Les Miserables 88: War Between Four Walls

lesmiserablesLast time we saw Jean Valjean in his National Guard uniform heading out to the fighting after having his world rocked learning of Cosette’s love for Marius.  Now, as is typical for the pattern of the story, Victor Hugo breaks off into an expositional aside.  But as we are nearing the climax of the story, this aside is very brief.

Hugo fast-forwards to the revolution of 1848.  Keep in mind that this book was written several decades after the events described took place.  At the time Hugo wrote this book, 1848 was already in the rearview mirror by a couple of decades.  Hugo analyzes the 1848 revolution as an unfortunate instance of the people biting off the hand that feeds it, as it were, revolting against the very principles by which they are able to have a voice in how society is run.

Hugo then goes on to describe two barricades that arose during this conflict.  One was three stories high and seven hundred feet long, a massive pile built out of paving stones, rubble from demolished houses, carriage wheels, and any other such items as could be found.  Another was made out of paving stones built into a perfectly smooth wall with loopholes for guns.  In describing the contrast between these two barricades:

The barricade Saint-Antoine was the tumult of thunder; the barricade du Temple was silence.  Between these two redoubts there was the difference between the terrible and the ominous.  The one seemed a gaping mouth; the other a mask.

Admitting that the gloomy and gigantic insurrection of June was composed of an anger and an enigma, you felt in the first barricade the dragon, and behind the second the sphinx.

The barricade of the Rue de la Chanvrerie was a small rough draft by comparison to these two, but for the time it was formidable.  This is how Hugo leads us back into the story.  Here we find the insurgents taking stock of their situation after having repulsed the first attack.  Enjolras is leading the effort to repair the barricade; though Marius had been appointed the leader he was not good for anything as he was deeply troubled by all the events that had brought him to the barricade, and so the leadership has fallen back to Enjolras.  The kitchen of the bistro was converted to a hospital.  Mabeuf, laid out on a table and covered with a black cloth, and Javert, tied to a post, were in the lower room.  The others were outside, behind the barricade, talking.

It was around 2 AM, and the sun was beginning to rise.  Sunrise comes early in Paris in June, much earlier than it does here in Georgia.  The insurgents were full of hope, having repulsed the first attack so easily.  They imagined that a regiment would join them in the morning and by the end of the day all Paris would be in revolution.  But Enjolras dashed their hopes after returning from his reconnaissance.  Several legions of the Army were headed their way and would probably attack in an hour.  The ardor of the people had cooled since yesterday afternoon, so there was no help to be expected.  He then asked for volunteers to leave the barricade.  He and Combeferre brought out the National Guard uniforms taken from the dead soldiers, enough for four people.  But no one wanted to leave the barricade.  Combeferre then got up and made an impassioned speech.  He spoke stirringly of mothers sick with worry over their children, daughters and younger sisters given over to prostitution, and babies dying of malnutrition.

Marius had been taking it all in, but due to the intensity of his grief, he was zoned out:

Marius, hungry, feverish, successfully driven from every hope, stranded on grief, most dismal of shipwrecks, saturated with violent emotions and feeling the approaching end, was sinking deeper and deeper into that visionary stupor that always precedes the fatal hour when voluntarily accepted.

A doctor might have studied in him the growing symptoms of that febrile absorption known and classified by science, and which is to suffering what ecstasy is to pleasure.  Despair too has its ecstasy.  Marius had reached that point.  He witnessed it all as from outside, as we have said, the things that were occurring before him seemed remote; he saw the whole, but did not notice the details.  He saw the men going back and forth through a bewildering glare.  He heard the voices speak as from the depths of an abyss.

But one thing reached him.  He was going to die, but it was not forbidden for him to save another.  So he spoke up.  Under the weight of Marius’s words, some began to inform against each other.  Eventually they reached a unanimous consensus on five individuals who should be allowed to leave the barricade.  But there were only four uniforms.  Now they had to choose one to stay.

In all of this, recall that everyone in that barricade was under a death sentence.  Barring a miracle, no one in that barricade was making it out alive.  But four people now had the opportunity to escape with their lives.

And then, a fifth National Guard uniform appeared on the pile, as if dropped from heaven.  It was Jean Valjean’s.  Valjean had entered the barricade.