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

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Book Second: The Intestine of Leviathan


We receive a description of the subterranean labyrinth that forms the sewers for Paris. These sewers, in addition to carrying human waste down to the rivers, have also served as hiding places for all that would oppose the law, either by crime, protest or by sheer liberty of thought.

At one period-from 1805 to 1812, the ancient sewers were explored, refortified where needed, and enlarged by a man named Bruneseau and his son-in-law. In addition to the filth, the crumbling archways and bottomless quagmires, they found a wealth of precious objects, gold and silver coins, trinkets, and various sorts of medals. By the end of the 19th century the sewers of Paris were rebuilt, straightened and made much more sanitary. However, the sewers in the Paris of 1832 knew only the beginnings of renovation resulting from Bruneseau’s research. It was essentially unchanged, except for its yearly additions, from the sewer of the Middle Ages. It was a fetid labyrinth with portions of its length open to the sky and sending reeking, disease laden fumes into the streets of Paris.


If Valjean has been cleansed by his trip through “hell,” Thenardier has completely merged with the dark side of Paris. He has lost all of his family but one daughter with whom he has occasional contact. He cannot live a normal life because he has a price on his head for failing to show in court over the Gorbeau affair. His life is one of deceit and thievery. He is, perhaps, what Valjean could have become if it were not for the influence of the priest, the convent, and Cosette.

Marius is completely helpless. He who would not accept a monthly stipend from his grandfather or a loan from a friend is now at the mercy of an “enemy” for his very life. He will thus incur the greatest of all debts and will not know how to pay it.

A not entirely unexpected characteristic of Javert is revealed. Valjean spared his life when no one else would have. In fact, the other insurgents fully intended to kill him as vengence for the execution of Prouvaire. It is not so much a matter of forgiveness; Valjean knows that Javert has done no wrong. He may be narrow-minded in his interpretation of the law, but he has been a faithful public servant. Valjean not only turns him loose, but also gives Javert his and Cosette’s current address. It’s as if he sees no further need to go on hiding.

As for Javert, he did not expect to be released, nor is he prepared for Valjean to emerge from the sewer with Marius on his back. As he is in control, he has no reason to deny Valjean a couple of requests, especially when those requests seem to be for the benefit of someone other than Valjean himself. Yet, he now owes Valjean for his life. In walking away, he has paid that debt.

Book Third: Mire, But Soul


Valjean makes his way through the sewer with Marius on his back. At a crossing where one choice appears to descend and aim toward the river, Valjean chooses the opposite for fear of emerging in the midst of the Paris market district. In spite of not knowing where he is, Valjean is on a path that will eventually lead him out. Whenever he arrives at a junction, he measures the width by pacing off the new opening and thus avoids all the narrower routes, which would only end in cul-de-sacs.

A brief scene change from the interior of the sewer tunnels takes the reader to the shore of the Seine where an unnamed figure in official dress appears to be in pursuit of another man who is dressed in rages. One of the public conveyances called a “fiacre” keeps pace at some distance as if anticipating a fee or perhaps following orders. The two men walk at a consistent pace, one trying to avoid the appearance of running, the other trying to act as though he is NOT pursuing. When the man in rags rounds the point of the quai and disappears from sight, the official begins to run. The fugitive, however, has disappeared through a grating at the end of the quai. The grating covers an outlet through with the sewer flows into the river. It is locked, which means the fugitive had a government key. The reader understands that the fugitive is Thenardier and the official is Javert.

Returning to Marius and Valjean in the sewer, we find that he has arrived at the main sewer channel called the “Belt Sewer” or the “Grand Sewer.” He correctly chooses the only direction that will lead to safety, but he must pass through a “fontis” or underground version of a quicksand pit before he will reach the exit. Valjean nearly drowns, sinking in the mire and water up to his head, but reaches the opposite side of the sinkhole just in time. Beyond the mire, he runs into a wall, which forms a sharp angle with the continuing passage. Upon entering that, he finds that he has reached the outlet, but that it is covered with a locked grating which he does not have the means to open or the strength to break through. While he sits in despair on the bank of the sewer, a man appears out of the darkness. It is Thenardier who assumes Valjean is an assassin who has robbed and killed the man he is carrying. Valjean recognizes him immediately, but the darkness and covering of filth enables him to keep his own identity a secret. Thenardier offers to “go halves” in return for opening the gate. However, Valjean has only 30 francs in his pockets, so Thenardier takes it all. He also manages to tear a strip of cloth from Marius’ soggy jacket. He thinks that he will someday discover the identity of the assassin and victim and perhaps use it to his own advantage.

Instead of escaping, Valjean has emerged into the waiting grasp of Javert. Thenardier has taken advantage of Valjean to get Javert off his own trail and the ruse has worked. Valjean, however, surrenders willingly, asking only that Marius be taken to his grandfather first. Javert believes that Marius is dead or soon will be, but he does not refuse. After taking Marius home, Valjean asks one more favor-to be permitted to go home for a moment. Javert grants this request also. Valjean ascends the stairs to his room-pausing at a landing to look out the window above the street. To his amazement, Javert is gone.

Section XII of this chapter is set in the Gillenormand home. Marius is tended by the doctor, the servant and the aunt. In spite of their attempts to keep everything quiet, the old man awakes and comes into the sick room. He wrings his hands and wails bitterly, beside himself because he believes Marius is dead. He confesses that he has kept Marius’ room prepared in the event of his return and that the picture of Marius as a little boy hangs above his own bed. With the doctor’s ministrations, Marius regains consciousness, a surprise that causes the old man to faint.

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