As Volume III of Les Misérables dawns, Victor Hugo digresses. He takes his reader on a tour of Parisian gutters. This digression, like all of Hugo’s digressions, is not short. It is, however, fruitful.
It sets the coming scene of both Marius’ frightful epiphany and terrible choice — to honor a dead father or pursue a blossoming love? This choice, however, can only be understood in light of Hugo’s digression, a digression that creates an image of a vibrant and animated, yet historical and turbulent 19th-century Paris.
Volume III then, as I understand it, serves to narrate history — to craft a picture of Paris in 1832 — through the lens of Marius. And through Marius, the reader sees all: the affluent, the poor, and the “middle class.” And while it might seem strange to arrange a novel by the social classes that it portrays, for Hugo this was paramount.
He was, after all, seeking to lift a veil from the eyes of those in power, so that they might see, in all their crushing glory, the miserable of their time.
At the end of Volume II, both Jean Valjean and Cossette are safely tucked in the Petit-Picpus convent. Hugo, in Volume III, both introduces and shifts to Marius’ character, and, regardless of the reader’s protests, leaves a contended Valjean for 200 pages.
Volume III, in other words, is Marius through and through framed, as Hugo writes, by a “conflict of right and fact [that] has been going on ever since the origin of society.”
Marius contains within him both the right and the fact. He desires to fulfill the dying wishes of his father, which is the right, the ideal, but the fact, once revealed, is that Thénardier is a monster. The right and the fact are equally crushing forces on either side of Marius, pressing him to choose. He can’t have both; it must be one or the other. And the reader, alive and present with Marius, experiences all of this dreadful tension along with him, but even more so, for the reader realizes that upon Marius’ anticipated decision the life of Valjean rests.