Les Miserables: Novel Summary: Section 2 - Book One

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Section 2 - Cosette
Book One - Waterloo
This section details the events of the Battle of Waterloo which marked the final downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte and the dramatic restructuring of European power with the return of monarchy (though tempered by a republican parliament) to France. The narrator begins by describing the field of battle as it appeared on a visit he paid to the area in May of 1861. He describes the manor of Hougomont where Napoleon encountered the first English resistance, where the chapel was burned but the wooden Christ miraculously survived and where none will drink from the well because it is littered with the skeletons of the slain soldiers.
The narrator then casts his story back to June 17th, 1815 just before the beginning of the battle. He describes the fate of Europe resting upon small chance happenings. Because it had rained the ground was too soft to commence the battle at dawn and Napoleon's artillery had to wait until half past eleven o'clock to take position. Though they were outnumbered, the English army under Wellington was above the French positions. By four o'clock in the afternoon things were going badly for the English and Napoleon believed they would soon retreat. Three thousand-five hundred French cavalry advanced upon the English position but because a peasant questioned by Napoleon had neglected to tell him of a sunken road, the cavalry faltered and fell into the open ditch where they were shelled by the hidden English artillery. The narrator makes the observation that God, not the English, defeated Napoleon. Though they stopped the initial cavalry assault, the situation remained desperate for the English and Wellington anxiously awaited the arrival of reinforcements from the German army under Blucher. Again, fate took a hand and Blucher's army arrived in time only because a peasant directed them to the correct road. With the arrival of the German army the tide turned irrevocably against the French who were soon reduced to a retreating rabble. The narrator gives the English army the credit over their commander whom he believes has been too much praised for the day's results. He characterizes Wellington as austere and precise and contrasts him with Napoleon who had carried many battles by taking chances and displaying individual bravado. He criticizes the English need for hierarchy and hereditary right. He calls the Battle of Waterloo a "counter-revolutionary" victory, that of the European monarchies over the French Revolution though he admits that Revolution and Progress, once begun, can never be entirely erased.
The narrator relates that the night after the battle a corpse robber was moving among the fallen soldiers when, in the sunken road, he spied a hand with a gold ring protruding from a mass of fallen men and horses. After taking the ring he was surprised to find life left in the hand and pulled the man from the mass. The man was an officer with a silver cross of the Legion of Honor and a huge saber gash across his face. The robber quickly took the man's watch and purse. This action awakened the man who having learned that the English were victorious commands his rescuer to take his watch and purse as reward but the robber reports that they are missing. A patrol approaches and the robber, claiming to be a sergeant in the French army, says he has saved the other man's life but that he must now flee. The officer thanks him and asks his name to which the robber replies that it is Thenardier and the officer responds that his is Pontmercy.
Analysis
This chapter is a detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo and Hugo combines historical facts with fiction. The underhanded character of Thenardier is again shown in complete contrast to the honest and forthright behavior of Valjean. It is ironic how one is rewarded and gains appreciation whereas the other is punished.

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