitting him to bring Marius back to
his grandfather’s. Valjean acts the part of Javert’s executioner
almost too well, and there is an important moment of foreshadowing
when Marius recoils from Valjean in horror. As far as Marius can
tell, Valjean is a murderer, and as long as Marius remains unaware
that Valjean has saved both his and Javert’s lives, he does not
change his opinion.
Valjean arrives at the barricade just in time to save
one unnamed man from certain death, a moment strongly reminiscent
of his salvation of Cosette in the woods outside the Thénardiers’
inn. This episode at the barricade reinforces our perception of
Valjean as a nearly providential figure who arrives when people
need him most. Just as he seems to drop from the sky in answer to
Cosette’s desperate plea for help, Valjean once again appears out
of nowhere to come to the rescue of one of the five men chosen to
sneak out of the barricade. In describing Valjean’s generosity,
the narrator writes that “[a] fifth uniform dropped, as if from
heaven, onto the four others.” Phrased in these terms, Valjean’s
uniform is like the giant hand that helps the young Cosette with
her pail of water, a vehicle sent from heaven to help the unfortunate.
Valjean’s criminal past, which has taught him to slip in and out
of places unnoticed, contributes to his otherworldly air and turns
him into a deus ex machina, a literary device in which
a character or event unexpectedly swoops in to resolve a difficult
situation. The deus ex machina is a device commonly
used in drama, and Hugo’s use of it here highlights the impact of
his theatrical background on his novel. It also reveals Hugo’s enormous
faith in his protagonist: Valjean is so decent and good that the
rules of the everyday world no longer apply to him. Indeed, his
helpful appearances are worthy of an angel.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!