Les Miserables 86: The Grandeur of Despair

lesmiserablesLast time we caught up with Marius and followed his despondent journey from the Rue Plumet where he had failed to meet Cosette, to the barricade where his friends were.  We tracked with Victor Hugo as he painstakingly related Marius’s itinerary through Paris, and experienced a breathtaking description of the city on the verge of war as seen from the sky, of Marius entering into successive layers of increasing darkness as he approached the barricade.  We left him just outside the barricade, struggling with himself as to whether or not he would take the final step that would put him inside the barricade.

In all of this, it is easy to lose sight of an important reality:  No one who went into that barricade was going to make it out alive.  Barring an extraordinary miracle, all who were in that barricade were doomed to death when the better-armed and better-numbered Municipal Guards arrived.  (That is, unless the people themselves joined in the fight on the side of the student insurgents.  But as we have seen from events thus far, particularly the confrontation between Le Cabuc and the old man in the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, that is probably not going to happen.)  We must keep that reality front and center as we follow the action from here on out, because that is what is hanging over everyone in that barricade.  That is what is hanging over Marius as he hesitates over whether or not to take the final step and enter the barricade himself.

At this point we rejoin the others inside the barricade.  Gavroche has just returned from scoping out the area–and just in time.  The Guard was on the march, and quickly approaching the barricade.  In the initial melee, the flag at the top of the bus at the end of the barricade was shot down.  When the bullets subsided, Enjolras asked for volunteers to raise the flag again, but no one would do it.  Until the old man Mabeuf came out.  Mabeuf, upon arrival at the barricade, did not involve himself with the preparations, but instead went and sat with Javert in the room where he was tied up.  He looked down and sank into despondency–understandable, considering the story that had brought him to the barricade–and gradually into an unconscious stupor.  But the noise of the initial attack woke him up.  He went outside to see what was going on–just at the time Enjolras was asking for volunteers to raise the flag.  He agreed.

His presence produced some commotion in the group.  A cry arose:  “It’s the Voter!  It’s the Conventionist!  It’s the Representative of the people!”

Probably he did not hear them.

He walked straight to Enjolras, the insurgents fell back before him with a religious awe, he snatched the flag from Enjolras, who drew back petrified, and then, nobody daring to stop him or aid him, this old man of eighty, with shaking head but firm foot, began to climb slowly up the stairway of paving stones built into the barricade.  It seemed so somber and so grand that everyone around him cried, “Hats off!”  At each step it was terrifying; his white hair, his decrepit face, his large forehead bald and wrinkled, his hollow eyes, his quivering and open mouth, his old arm raising the red banner, surged up out of the shadow and loomed in the bloody light of the torch, and they seemed to see the ghost of ’93 rising out of the earth, the flag of terror in its hand.

When he reached the top of the last step, when this trembling and terrible phantom, standing on that mound of rubbish before twelve hundred invisible muskets, rose up, in the face of death and as if he were stronger than it, the whole barricade in the darkness seemed a supernatural, colossal image.

There was one of those silences that occur only in the presence of wonders.

Mabeuf yelled out in defiance.  The commander of the Guard gave the command for the insurgents to disperse, and then the soldiers fired.  Mabeuf was killed.  Courfeyrac recognized him and told Enjolras who he really was.  Enjolras gave a stirring speech about the old man’s bravery.  They carried his body into the bistro to tend to it there, and his bullet-riddled coat became their new flag.

Meanwhile the Municipal Guards pressed in upon the barricade yet again.  Bahorel was killed.  Courfeyrac and Gavroche would have been killed too, but their assailants were cut down by unseen bullets.  These came from Marius, who was just now entering the barricade.

Remember the lengths Hugo went to to make us aware that Marius still had the two pistols Javert had given him earlier in the story?  This is where the two pistols finally come into play.  One of them took down Courfeyrac’s assailant, the other took down Gavroche’s assailant.

Marius had been sitting outside, watching the first phase of the combat.  He saw Mabeuf raise the flag and get shot, he saw Bahorel slain, and when Courfeyrac cried out for help he could stand it no longer.  He took the final plunge into the abyss, and entered the barricade.

Marius threw down his discharged pistols, and then noticed a powder keg just inside the door of the bistro.  At that point a soldier with a musket took aim at him, but a hand stopped it.  It was the hand of the young workingman in the corduroy trowsers, whom alert readers will recognize as Eponine.  There is no time to dwell on this now, as the events of the battle are moving at breakneck speed, but we will come back to it later.  Meanwhile, the barricade was crawling with Municipal Guards.  In the smoke of the battle, Marius got the powder keg and brought it over to the other end of the barricade.  He dropped it into the spot where the torch had been, picked up the torch, and threatened in a very loud voice to blow up the barricade.  Something in his voice caused the Guards to think he was just crazy enough to actually do it, because they all cleared out immediately.

With the barricade cleared, the insurgents took stock of things.  Marius asked where the leader was, to be told by Enjolras that he was now the leader.

All day Marius had felt a furnace in his brain, now it was a whirlwind.  This maelstrom within him affected him as if it were outside his body and sweeping him along.  It seemed to him that he was already at an immense distance from life.  His two luminous months of joy and of love, terminating abruptly on this frightful precipice, Cosette lost to him, this barricade, M. Mabeuf dying for the Republic, himself a chief of insurgents, all these things appeared as a monstrous nightmare.  He was obliged to make a mental effort to assure himself that all this surrounding him was real.  Marius had lived too little as yet to know that nothing is more imminent than the impossible, and that what he must always foresee is the unforeseen.  He was a spectator of his own drama, as of a play one does not grasp.

They noticed that Jean Prouvaire was missing, and surmised that he must have been taken prisoner.  When they heard his voice and then heard the shots from down the street, their worst suspicions were confirmed.

While the other insurgents were inspecting the main barricade, Marius inspected the side barricade on the Rue Mondetour.  As he finished his inspection, he heard a voice.  He recognized the same voice that had called to him at the Rue Plumet, but by this point it was merely a breath.  He saw the young workingman in the corduroy trowsers lying at his feet in a pool of blood, and this time there is no doubt that it is Eponine.  Marius attempted to move Eponine but could not.  Eponine showed him her hand with the hole in it; that was the hand which had stopped the bullet aimed at Marius earlier.  At Eponine’s behest, Marius sat down with her.

What follows is a heartrending scene:

“Do you know, Monsieur Marius?  It bothered me you went into that garden; it was silly, since I was the one who showed you the house, and then, well, I surely should have known that a young man like you–”

She stopped, and, leaping over the gloomy transitions that were undoubtedly in her mind, she added with a heartrending smile, “You thought me ugly, didn’t you?”

She went on, “See, you’re lost!  Nobody will get out of the barricade, now.  It was I who led you into this, it was!  You’re going to die, I’m sure.  And still when I saw him aiming at you, I put my hand on the muzzle of the musket.  How odd it is!  But it was because I wanted to die before you.  When that bullet hit me, I dragged myself over here, nobody saw me, nobody picked me up.  I waited for you, I said, So, he won’t come?  Oh!  If you knew, I bit on my blouse, I was suffering so!  Now I’m fine.  Do you remember the day I came to your room and looked at myself in your mirror, and the day I met you on the boulevard near some working women?  How the birds sang!  It wasn’t so very long ago.  You gave me five francs, and I said to you, I don’t want your money.  Did you pick up your coin?  You’re not rich.  I didn’t think to tell you to pick it up.  The sun was shining.  I wasn’t cold.  Do you remember, Monsieur Marius?  Oh!  I’m happy!  We’re all going to die.”

At that point Gavroche let out a loud song while loading his musket.  Eponine informed Marius that Gavroche was her brother; up until then he didn’t know.  Eponine had a letter from Cosette that she had taken with the promise to deliver it to him; she had kept it because she didn’t want him to have it, but now that it was all over she gave it to him.  She then asked Marius to kiss her on the forehead after she died.

She let her head fall back on Marius’s knees and her eyelids closed.  He thought the poor soul had gone.  Eponine lay motionless, but just when Marius supposed her forever asleep, she slowly opened her eyes, revealing the somber depths of death, and said to him with an accent whose sweetness already seemed to come from another world, “And then, do you know, Monsieur Marius, I believe I was a little in love with you.”

She tried to smile again and died.

Marius kept his promise, and kissed her on the forehead.  He was able to justify this in his mind as a thoughtful gesture of farewell to an unhappy soul instead of disloyalty to Cosette.

Marius then went inside the bistro to read Cosette’s letter, because he couldn’t bring himself to do it in the presence of Eponine’s body.  Cosette attempted to inform Marius that she would be at the Rue de l’Homme Armee, and then in a week she and Valjean would be going to England.

At this point Hugo backtracks and briefly relates the events that brought Valjean and Marius to the present state.  When first relating these events a few chapters back, Hugo planted enough clues for alert readers to suspect Eponine’s hand in these events; now we see that those suspicions are correct.

As noted earlier, Eponine is a very complex character.  She is a Thenardier, so understandably she has at least some of the Thenardiers’ evil tendencies in her.  This explains her jealousy to Marius in leading him into the barricade, to what she thought would surely be his death.  But at the same time, unlike her parents or her sister Azelma (as far as we know), she does have some good in her.  We saw that earlier when she helped Mabeuf water his garden that night and when she found Cosette’s address for Marius, and we saw it again when she stopped the bullet to save Marius’s life.  But even in saving Marius’s life by stopping the bullet, her motivations were mixed and even quite dark–“it was because I wanted to die before you.”  A noble deed, because she was a good person, but with mixed and dark motives, because she was a Thenardier.

At this point Marius remembered the debt of honor his father Pontmercy had laid on him toward Thenardier.  Now knowing that Gavroche was a Thenardier, he wanted to make sure no harm came to him.  So he wrote a response to Cosette’s letter and sent Gavroche out to deliver it to her, thinking and hoping that he would miss the battle and spare his life.  But Gavroche had other ideas.