Chapter I: Waterloo
This chapter begins from the perspective of "a traveller, the author of this tale," which is a rare reference to the personage of the unnamed narrator of Les Misérables. This traveller finds himself at the place where the battlefield of Waterloo took place in 1815. The traveller wanders about the area; there is a chapel, a few ruins, some animals scratching at the dust.
This place was the site of an intense battle between the French and the English. The traveller notes how the two sides utilized quirks of the landscape during the battle, and describes the entire conflict in great detail. The traveller considers Napoleon to be a rare and brilliant political leader, equal to Caesar or Alexander the Great, who has simply fallen on bad luck here. Significantly, the outcome of Waterloo (British victory) was primarily decided by an unusually rainy night, which prevented the French from using their substantial store of cannons.
The chapter describes the promising start of the battle, the turn of the tide in favor of the English, Napoleon's heroic last stand. Ultimately, the author argues, Waterloo was not a battle but a change in the direction of e world, ordained by God. Waterloo marked the moment when the old order (the divine right of kings) was finally forced to surrender to the new, which is democracy and equality for all. But it also marked a last rise for kinds - [king who gained the throne after waterloo]. Waterloo also brought the fall of the Napoleonic empire, which caused extensive social unrest in France; this is the root of the poverty depicted elsewhere in the book. But these great tides of history are not the only focus of this chapter. A man moves among the battlefield, one of the camp-followers who loot the corpses of fallen soldiers. Seeing a particularly valuable jewel on the uniform of a man half-buried in a pile of corpses, the night prowler pulls the man from the heap. The soldier is still alive, and gratefully offers his valuables to the prowler in return for saving his life. When the solider asks his name, the night prowler identifies himself as Thénardier.
Chapter II: The Ship Orion
This chapter opens with two newspaper articles describing the capture of the fugitive Jean Valjean, who once again becomes a prisoner and is sentenced to work labor. The town of Montreuil-sur-mer falls once again into poverty after this loss of the entrepreneur Monsieur Madeleine; however, a large portion of his immense fortune remains unaccounted for.
Additionally, near the village of Montfermeil, there are reports of a mysterious figure burying something in the woods.
Valjean is assigned to work on a ship. One day, one of the sailors slips while climbing a mast and dangles helplessly from a great height. A convict with white hair and enormous strength inches along the rigging to rescue this man - it is Jean Valjean, still committed to his ideals of goodness despite his imprisonment. He rescues the man and brings him to safety, leading to roars of approval from the crowd who has gathered below. However, Valjean slips from the ship's rigging and falls into the ocean.
Despite an extensive search, his body is never found and Jean Valjean is presumed dead.
Chapter III: Fulfillment of a Promise
Cosette, though only eight years old, leads a sad and difficult life with the Thénardiers; she is tormented by the wife and bossed by the grasping, selfish husband. She endures a terrible treatment with patience, but he greatest fear is being forced to fetch water from the well in the pitch darkness. One day, the tavern runs out of water just as night is falling, and Mme Thénardier forces Cosette to go to the well in the darkness. Cosette tries to lie, saying she has already offered water to the guests and their horses, but Mme Thénardier forces her outside with her fists. Cosette is forced to drag the bucket, which is nearly as big as she is, into the night.
Cosette takes some solace in the beauty of a magnificent doll in a shop window - the doll has real hair and a beautiful pink dress. For the lonely little girl, this lovely sight offers a bit of comfort in her bleak existence, though she is certain she will never own anything so lovely.
She leaves behind the lights if the town and heads into pitch blackness. She is caught between her terror of the dark and her fear of Mme Thénardier, and forces herself onward. She fills the bucket and starts to drag it back through the darkness, trying to push away her fear. She struggles to carry the heavy bucket, and shivers with cold and loneliness, crying out to God for help.
Suddenly a hand comes down and lifts the bucket - a man in a yellow coat is beside her. This yellow-coated man (who looks as though he hasn't got a penny but doesn't seem worried about money) has been sighted walking the streets of Paris and inspecting a particular plot of land in the woods near Montfermeil. He caught sight of Cosette as he was leaving the woods, and immediately stoops to help her. He is stunned when he learns her name and that of the family she works for, and walks with her back to the Thénardiers' inn.
The Thénardiers greet Valjean coolly; they assume he is a pauper and cannot pay for his room and board. He stuns them when he offers them five francs to purchase the stockings that Cosette is knitting under the table, allowing her a rare chance to play. She has only a little lead sword to play with, but she pretends that it is a doll.
The cherished and pampered daughters of the Thénardiers, named Éponine and Azelma, drop their dolls to play with the kitten. Shyly, Cosette approaches this dropped doll and begins to play with it, which prompts Madame Thénardier to fly into a rage, threatening to beat her. Cosette weeps, but Valjean commands an end to this cruelty, then walks out and buys the magnificent doll from the shop window, and gives it to Cosette, who is beside herself with joy. Madame Thénardier is enraged that her daughters must enviously watch Cosette playing with this doll; the Thénardier family resolves to charge this strange man the highest possible prices for his stay at the inn.
The man prepares for bed, but as he is about to go to sleep he notices the children. Azelma and Éponine are tucked in sumptuous beds and Cosette is asleep on a bare mattress, but each child has one of her shoes placed out by the fireplace; it is Christmas Eve, and they are hoping that a good fairy will put a bit of money in their shoes. Valjean, the stranger, places a gold coin in Cosette's battered clog shoe.
In the morning, Valjean unquestioningly pays what the Thénardiers ask of him, and he inquires about taking Cosette. Madame Thénardier is eager to get rid of the child, and allows Valjean to give her a set of warm black clothes. Thénardier is eager to wring as much money out of the stranger as he can, and he asks Valjean for fifteen hundred francs, which Thénardier claims will cover the cost of Cosette's keep but in fact is the exact sum that Thénardier owes to his debtors. Valjean pays it without hesitation and leaves with Cosette.
When told of the amount that the stranger handed over, Madame Thénardier merely says, "Is that all?" Her husband rushes after the departing stranger, certain that he is able to pay even more. He confronts Valjean and Cosette in a lonely place in the road; Thénardier spins lies about how much he loves Cosette and how cruel it is to take her from them. Calmly, Valjean hands him a letter from Fantine, Cosette's mother, indicating that he will hand over Cosette to the bearer of the letter. Desperately, Thénarder tells him that he still owes a great deal for the cost of Cosette; unintimidated, Valjean explains how much he has paid and how this should cover everything. Thénardier is infuriated and considers attacking Valjean, but the other man's powerful frame dissuades him. Valjean leaves with Cosette, his promise to Fantine finally fulfilled.
Chapter IV: The Gorbeau Tenement
Valjean, assumed dead by the prison authorities, has created a new life for himself. He brings Cosette to a small Parisian apartment called the Gorbeau Tenement. There, he teaches her how to read and offers her the parental love she has always lacked. The two form a strong bond: Cosette has spent much of her life deeply lonely, and she delights in the love of a parent. Valjean himself has lived an equally lonely life throughout his bouts of imprisonment and success, and the love of a daughter restores the faith in humanity that he lost during his second imprisonment.
Valjean must be careful, however: he does not leave his apartment during the day, lest he be spotted by the authorities. His landlady becomes suspicious of him when she notices that he has great sums of money sewn into the lining of his clothing; it is in this way that he supports himself, through the money he has stashed away from his time as the entrepreneur Monsieur Madeleine.
He often gives alms to beggars, but one day he catches sight of a frightening familiar face: it is Javert, pretending to be a beggar. He and Valjean look at each other, and Valjean walks quickly away.
That night, Valjean hears heavy footsteps outside his apartment, and through the door-crack he sees the familiar shape of Javert. He grabs his jacket (filled with money) and wakes Cosette, fleeing with her into the night.
This section begins with another of the historical diversions that characterize Les Misérables - a description of the Battle of Waterloo. Waterloo was fought in 1815, between the French forces of Napoleon and an alliance of English troops under the command of the Duke Wellington and Prussian troops under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.
In fact, Hugo has fabricated some aspects of the battle for his novel. He describes a ditch, which he claims was the downfall of the French forces. In fact, no such ditch exists on the battlefield, and the battle itself was always much more in favor of the English than Hugo indicates.
Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo ended his rule as the Emperor of France. Napoleon abdicated four days later; Waterloo was his last battle. Waterloo prompted changes in the borders of a number of European nations, and caused many governments to crack down on democratic and revolutionary ideas.
Moving away from the grand sweep of history and back into the course of ordinary individuals' lives, this section describes the apprehension and second imprisonment of Jean Valjean. Valjean dreaded a return to prison, thinking of it as a return to hell. Yet his new-found goodness and kindness is ultimately what saves him. He risks his own life to save that of a sailor in trouble, and then uses this opportunity to drop from the ship and into the sea. He swims to safety, but he is presumed dead by his captors.
Valjean is able to draw on some of the cash he squirreled away during his time as Monsieur Madeleine. His first stop during his newfound freedom is the household of the Thénardiers, where Cosette lives, in order to fulfill his promise to the dying Fantine. Cosette is now eight, but has spent her childhood unloved and worked like a slave. The Thénardiers puzzle over this strange man, but eventually Valjean secures custody of Cosette. The little girl trusts him instantly, which is a testament to Valjean's goodness.
Still, Valjean is no pushover. When Thénardier's grasping selfishness becomes too much, Valjean defends himself firmly. Compassion is not weakness, and it is not synonymous with being pushed around or bullied. Significantly, despite the windfall of cash that Valjean has given them, the Thénardiers find themselves in dire financial straits once again. They are an example of the undeserving poor, those whose poverty is punishment for their vices.