Chapter I: Paris in Microcosm
This chapter begins with a meditation on the Paris street urchin, a type of person unique to the city. The street urchin is a small grubby child who earns a bit of money by performing chores for the people of the city. He is dressed poorly, but often attends theatrical performances. These children are dissolute and mischievous but also unspoiled.
They are a symbol of France, which has all of the elegance and wonder of the world along with all the barbarians. Around eight years after Cosette and Valjean settle into the convent, one of these little street urchins (a boy of about eleven who goes by the name of Gavroche) wanders about the streets of Paris. He is bright, playful, and mischievous, but he is also poorly dressed and a bit sad; his parents are still alive, but they neglect him horribly.
Still, he decides one day to visit them in their ramshackle apartment, where they life with his two older sisters. His father goes by the name Jondrette, but there is good reason to think that this is not his true name. The wretched family lives next to a young man named Marius.
Chapter II: A Grand Bourgeois
An eccentric old gentleman named Monsieur Gillenormand lives on the fraction of his family's fortune that remains after the Revolution and his wife's financial mismanagement. He is a quirky man, fond of the theatre and luxury, making grand statements. He has some strange habits: for example, he renames his servants based on their location of origin and pays a barber to shave him daily. He is a monarchist, supporting the divine right of kings, an opinion that has become outdated in this new democratic age.
He is especially fond of women. In his old age, one of his former maids (named La Magnon) delivered a baby in a basket to his doorstep, claiming that he was the father. Gillenormand chuckled about this and saw it as an affirmation of his virility, but he was not pleased when a second son arrived. He finally agreed to pay La Magnon eighty francs per month for the maintenance of the two boys, provided that she would leave him alone but allow him to visit his sons once every six months.
Monsieur Gillenormand had two wives (now deceased), who bore him two daughters. The older of these daughters is a practical-minded woman who never married, and is known as Mademoiselle Gillenormand; she lives with her father, and they have a difficult but loving relationship. The younger was a sweet romantic girl who died young, but not before bearing Monsieur Gillenormand a grandson, who is called Marius. Monsieur Gillenormand treats the young man somewhat gruffly, but adores him.
Chapter III: Grandfather and Grandson
Monsieur Gillenormand spends much of his time in a pro-loyalist salon, discussing the wretched young revolutionaries and reminiscing about the glories of the eighteenth century. He refers to his absent son-in-law (the husband of his deceased younger daughter and the father of Marius) as the "brigand of Loire."
In fact, this "brigand" (who is named Geroges Pontmercy) was a member of Napoleon's army and the veteran of a number of battles. Napoleon himself named him a baron and a colonel, but this war-hero lives out his life in the quiet town of Vernon, subsisting on a small military stipend and spending most of his time tending his garden. Monsieur Gillenormand dislikes him because of his political beliefs, and persuaded him to give up custody of his son Marius by threatening to disinherit the little boy. Georges did not want his son to grow up in poverty, so he accepted Gillenormand's strict terms - he never visits his son, and writes him letters on major holidays that go unread.
Desperate to catch sight of his son, Georges visits the little church that Marius attends with his aunt, and gazes at the boy from behind a pillar. A gentle-hearted churchwarden, Monsieur Mabeuf, catches sight of him, and Georges tearfully explains his situation. The two men become close friends.
When Georges is on his deathbed, he calls for his son Marius to visit him. Marius arrives too late - his father has just died. Georges left his son a letter, which explains how he wanted his son to adopt the title of baron that Napoleon awarded him at Waterloo; Georges also asks his son to find the man who saved his life at Waterloo - a man by the name of Thénardier, who runs an inn in Montfermeil. Marius returns home, thinking little of his father's wishes.
Marius goes to church as he always does at Saint-Sulpice. He sits down behind a pillar for mass, but is interrupted by a churchwarden, who says that this is his favorite seat. The churchwarden, who is Monsier Mabeuf, explains that he loves this seat because this is where a father used to catch glimpses of his beloved son, whom he was debarred by family from ever seeing. Mabeuf notes that the man's name was Pontmercy. Marius turns pale, realizing that this was his father. Marius had always thought his father had heartlessly abandoned him, but now he knows that his father risked everything for even a glimpse of him.
Filled with love for his father, Marius reads every book he can about the battles that Georges fought in, and visits as many of his father's friends as possible. He even tries to find Thénardier, but the inn has been shut down and the family has moved on. Marius spends so much time doing this that his grandfather Gillenormand thinks he must be seeing a woman.
Marius also begins to read political philosophy, and eventually comes to adopt a point of view that is more favorable of the Republic and derisive towards the royalist beliefs that his grandfather holds dear. Putting his faith in Napoleon's new democratic order, Marius has business cards made that read "Le Baron Marius Pontmercy."
Curious to find out the root of their young relative's fixation, Mademoiselle tasks her handsome great-nephew, Théodule, with tailing Marius during one of his mysterious excursions. Théodule discovers that Marius has gone to put flowers on the grave of his father. Théodule is so stunned by this discovery that he does not report it to Mademoiselle Gillenormand.
Marius' secret is discovered when his grandfather discovers Georges Pontmercy's dying letter to his son, along with Marius' business cards proclaiming his baron status. Monsieur Gillenormand is furious at what he sees as his grandson's participation in a corrupt new political order, but Marius defends himself and his father. Finally Marius is so infuriated that he screams, "Down with the Bourbons [current ruling family of France] and that fat pig Louis the XVIII!" Monsieur Gillenormand kicks his grandson out of the house. Marius heads off to the Latin quarter with only a few francs in his pocket.
Chapter IV: The ABC Society
This age of political turmoil has led to the rise of a number of semi-secret political organizations, where young people gather to discuss the events of the day, and perhaps, plan revolution.
One of these is the ABC Society. Its public purpose is the education of children, but it is actually a group of young students with democratic leanings. The name of the group is a pun on the French word abaissé, underdog, which means the people.
Enjolras is the leader of this group. He is a fierce advocate of revolution, in some ways a zealot. Combeferre is his second-in-command, offering a more philosophical bent to the group. Jean Prouvaire is a dedicated scholar. Feuilly is a fan-maker, who taught himself to read and is the most in touch with the people. Courfeyrac is a wealthy young man who developed an interest in politics. Bahorel is a young man given to violent revolutionary practices; he often mocks authority. Bossuet (also known as Laigle) seems to have constant bad luck, but he handles it with humor. Joly is a hypochondriac studying to become a doctor. Grantaire is a skeptic who doubts everything, and he is not a true member of the group, but he hangs around them because of his deep admiration for Enjolras.
On the afternoon that Marius leaves his grandfather's house, he runs into Laigle. Discovering his name, Laigle explains that he once tried to cover for Marius during roll call at the university. The professor called out the names of every student in class, and an absence meant that one's name was struck from the class roster for the rest of the semester. Trying to be helpful, Laigle called out that he was Marius Pontmercy. This saved Marius, but caused problems for Laigle when his own name was called - he ended up being kicked out of the class. Marius is grateful but horrified, though Laigle finds the story humorous. Courfeyrac joins them; he and Marius become great friends, and invite Marius to a gathering of the ABC Society.
Marius has never been in such a wonderfully liberal environment, where every aspect of politics, religion, society, and life generally may be discussed. He learns much from his new companions.
However, he proves insufficiently liberal for his new companions. Frustrated by their criticism of Napoleon, Marius launches into a long-winded defense of the statesman. He asks what can possibly be greater than such a man, and Combeferre quietly replies, "To be free." Realizing he has worn out his welcome, Marius leaves.
He does not return to the meetings of the ABC Society, but he does maintain his friendship with Courfeyrac, who helps to support him. Marius is in dire poverty, being still a university student and now without his grandfather's fortune to support him. He sells much of his clothing and gets by on only a piece of bread a day. His Aunt Gillenormand sends him money but Marius returns it to her, saying he does not need it.
The first two chapters in this section are examples of the lush characterization that has made Les Misérables such a classic. In chapter 1, Hugo describes the activities and characteristics of the street urchin in great detail, using this as a launching pad to meditate on the grandeur and depravity of France in general. This summary conveys the main point of these musings, and takes special note of their connection to the main events of the plot.
Monsieur Gillenormand is a complex but relatable character. He is the embodiment of many 18th-century values, and he is given to hyperbole and frippery, but he is also a deeply loving grandfather. However, his possessiveness of his grandson (manifested in his refusal to allow the child to have a relationship with his father) ends up backfiring when the young Marius discovers that his grandfather has lied to him all his life about his father, and begins to idol worship Georges Pontmercy.
The schism between Marius and Gillenormand is one that was likely common during the time that Hugo wrote his novel. France at that time was struggling with the aftermath of the French revolution, and people were asking a number of complication questions. What does it mean to have a democratic government? How can we alleviate poverty? The estrangement between grandfather and grandson also serves as an allegory for the politics themselves: the old century is being challenged by the ideals of the new.
However, just as Marius proved insufficiently conservative for his royalist grandfather, he is not liberal enough for his new revolutionary friends. Marius, though sometimes headstrong and impractical, is forging his own path and honoring his own beliefs.