Chapter 1 The narrator mentions a number of historical details about the year 1817, which is the 22nd year of Louis XVIII’s reign. These include the popularity of the singer Pellegrini, the executions of several major criminals, the subjects for the prizes at the French Academy, and the disappearance of all the marks of Napoleon’s reign—like the “N” on the Louvre and his name on the list of important Institutes. Everyone has agreed that Louis XVIII has closed the time of revolution forever. After detailing all these elements of 1817, the narrator notes that history neglects all these particulars, and must do so. Such details are useful in understanding the “physiognomy” (internal character as seen through external features) of the years and of the century.
Throughout the book, the narrator will touch on—and even delve into in depth—aspects of French history with which the general public (or at least a French audience) would be already familiar. But here he has a different take on the interrelation of history and specific narratives. Thinking about history as a series of kings and battles and treaties neglects, he notes, the particular stories of people living at the time. It is these stories that make up what we think of as “history,” and the novel is perhaps ideally suited to explore these narratives.
Chapter 2 In 1817 four young men arrive in Paris from various provincial cities to study. They are normal 20-year-olds, neither wise nor ignorant, good nor bad. Their names are Felix Tholomyes, Listolier, Fameuil, and Blancheville, and each takes a mistress: Fantine, Dahlia, Zephine, and Favourite, respectively. The latter three are older and more experienced, while Fantine “the Blonde” still holds the illusions of youth and love. Her feelings for Tholomyes are truer than those of the other girls. No one knows where she comes from or who her parents were. She had come to Paris at 15 to “seek her fortune.” For Tholomyes, though, their relationship is only a tryst. He is rich and merry, an amateur scriptwriter and extremely ironic. One day he takes the other three men aside and says that they must find a way both to give the women a surprise, and fulfill their parents’ wishes to return home. The result of their conversation is an invitation to the girls to spend the next Sunday with them.
The narrator jumps right into an example of the kind of “physiognomy” that he thinks offers a useful counterpoint to History writ large. In order to do so, it’s important to choose characters that are not particularly exemplary. None of these men or women will make their way into the history textbooks, but they each have their own particularities, their own personalities, and their own distinct ways of viewing the world and their relationships within it. The contrast between Fantine’s youthful romanticism and Tholomyes’ carefree attitude thus takes on the dimensions of a tragedy simply because of how well and minutely their story is described by the author.
Chapter 3 The group spends the day in Saint-Cloud, to the west of Paris. They’re all in a good mood, beaming with youth and beauty. Fantine in particular is splendid-looking, with rosy lips, thick blond hair, an easy laugh, and a dress less revealing than the others’. Fantine is also modest and innocent, trusting perhaps too much in Tholomyes.
Fantine is portrayed as an innocent girl from the country, for whom the mysteries of Paris have not yet been uncovered, and who considers everyone around her as guileless and well-meaning as herself.
Chapter 4 The other girls are open to the kisses of all the boys, but Fantine only has eyes for Tholomyes. After breakfast the party goes to see a newly arrived plant from India at the King’s Square. They return through Issy, a national park, where Tholomyes makes up a song in Spanish. He sings it as he swings the girls on a rope between two trees. Only Fantine is too modest to join in. At times Favourite asks what the surprise is, and Tholomyes tells her to be patient.
The other women are more adept at love affairs—this probably isn’t their first—and understand how such affairs work in Paris. The narrator paints a portrait of the scene that sets up the women against the men, though all seem cheerful and lighthearted, unconcerned with future responsibilities.
Chapter 5 Finally the party goes to Bombarda’s public house, which looks out onto the quay and river. It’s packed with a Sunday crowd, all shouting merrily. The Champs-Elysées and Place de la Concorde are filled with people promenading and some playing games on the grass. The Chief of Police, indeed, had recently advised the king that there is nothing to be feared from Parisians, who are amiable and calm. The narrator, though, notes that Parisians may be frivolous and lazy, but can easily be fired up to fight for a cause they believe in.
In nineteenth-century Paris, Sundays were the one day of rest for much of the working and middle classes, and the narrator’s description helps us understand why the city had a reputation as the capital of leisure in Europe. However, the narrator also foreshadows greater tumult in the same streets that now hold lighthearted, carefree individuals.
Chapter 6 Favourite tells Blancheville that she adores him, and says that if he ceased to love her, she would throw him into the water or have him arrested. He leans back, smiling in pride. Dahlia asks Favourite under her breath if she really loves Blancheville. Favourite says that she detests him, and actually loves an artist who lives in the same house as she, but is very poor. She is sad and lonesome here, she says.
This anecdote helps Hugo show how ultimately disingenuous these couples’ relationships are. They may be having a good time, but there’s a lack of honesty and truth in these affairs—something that can be traced, once again, to economic misery and wretchedness.
Chapter 7 Tholomyes begins to pontificate on all sorts of topics, and the others make fun of him. He cautions the audience against pursuing their passions too much, and recommends moderation (according to his studies in medicine). He gives them a recipe for health—much exercise, little sleep, hard toil, and unappetizing food. Women, he says, are treacherous. Blancheville calls out that Tholomyes is drunk, and he agrees and keeps drinking. He tells the women that error is love, and he idolizes them all—he heaps compliments on each one of the four, saying of Fantine that she is a dreamer of youthful freshness, but that she does not see how he is all illusion.
Tholomyes’ ironic speech is hilarious to the audience because he does exactly the opposite of what he’s supposedly prescribing. He and the others are aware, as Fantine is not, just how much these affairs consist only of smoke and mirrors. Tholomyes cautions Fantine playfully, though perhaps also in earnest, not to put as much faith in him as she does—though his concern for her is not enough to explicitly disabuse her of her illusions.
As Tholomyes takes a breath, Blancheville begins to sing, and Tholomyes proposes a toast to merriness. He calls out to Fantine to embrace him, but makes a mistake and embraces Favourite instead.
Tholomyes’ mistake is emblematic of his generally cavalier attitude towards women.
Chapter 8 Tholomyes, Fameuil, and Listolier start to discuss philosophy, though Tholomyes mainly spews nonsense. At one point, though, a horse dragging a heavy cart down the quay falls and the cart comes to a halt. Tholomyes sings out an ironic mourning song, as Fantine sighs, “Poor horse,” and the others laugh at her. It’s time for the surprise, Tholomyes says, and he tells the women to wait for them.
For Tholomyes and the others, misfortune suffered by unknown people is no more than another way for them to make merry and joke around. The narrator contrasts this attitude with Fantine’s earnest show of compassion, which sets her apart from the other men and women.
Chapter 9 The four young women watch the young men disappear into the Champs-Elysées. They amuse themselves by watching the passers-by, the other women making fun of Fantine, who is awed by the simplest things. Then the waiter from dinner enters, saying he has a letter that the gentlemen had ordered him not to deliver to them for an hour. The letter says that this is the surprise: their parents desire their return, and they must leave. By the time the women read this, they’ll be gone, back to duty and responsibility. They ask the ladies to mourn them quickly and then replace them.
Fantine is once again portrayed as a simple country girl beguiled by the sophistication and mysteries of Paris. Just as Tholomyes and his friends saw Paris as their own, if temporary, playground, it’s now clearer than ever that they perceived the four women as no more than their playthings, to be dismissed when they grow bored or when the demands of real life beckon.
The other three women say that it’s a funny farce, and quite the adventure. They burst out laughing, and while Fantine laughs too, she later weeps: Tholomyes was her first lover, and now she is pregnant with his child.
The other women have understood the men’s intentions all along, but for Fantine, the unequal positions of men and women in such a situation are now both a shock and a catastrophe.