Chapter I: A Few Pages of History
This chapter is dedicated to a historical interlude, and a meditation on the political situation in France in the early 19th century. In particular, this chapter describes the significance of the July Monarchy, which was established by the Revolution of 1830.
The French Revolution beginning in 1789 opened a power vacuum that was eventually filled by Napoleon, who established the French empire. After Napoleon's fall at Waterloo, two kings from the house of Bourbon (a minor offshoot of the French royal family) took control of France and reigned from 1814 to 1830. These kings, Louis XVIII and Charles X, presided over a rare time of peace in France. However, they were very slow to grant the social freedoms that were so hard-won during the French Revolution, and the nation of France rebelled and deposed the king. Victor Hugo sees this as a victory of the people.
However, this second revolution was frustrated by monarchists, who believed that the only chance for peace lay in the restoration of the monarchy. Louis Philippe, from the house of Orleans (another minor branch of the French royal family) was placed on the throne. Louis Philippe is said to embody the spirit of the age - despite his royal blood, he is sympathetic to liberal ideas and democracy. He conducts himself with restraint and does a number of things to endear himself to the people, such as pardoning political prisoners. However, Louis Phillipe finds that he is too liberal for the conservatives (who want restoration of the rights they had before the French Revolution), and unpalatable to the republicans (who abhor the idea of a monarchy).
A third party is slowly emerging. Socialist thinkers and democrats, opposed to the concept of monarchy, inequality, and rule by the propertied classes, are growing in strength. There are many such groups, distinguished by small differentiations in their ideology, but all of them champion the power of the people. In the spring of 1832, in the Saint Antoine district (a working-class part of Paris) violent revolutionary ideas smolder: children are found playing with bullet casings, and one can hear snatches of conversation about violent uprisings.
The ABC society, still led by Enjolras, is one of the players in this coming uprising. Enjolras and his companions frantically make connections with other groups of revolutionaries, students, and workers. Even Grantaire, the doubter and cynic, is caught up in the excitement. He tells Enjolras that he can declaim as well as any revolutionary, and persuades Enjolras to send him to organize a group of workers. Unfortunately, Enjolras later sees Grantaire playing dice with these workers rather than inspiring them to revolution.
Chapter II: Éponine
After the incident with the Thénardier family, Marius moves out of the Gorbeau tenement; he does not want to live in such a squalid place any longer, but neither does he want to testify against Thénardier. He does not think much fore about the incident, except to puzzle at the strange behavior of his beloved's father, who did not cry out for help when he was being attacked.
Marius pines for his lost beloved. He has no energy to work; he only writes snatches of love letters and poetry. He wanders the streets of Paris looking for the blonde girl he fell in love with, but he cannot find her anywhere.
Meanwhile, the Patron-Minette gang continue their criminal careers. Montparnasse and Clasquesous slipped away from the police on the night of the arrest. Brujon and Babet write letters directing criminal activity from inside the walls of the prison the help of Éponine (who was released from prison because of her young age). In the course of delivering one of these messages, Éponine discovers Cosette's whereabouts.
Another character, Monsier Mabeuf the old churchwarden, has fallen on extremely hard times. He often eats only an egg a day, and he has been forced to sell a number of his precious books. One day, he tries to get up to water his flowers, but he is so weak from hunger that he cannot accomplish this task. He sees a bizarre apparition - a ragged girl who waters his entire garden while chatting incessantly. It is Éponine. In return, she asks him only for Marius' address.
A few days later, as Marius wanders the city dreaming of his lost beloved, Cosette, Éponine appears and greets him with delight. She is deeply in love with him, but he is uninterested in her. Seeing this and wishing for his happiness, Éponine finally tells him Cosette's address. Delighted, Marius hands Éponine all the money he has in his pocket, but she lets it fall through her fingers, saying that she does not want his money.
Chapter III: The House on the Rue Plumet
Valjean has rented a little house in the suburb of Saint Germain, which is distinguished by its secret exit (constructed by a judge who wished to visit his mistress). Why did they leave the safe haven of the Petit-Picpus convent? Jean Valjean wanted Cosette to live a normal life, one not constrained by the rules of the convent. After the death of Fauchelevent, Valjean told the nuns that he had inherited a small sum from his brother and departed the convent with Cosette. Actually, Valjean has rented two apartments in Paris as a precaution; Cosette and a female servant named Toussaint live in one on the Rue Plumet.
The two live simply but happily. The house has a small garden where Cosette spends much of her time, and she often goes with Valjean when he distributes alms to the poor.
However, Cosette's budding adolescence threatens this quiet life. She has grown beautiful and now dresses to flatter her body. Valjean knows that the time will come when she will leave him and get married. Cosette is the only person he has ever allowed himself to love, and the idea of losing her breaks his heart.
Given his fear, Valjean is immediately suspicious when Cosette eyes Marius in the Luxembourg gardens. Cosette falls in love with Marius immediately, surreptitiously returning his glances. Valjean is immediately distrustful of the stranger and puts a halt to their walks in the garden.
Cosette falls into a deep depression after she is separated from Marius, which concerns Valjean even more. Cosette, raised in a convent, has no language to express the things that she is feeling.
One day when the two are walking, they see a mass of convicts being transported to the galleys. The men are dressed in rags, and they hurl obscenities at all those who watch them in their misery. Valjean is horrified at this vision from his past, and the sensitive Cosette is also deeply affected.
Chapter IV: Help From Below May Be Help From Above
Not long after the terrifying spectacle of the convict transport, Valjean has his momentous visit with the Thénardiers. He says nothing of the incident to Cosette, but she is horrified at the appearance of the terrible burn on his arm. Her anxiety is increased when this wound becomes infected and causes a fever that confines Valjean to his bed for a month. Cosette nurtures him with angelic devotion, and Valjean is heartened by his renewed closeness with his adopted daughter. Cosette slowly forgets her love for Marius, and resumes her tight bond with her adopted father.
The narrative brings us again into the life of Gavroche the little street urchin (who is also the abandoned son of the Thénardiers). Hungry after not eating for two days, he goes to the garden of M. Mabeuf to seek apples. He overhears an argument between Mabeuf and his servant: they are discussing what to do now that neither the baker nor the grocer will offer them any more food on credit.
Gavroche ponders at this poverty that is even worse than his own. His reverie is ended by a commotion on the street. He sees an elderly gentlemen being stalked by Montparnasse, member of Patron-Minette. Montparnasse attacks the old man, but to Gavroche's amazement, it is Montparnasse who is knocked to the ground and held in a vice grip. The elderly man then gives Montparnasse a lecture on the terrible life of a criminal: he will work harder than any worker, and his only reward will be social exclusion and imprisonment. The elderly man tries to persuade Montparnasse to renounce his criminal life, and finishes by telling him to furnish this new life with donated money: the elderly man hands his purse to Montparnasse, then walks away.
While Montparnasse is recovering from this bizarre situation, Gavroche plucks the purse from his pocket and tosses it into Monsier Mabeuf's garden. Mabeuf is stunned by this fortune that has fallen from the sky.
Chapter I sets the political scene for a section of the book that is deeply shaped by politics. The French revolution deposed the monarchy, but after the fall of Napoleon, there was a movement to place a royal family back in power, albeit with limitations on their power. However, France also suffered from a variety of social problems: widespread poverty, unemployment, and so on. The populace was not thrilled at the return of the monarchy after such a concerted effort to overthrow them, and so we find ourselves in the situation of social unrest describes in the book.
Typical of this sprawling, humanistic narrative, Hugo switches from describing the national political situation to describing the love triangle between Marius, Cosette, and Éponine. This would seem contradictory, except for the fact that in the lives of individuals, love affairs can be as momentous as an political uprising or a change of government.
Monsieur Mabeuf, the kindly churchwarden who befriended Georges Pontmercy and Marius, is struggling. He is a prime example of the undeserving poor - a good man who endures terrible things. Though he is a moral person, he still cannot make a living due to the terrible economy. How will Mabeuf get by?
Many of the characters suffer from lack of information. Marius suffers from not knowing the location of Cosette; Valjean grieves due to his lack of information about Cosette's changed affections, and so on. Sudden revelations and cataclysmic events are the narrative solutions to such quandaries in the book.
Despite Chapter I, which focuses on the political scene of the time, none of the characters who feature prominently in these chapters have explicitly political leanings (Marius has abandoned these long ago after his expulsion from the ABC Society). Instead, Hugo uses their ordinary lives to illustrate the chaos of that time and place.
Valjean is experiencing a new stage of life, but he is still haunted by his hidden past, which appears in the form of the convict transport. Despite his retirement from the public eye and his quiet life of charity with his beloved Cosette, he will never be free from his past.