Summary: Book One: Waterloo

It is June 18, 1815, and the narrator gives us a vivid and extensive account of the Battle of Waterloo. This battle marks the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte and the end of his empire. The narrator, suggesting that most accounts of the battle are seen from the perspective of the victorious British, resolves to focus instead on the efforts of the French forces. Napoléon’s men view their leader with “religious awe,” but despite his brilliance they are defeated by foul weather. Napoléon has more artillery than Wellington, the British commander, but a sudden rainstorm delays the battle and gives Prussian reinforcements time to arrive and help the British. The French get stuck in an impassable muddy road and are wiped out by British artillery. Though the French are defeated, the narrator claims that the real victors of Waterloo are the individual men who are standing up for their beliefs. He cites the heroic example of Cambronne, a soldier who, when called upon by the British to surrender, stubbornly fights to his death.

During the night following the battle, prowlers emerge and begin to steal gold and jewelry from the dead soldiers. This pursuit is dangerous, since the leader of the English troops has ordered all thieves to be shot dead. As one prowler steals a cross, a watch, and money from a seemingly dead officer, the officer suddenly revives. The officer thinks the prowler has saved his life and asks his name. The robber replies that his name is Thénardier. The officer, whose name is Georges Pontmercy, promises always to remember Thénardier for saving his life.

Summary: Book Two: The Ship Orion

Rumors fly about the capture of Jean Valjean. Newspaper articles suggest he was Fantine’s lover and that he withdrew 700,000 francs just before his arrest. In the town of Montfermeil, where the Thénardiers’ inn is located, people notice an old road-mender named Boulatruelle digging holes in the forest. Thénardier gets Boulatruelle drunk. The old man reveals that he has seen former prison comrade enter the forest with a small chest, a pick, and a shovel, and that he is trying to find the buried treasure.

The narrator directs our attention to a newspaper article about the Orion, a warship docked in Toulon. In November 1823, a sailor on the Orion falls off one the ship’s masts, barely catching hold of a footrope. No one from the substantial crowd is willing to make the dangerous effort to rescue the sailor, but one of the convicts on the ship’s chain gang asks for permission to rescue the man. The officer agrees and the prisoner climbs up the ship’s rigging and saves the sailor. The crowd applauds the prisoner’s death-defying feat, but the prisoner suddenly stumbles and falls into the water. He does not resurface. After an extensive search, the convict, who is Jean Valjean, is proclaimed drowned.

Analysis: Books One–Two

Valor and heroism are the dominant qualities in this section, as Hugo contrasts the valiant behavior of the French army with the dishonorable actions of Thénardier in order to draw a distinction between real heroes and false ones. Thénardier is less savory than the rest of the army, a person so despicable that the English commander orders men like him shot without trial. Ironically, however, Thénardier is the man whom Pontmercy mistakenly identifies as a hero. Hugo does not dispute that real heroes exist, since he greatly admires the defiant Cambronne, who soldiers on against all odds. By introducing Thénardier at the end of the account of Waterloo, however, Hugo reveals that not all heroes are what they seem; Pontmercy’s gratitude toward Thénardier suggests that some men we regard as heroes may in fact be scoundrels. Hugo also implies that men who usurp the title of hero bring shame upon everyone else, as the description of Thénardier’s graveyard prowling interrupts Hugo’s rousing historical account of Waterloo and causes it to end on a disgraceful note.

The idea of real and false heroes extends beyond the episode at Waterloo and allows us to view Thénardier as a foil (a character whose behavior or personality underscores opposing traits in another character) for Valjean. Like Cambronne and the rest of the soldiers who die at Waterloo, Valjean is brave, determined, and conscientious. We see his heroism all the more clearly when we compare it to the despicable behavior of Thénardier, who robs the dead and falsely takes credit for bravery that he does not actually exhibit. Valjean clearly possesses more admirable qualities, but it is Thénardier who is erroneously rewarded for his actions. Hugo encapsulates the flaws in society’s values by contrasting these two men’s intentions with the unfair ways in which they are rewarded. While Thénardier’s lies earn him glory and gratitude, Valjean’s true heroism earns him persecution and jail time.

The fact that Hugo interprets Waterloo as a defeat for France due to bad luck shows us that unfairness and injustice are not limited to the world of Valjean but have a part in larger events as well. Hugo views Napoléon as a brilliant strategist and a defender of equality who brings France to new heights. Nonetheless, Napoléon loses at Waterloo. Even worse, according to Hugo, is the fact that Napoléon loses the battle because of something as banal as the weather, not because of any substantive blunders on his part or any significant ingenuity on the part of the British. The defeat at Waterloo is as arbitrary and unfair as Valjean’s imprisonment, but on a larger scale. The unfair outcomes leave us hungry for justice, anticipating the unrest that emerges in later chapters.

Stylistically, the battle accounts and fictitious newspaper excerpts are a departure from Hugo’s straightforward narrative style. These devices emphasize the fact that though Hugo’s characters are fictional, the novel’s plot turns on actual events in the history of France. The change in narrative mode also lends dynamism to the novel by including a number of different perspectives.