BOOK FIFTH.--THE EXCELLENCE OF MISFORTUNE
Life became hard for Marius. It was nothing to eat his clothes
and his watch. He ate of that terrible, inexpressible thing that is
called de la vache enrage; that is to say, he endured great hardships
and privations. A terrible thing it is, containing days without bread,
nights without sleep, evenings without a candle, a hearth without a fire,
weeks without work, a future without hope, a coat out at the elbows,
an old hat which evokes the laughter of young girls, a door which
one finds locked on one at night because one's rent is not paid,
the insolence of the porter and the cook-shop man, the sneers
of neighbors, humiliations, dignity trampled on, work of whatever
nature accepted, disgusts, bitterness, despondency. Marius learned
how all this is eaten, and how such are often the only things
which one has to devour. At that moment of his existence when a man
needs his pride, because he needs love, he felt that he was jeered
at because he was badly dressed, and ridiculous because he was poor.
At the age when youth swells the heart with imperial pride,
he dropped his eyes more than once on his dilapidated boots, and he
knew the unjust shame and the poignant blushes of wretchedness.
Admirable and terrible trial from which the feeble emerge base,
from which the strong emerge sublime. A crucible into which destiny
casts a man, whenever it desires a scoundrel or a demi-god.
For many great deeds are performed in petty combats. There are
instances of bravery ignored and obstinate, which defend themselves
step by step in that fatal onslaught of necessities and turpitudes.
Noble and mysterious triumphs which no eye beholds, which are
requited with no renown, which are saluted with no trumpet blast.
Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are the
fields of battle which have their heroes; obscure heroes,
who are, sometimes, grander than the heroes who win renown.
Firm and rare natures are thus created; misery, almost always
a step-mother, is sometimes a mother; destitution gives birth
to might of soul and spirit; distress is the nurse of pride;
unhappiness is a good milk for the magnanimous.
There came a moment in Marius' life, when he swept his own landing,
when he bought his sou's worth of Brie cheese at the fruiterer's,
when he waited until twilight had fallen to slip into the baker's
and purchase a loaf, which he carried off furtively to his attic
as though he had stolen it. Sometimes there could be seen gliding
into the butcher's shop on the corner, in the midst of the bantering
cooks who elbowed him, an awkward young man, carrying big books
under his arm, who had a timid yet angry air, who, on entering,
removed his hat from a brow whereon stood drops of perspiration,
made a profound bow to the butcher's astonished wife, asked for
a mutton cutlet, paid six or seven sous for it, wrapped it up in
a paper, put it under his arm, between two books, and went away.
It was Marius. On this cutlet, which he cooked for himself, he lived
for three days.
On the first day he ate the meat, on the second he ate the fat,
on the third he gnawed the bone. Aunt Gillenormand made
repeated attempts, and sent him the sixty pistoles several times.
Marius returned them on every occasion, saying that he needed nothing.
He was still in mourning for his father when the revolution which we
have just described was effected within him. From that time forth,
he had not put off his black garments. But his garments were
quitting him. The day came when he had no longer a coat.
The trousers would go next. What was to be done? Courfeyrac, to whom
he had, on his side, done some good turns, gave him an old coat.
For thirty sous, Marius got it turned by some porter or other,
and it was a new coat. But this coat was green. Then Marius
ceased to go out until after nightfall. This made his coat black.
As he wished always to appear in mourning, he clothed himself with
In spite of all this, he got admitted to practice as a lawyer.
He was supposed to live in Courfeyrac's room, which was decent,
and where a certain number of law-books backed up and completed
by several dilapidated volumes of romance, passed as the library
required by the regulations. He had his letters addressed to
When Marius became a lawyer, he informed his grandfather of the fact
in a letter which was cold but full of submission and respect.
M. Gillenormand trembled as he took the letter, read it, tore it
in four pieces, and threw it into the waste-basket. Two or three
days later, Mademoiselle Gillenormand heard her father, who was alone
in his room, talking aloud to himself. He always did this whenever
he was greatly agitated. She listened, and the old man was saying:
"If you were not a fool, you would know that one cannot be a baron
and a lawyer at the same time."