NovelGuide: Les Miserables: Novel Summary: Section 5 - Book Two

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Section Five - Jean Valjean
Book Two - The Intestine of Leviathan
The book begins with the observation that every year the city of Paris throws valuable fertilizer into the sea by way of its sewers. The author argues that it is a waste of money to let this resource go unutilized and observes that nothing is gained but pollution of the water and sickness. He notes that the Parisian sewer system is an imitation of the Roman sewer system and is similarly complex. He describes the layout from a bird's eye perspective. A historical sketch of the importance of sewers follows and includes the observation that "the history of men is reflected in the history of cloacae." Historically sewers have been used as shelters for the homeless and persecuted. The author characterizes the sewer as the "conscience of the city" because it is the place where all the city's secrets are gathered. The sewer tells the history of what humanity doesn't want.
In the sixteenth century Henry II mounted an exploration of Paris' sewer which failed owing to the fact that the sewer had been left to itself since the Middle Ages and it had come to be a labyrinth. Unmanaged it occasionally flooded and did so famously in 1802. It became known as the Stink-Hole. No one dared to explore it until 1805 when a man named Bruneseau, who was characterized by his superior as the bravest man in Napoleon's empire, received permission to explore the sewer. He mounted a twenty-man expedition and they fought their way through subterranean caverns and passages overgrown by fungi, sinkholes and deadly vapors. Along the way they made maps and measured passages and openings. They discovered such things as ancient dates scratched into the rock, medieval dungeons and the skeleton of an orangutan that had escaped from the zoo five years prior.
The sewer at the time of the story is much improved. Owing to the peculiar quality of the Parisian soil, however, there are still many parts of the sewer where sinkholes have developed as well as deposits of quick sand. Each government since Napoleon has worked to enlarge and maintain the sewer and many workers died from asphyxia and typhus. At the time of the story there were thirty miles of sewer beneath the city. The unhealthy air produced by so much polluted water is the taint of the city. The author reiterates his assertion that the cloacae should be used as fertilizer.
Analysis
In order to better understand the environment into which Valjean has gone in the hope of escaping the soldiers, the chapter is devoted to a description and a historical discussion of the intricate sewer system of Paris.

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