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Free Study Guide for Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: "Les Mis"

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Book First: Paris Atomised


The chapter starts with a description of the street children of Paris, most of whom are orphans. The orphan has a life and a subculture of his own, complete with a unique form of street slang and a unique means of survival by via collecting and trading scraps of copper. The narrator discusses the tragedy of the homeless, truant and abandoned children, calling them the “most disastrous of social systems.” Paris, he claims is different.

The truant boy in Paris, in spite of mean appearances, manages to retain his “innocence” even while developing a street-wise intelligence. He is the child of the gutter who clings to hope and ideals, a child who finds amusement in his very misfortune. This child-called a “gamin” is the very soul of Paris.

Little Gavroche is one of these gutter children. He is one of three children of a family who call themselves the “Jondrettes,” but are actually the Thenardiers. The parents wanted his two older sisters, but have no love for him. They live in one end of the Gorbeau House. The person who occupies an adjoining apartment is Monsieur Marius.


The narrator digresses for considerable time to discuss Paris in light of the homeless children. He sees them as a tragedy but does not blame anyone for their existence. Some of the “gamin,” as these street children are called, are not actually orphans but are simply unwanted for one reason or another. Such is the case of Little Gavroche. Yet, such children found ways to survive. In the case of Gavroche, he was actually happier in the streets than in the abusive home of the Thenardiers. He finds his own brand of friends and develops creative means of survival.

Book Second: The Grand Bourgeois


The background of Marius is explained. Monsieur Gillenormand is a 90 year old member of the old Bourgeois. He jokes about how he survived the reign of terror only to be ruled by his two wives. From them, he had two daughters, the oldest an old prudish maid who still lives with him. Marius, who also lives with him, is his grandson. The old man has no use for the new “republic” and becomes black with rage when anyone close to him expresses sympathy toward it.


We receive extensive description of M. Gillenormand. The chapter begins just a year before the uprising that is the focus of a later section of the book. Later chapters will move backward to the time just before the great falling out when Marius leaves home and moves into the Gorbeau House. M. Gillenormand himself had his share of mistresses and frolicked with the aristocrats in his younger days. We are told that he worshiped the Bourbons, recalled the Revolution with horror and saved himself from the reign of terror with his gaiety and wit. Even in his 80's he liked to think of himself as clever and appealing to the ladies--so much so that when one presented a baby boy to him and told him it was his child, he willingly acknowledged the child (although it could not possibly have been his) and provided financial support to the mother. One of his servants, Magnon, also claims two children by him, and we are not told if they really are or not, but simply that he accepts responsibility for them. He quotes the exploits of previous rulers who had regular affairs in their old age and considers himself almost their equal. He is really a very vain, stubborn, narrow minded old man who is part of another era. Yet his strength, as well as his weakness is his love for the grandson Marius, whose father he disowned.

Book Third: The Grandfather and the Grandson


Marius’ father is Gillenormand’s son-in-law who is considered “the disgrace of the family” because he fought with Napoleon. His name was Colonel George Pontmercy, the fallen soldier Thenardier had saved in order to rob on the Plain of Waterloo. Gillenormand himself is popular and applauded everywhere for his sarcastic wit. He is raising Marius after disinheriting Pontmercy and has forbidden any contact between Marius and his father.

In 1827, shortly after Marius’ 18th birthday, Gillenormand receives a letter from Pontmercy in which the dying soldier asks for Marius. Gillenormand sends Marius the next day, but it is too late. Marius, however, finds a scrap of paper in which Pontmercy describes the honor conferred on him at Waterloo and reveals that he was “rescued” by Thenardier. Pontmercy’s final letter instructs Marius to be of whatever service he can for Thenardier. At this point, Marius has no feelings for his father other than shame-an attitude learned from his grandfather.

A few days later, Marius attends mass and accidentally takes the chair of an old church warden named Monsieur Mabeuf. Mabeuf explains that the spot is special because there he observed a man who came regularly to watch and adore a child he had been forbidden to see. Marius realizes the man was Pontmercy. He takes a short trip away from his grandfather and visits a library as well as several of Napoleon’s former generals. Gradually, he discovers his father’s true personality and worth and also develops a different view of the Republic and of the empire under Napoleon.

While Marius is away, Theodule Gillenormand, a nephew shows up. Marius has been taking frequent trips by now, always to an undisclosed location. Theodule, who is in the military, is on route to a location which will take him though Paris. He stops to see his aunt who persuades him to watch Marius and try to find out what “girl” Marius may be visiting. The spying episode ends at a graveyard behind a church where Marius is putting flowers on his father’s grave.

Theodule does not bother to write to his aunt, but when Marius returns home, he thoughtlessly leaves his jacket and neck ribbon on his bed and goes out for a swim. Monsieur Gillenormand sees a small locket on the ribbon and assumes the contents will be a picture of a girl. Actually, it is the scrap of paper on which Pontmercy had bequeathed the title of “baron” to Marius. The jacket also contains 100 name cards bearing the title “Baron Marius Pontmercy.” Gillenormand is furious at this betrayal of the established order. When Marius returns home, the grandfather and grandson quarrel bitterly and Marius walks out.


This chapter sets up a subplot which will make it possible for Marius to see and eventually fall in love with Cosette. The story takes on a parallel plot between Grandfather and grandson and surrogate grandfather (Valjean) and granddaughter (Cosette). Gillenormand suffers the loss of his grandson because he cannot put his bourgeois ideas aside and allow Marius to have his own opinions and interest. Where. one grandfather has no room for personal sacrifice, the other performs it to extreme. Their plights are similar in that both old men belong to a world that does not quite belong in the 1830 French society.

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Ruff, Dr. Karen S. C., D. A.. "TheBestNotes on Les Miserables". . 09 May 2017