When last we saw Marius, he was despondent because he had gone to the Rue Plumet to meet Cosette and she was not there. The previous evening he had gone home to his grandfather to attempt to ask his blessing to marry Cosette. That did not go well, so he was in horrible spirits that day. But he consoled himself with the thought that at least he would get to see Cosette one last time that evening. And then he found her gone without a trace. Then he heard the voice of Eponine (alert readers would have recognized it as such but Marius did not) calling him to join his friends at the barricade.
That voice which through the twilight had called Marius to the barricade of the Rue de la Chanvrerie sounded to him like the voice of destiny. He wanted to die, the opportunity presented itself, he was knocking at the door of the tomb, a hand in the shadow held out the key. These dreary clefts in the darkness facing despair are tempting….
Mad with grief, no longer feeling anything fixed or solid in his brain, incapable of accepting anything henceforth from fate, after these two months passed in the intoxications of youth and of love, overwhelmed by all the reveries of despair, he had now one desire alone: to make a quick end of it.
He began to walk rapidly. It happened that he was armed, having Javert’s pistols with him.
This is an apparently insignificant detail, yet Victor Hugo feels compelled to note it at this point. So we can be sure that at some point later on, it will be significant for us to know that Marius is armed with Javert’s two pistols.
So Marius began his journey toward the barricade. Hugo traces his route in painstaking detail, though Paris had changed significantly by the time he wrote this book and many of the streets he references were no longer in existence. Certainly many of the streets he references are no longer in existence today.
At first Marius passed through areas where life was normal except that some carriages were proceeding off at a fast gallop. Then he passed into areas where the shops were closing but the streets and houses were lit and people were carrying on as normal. Then he passed into areas where all the shops were completely closed and all the houses were dark and the people in the street turned into a densely packed throng. It was at this point that many of the merely curious turned back. But Marius was on a mission. Fueled by desperation coming from the loss of love and the determination to make a quick end of things, he pressed on to the barricade. He pushed through the crowd and found a way to escape detection from the patrols at the edge of the insurgent quarters.
Finally entering the insurgent quarters, Marius entered into something much more terrible in that everything was completely dark and there wasn’t a single sign of life. Along the way he passed an abandoned barricade which Hugo made reference to several chapters earlier, and he met a pair of horses which Bossuet had unhitched earlier in the day. An omnibus had passed in front of the bistro Corinth, and Bossuet ordered everyone off, unhitched the horses, and turned the omnibus on its side in order to complete the barricade.
Marius left the horses behind him. As he came to a street that felt like the Rue de Contrat Social, a musket shot coming from who knows where and passing at random through the darkness whistled by close to him, and the ball pierced a copper shaving bowl hanging in front of a barber’s shop. This shaving bowl with the bullet hole could still be seen in 1846, in the Rue de Contrat Social, at the corner pillars of Les Halles.
This musket shot was still a sign of life. From that moment on he met not another thing.
The whole route was like a descent down a flight of dark stairs.
Marius went on nonetheless.
At this point Victor Hugo pulls back and gives us an aerial view of the city as a bat or owl or other nocturnal bird might have seen that night.
All that old market district of Les Halles, which is like a city within the city, traversed by the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin, where a thousand little alleys cross each other and where the insurgents had made their stronghold and their assembly area, would have appeared to him like an enormous black hole dug out of the center of Paris. There the eye fell into an abyss. Thanks to the broken street lamps, thanks to the closed windows, all radiance ceased there, all life, all sound, all motion. The invisible police of the uprising watched everywhere and maintained order, that is to say, night. To drown the paucity of their number in a vast obscurity and to multiply each combatant by the possibilities that obscurity contains are the necessary tactics of insurrection. At nightfall, every window where a candle was lit had received a bullet. The light was extinguished, sometimes the inhabitant killed. Thus nothing stirred. There was nothing there but fright, mourning, stupor in the houses; in the streets a sort of sacred horror. Even the long lines of windows and of stories were not perceptible, the notching of the chimneys and the roofs, the dim reflections that gleam on the wet and muddy pavement. Any eye looking down from above into that mass of shade would have glimpsed here and there perhaps, at extended intervals, indistinct lights showing up broken and fantastic lines, outlines of singular constructions, something like ghostly glimmers coming and going among ruins; these were the barricades. The rest was a lake of obscurity, misty, heavy, funereal, above which rose, motionless and dismal silhouettes, the tower of Saint-Jacques, the church of Saint-Merry, and two or three others among those great buildings of which man makes giants and night makes phantoms.
This is what Marius was entering into. Though all was dark, there was a red glare in the sky, and this led Marius to the Rue de la Chanvrerie. He entered via the winding Rue Mondetour, and just happened to come in on the one side that Enjolras had left open to the outside. With only one more step to take to enter the barricade, Marius stopped short, sat down, and began to reflect.
He reflected on his father Colonel Pontmercy, who had fought valiantly in the fields, defending the frontier of France under Napoleon’s Republic. He thought of all the places his father had been, all the battlefields around Europe where his father had left drops of his blood, all the discipline of a soldier’s life in service of the Republic. Now, at last, the hour had come for Marius to be brave and face the bullets as his father had done. But in civil war? He reflected on his father’s sword, which his grandfather Gillenormand had sold at auction to a junk dealer. He reflected that this was in fact a fortuitous turn of events, and that Gillenormand had been the true guardian of his father’s legacy. Better that his father’s sword be turned into scrap metal than that he should carry it into a Frenchman-on-Frenchman conflict such as this.
But then he began to reflect upon Cosette, and his mind began to run down paths familiar to anyone who has experienced the loss of love. He could not live without Cosette. He had given Cosette his word that he would die if she went away. But she went away. She went away knowing this, so it must have pleased her that he should die. Furthermore, it was clear that she no longer loved him, since she had left without so much as a note, even though she knew his address. And then, to have come so close, to have come close enough to look inside the barricade and see all his friends, only to turn back and leave his friends in the lurch because he didn’t like the idea of being in a civil war. To give cowardice the pretext of patriotism. He imagined his father striking him with the flat of his sword and saying “Advance, coward!”
And then Marius’s mind began to shift. He caught a new vision for the war he was about to enter into. This was not a question of civil war or foreign war, of fighting for France, but a question of fighting for liberty, of just war or unjust war, of the hurrying future fighting against the lingering past. Here again Victor Hugo’s views of history as advancing and progressing toward the ideal come out. Any fighting which furthers that advance is just, while anything which is intended to impede or retard that advance is unjust. The frontier was not a physical frontier but a moral frontier, where monarchy, despotism, divine right, and oppression are the enemy to be resisted.
With Marius just on the outside of the barricade, Hugo gives us a vision of what he saw there:
Even while thinking, overwhelmed but resolute, hesitating, however, and indeed shuddering in view of what he was about to do, his gaze wandered around the interior of the barricade. The insurgents were chatting in undertone, without moving around, and there was the quasi-silence which marks the last phase of waiting. Above them, at a fourth-story window, Marius made out a sort of spectator or witness who seemed strangely attentive. It was the doorkeeper killed by Le Cabuc. From below, by the reflection of the torch hidden among the paving stones, the head was dimly visible. Nothing was stranger in that gloomy and uncertain light than that livid, motionless, astonished face with its bristling hair, its staring eyes, and its gaping mouth, leaning over the street in an attitude of curiosity. One would have said that the one who was dead was gazing at those who were about to die. A long trail of blood that had flowed from his head ran down in ruddy streaks from the window to the height of the second story, where it stopped.