Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Paris

*Paris. Capital of France in whose mean—and mainly unknown—neighborhoods most of the novel is set. In setting most of his action in these neighborhoods, Hugo emphasizes how a great majority of honest and hard-working people (“les misérables”) live in overcrowded and dilapidated conditions. His criticism does not originate in class warfare but rather out of a desire to help improve their unbearable situation. Many streets mentioned in the novel were destroyed or absorbed in other wider arteries during various urban renewals, especially under the Second Empire in the 1850’s and 1860’s—and later. Some simply have changed names to new appellations: For example, rue Plumet has become rue Oudinot.

Rue Plumet house

Rue Plumet house. Jean Valjean and Cosette’s new rented home in a good neighborhood. The furnished townhouse, with its solidly enclosed garden, is not only vast and almost elegant, it has a secret passageway offering escape if necessary. Since they want to be unnoticed, Valjean and Cosette never use the entrance on rue Plumet, but use a side door to a back street. After discovering her address, however, Marius visits the sixteen-year-old girl, and both confess their love for each other as they kiss. The untended garden, which symbolizes the naïveté and free-spiritedness of Cosette, is now transformed into a wondrous place, alive with sheltering trees and perfuming flowers, that welcomes their innocent “idyll.”

*Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire

*Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire (rew day feey-doo-kal-VEHR). Street in upper-class district. Mr. Gillenormand (Marius’s grandfather) owns a mansion and private garden at No. 6. Beautifully furnished and appointed, it is the residence of a wealthy bourgeois who appreciates fine art and good books but who is reactionary in his politics. The mansion is so large that it can house seven people quite easily along with Marius’s office. (Valjean, though urged to move in, refuses.)

“Bowels of Leviathan.”

“Bowels of Leviathan.” Hugo’s metaphor for the sewers of Paris. Beside their utilitarian purpose, the underground sewers hide Marius, who is being rescued by Valjean. They must wade through long tunnels filled with sleaze and slime, as the latter intelligently follows the mazelike topographical pattern to secure their safe exit. In comparing the sewers to a Dantesque hell, Hugo stresses the subterranean presence of vice and of moral decadence in society and, thus, the need to redeem one’s soul (never an easy task, witness Valjean’s several struggles with his conscience) through goodness toward others and self-sacrifice.

*Rue de la Chanvrerie

*Rue de la Chanvrerie (rew deh lah shan-vrer-ee). Area of anti-Louis-Philippe insurrection (June 5-6, 1832). This Parisian street in the St. Denis district is the setting for the battle between the well-armed king’s soldiers and the poorly supplied democratic rebels fighting behind makeshift barricades. No wonder so many of them die (gloriously)...

(The entire section is 5,878 words.)