Chapter 1 This section opens in Montfermeil, near Paris, at an inn kept by the Thenardier couple. Over the door is nailed a painting of a man carrying another on his back in front of a battle scene, with the inscription “At the Sign of Sergeant of Waterloo.” In front of the store, a fore-carriage of a massive, misshapen truck used to transport wooden planks is sunken into the ground and rusting away. There’s a rusted looped chain hanging from the truck, and on one evening in spring 1818 two small girls are playing and swinging in it. Their gaiety contrasts sharply with the foreboding dark truck above them. Their mother watches them carefully from a distance. Suddenly another woman carrying a baby and a carpet-bag approaches the mother to compliment her children. This woman’s child is beautiful, though the mother looks stricken by poverty.
Though Hugo seems at times to be obsessed with small details, many of them—including this description of the Waterloo portrait—will turn out to be significant aspects of the plot later on. Notice the contrast set up between the light gaiety of the children and the dark, menacing truck. Their happiness is also juxtaposed against an atmosphere that seems hardly inviting for families or children. This woman and her children then create yet another contrast with another mother-child pair, this one inhabiting true poverty rather than merely a run-down neighborhood.
It is Fantine—still beautiful despite her wretchedness. In the months after Tholomyes had left, Fantine had lost her girl friends and struggled to survive with a child, herself barely knowing how to read and write. People gossiped around her, and finally she decided to return to her native town of M.-sur-M. to work, though it would be necessary to conceal her sin. She sold all she had. Meanwhile, Tholomyes was on his way to becoming a wealthy, severe provincial lawyer.
The narrator has omitted the months between Tholomyes’ betrayal and now, which makes it all the more evident to what depths Fantine has fallen because of her one mistake as an overly trusting and compassionate woman in Parisian society—a mistake that men in this society clearly don’t have to worry about.
Fantine had stopped before the vision of the two swinging girls and noticed how happy they seemed. The women begin to talk: Madame Thenardier, the other woman, is thin, angular, and masculine with a bit of a beard. Fantine says that her husband is dead and work in Paris had failed her, so she’s come to find work here. She sends her daughter, Cosette (a nickname from Euphrasie, her given name), to play with the other girls. Madame Thenardier remarks that they seem like sisters, which gives Fantine the confidence to ask if she’ll keep her daughter for six francs a month. From the inn, a man calls out that it will have to be seven, with six months paid out in advance. Fantine agrees, saying that she will soon return for her daughter.
Watching the two young Thenardier girls, Fantine is able to imagine a better future for her daughter, one free from the misery and judgment to which she is constantly subjected. Madame Thenardier initially seems nice enough, able to find common ground with Fantine through motherhood. But the voice of Thenardier, the husband, sets the stage for what we’ll come to expect from this character, who’s always attempting to wring a few extra bills out of someone and would rather cheat than work honestly.
After a night spent at the inn, Fantine leaves in the morning, weeping. Thenardier (the husband) congratulates his wife, saying that he lacked money to pay his debts, so this advance worked out well.
Just as in the relationship between Fantine and Tholomyes, here Fantine’s sincere emotion jars against the casual, miserly perspective of Thenardier.
Chapter Two The Thenardiers, says the narrator, belong to the class of coarse but successful people, as well as others between “middle” and “inferior” classes, but with all the vices of both. Thenardier, the husband, has a particularly distrustful look about him. Madame Thenardier, for her part, loves reading tasteless romances, and named her children, Eponine and Azelma, after characters in them. However, the narrator notes that it is a result of the Revolution and ideals of equality that plebeians can now take on the names of great men.
Here the narrator doesn’t refrain from some judgment of his own, in situating the Thenardiers at a quite specific place within the economic and social hierarchy. In every characteristic the couple is described as tasteless, petty, and of questionable morality. Madame’s love of dime-novel romances suggests that she lacks a true understanding of love and compassion.
Chapter The Thenardiers promptly use all Fantine’s money to pay off their debts, and then begin to consider Cosette as a charity case. After a year, Thenardier writes to demand 12 francs a month, assuring Fantine that the child is happy and well. While Madame loves her two children, she hates Cosette and is vicious towards her, and the two girls copy her. In town, people admire the Thenardiers for bringing up a poor child whom they believe was abandoned. Soon Thenardier realizes that the child is probably a bastard, and demands 15 francs a month.
The Thenardiers couldn’t be different from the Bishop of D---, who is both genuinely compassionate and charitable, and takes care not to spread word about his good deeds around town. This couple benefits from social admiration as they wring ever more money out of Fantine, even taking advantage of her vulnerability as a single mother in order to extract a greater income.
At merely five years old, Cosette becomes the servant of the house and is made to clean the home and run all sorts of errands. She grows ugly because of misery, only retaining her beautiful eyes. The neighborhood calls her a “lark,” though she never sings. She is a small, shivering creature who is always awake and about before anyone else.
Often in the novel beauty is linked to goodness and ugliness to moral strife. Here it’s not Cosette’s own character that’s in question, but the ugliness that stems from the way she’s treated by the Thenardiers.