Chapter 1 Meanwhile, Fantine has returned to M.-sur-M., which, while she’d been away, had grown from wretched to prosperous. In 1815 a stranger had come to town and had been inspired to make certain substitutions in the manufacture of “black goods” or trinkets. This allowed prices of raw materials to go down and profits to go up. In three years, the inventor had become rich and had created wealth all around him. Little is known about his origins, but the day he arrived in town, there was a great fire in the town hall, and he had rushed into the flames to save two children, so no one had thought to ask for his passport. He is called Father Madeleine.
As usual in Hugo, sections often begin with strangers entering or leaving and fortuitous chance serving as a lynchpin to the plot. Hugo isn’t necessarily against wealth—only greed, even if one is often accompanied by the other. Here economic prosperity is considered to be something positive, which in certain circumstances allows others to rise out of poverty and create a life of dignity for themselves, here due to one particularly prosperous individual.
Chapter 2 By the end of his second year, Madeleine builds a large factory that can employ many who are hungry and poor. He separates the workrooms by sex to promote good morals and tolerance. Now almost no one is desperately poor. He only asks that each person be honest. Madeleine has spent over a million francs on the town and its poor, though he keeps 630,000 in a bank. At first, people are skeptical, even though he regularly attends church. In 1919 he’s appointed mayor by the king, but he refuses, and then also refuses a Legion of Honor. Then the gossips say that he must be ignorant, without education, or else ambitious, or else an adventurer. Nevertheless, he slowly gains the admiration of the town, and when he again refuses the mayoralty in 1820, everyone begs him to accept, which he finally does.
Just as many residents of D--- had refused to embrace the Bishop as a truly good man, inhabitants of this time are similarly skeptical of apparent goodness, assuming that there must be something self-serving in Madeleine’s charity. His refusal of accolades helps ease the judgmental tendency of many residents. But pay attention to the narrator’s comment that Madeleine stresses good morals and honesty among his workers: a little later on we’ll see how even such apparently immaculate requirements can backfire in the complex morality of social life.
Chapter 3 Madeleine remains simple and largely in solitude, enjoying spending time alone reading. He’s known to be extraordinarily strong. He always goes out on walks with pockets filled with money, and returns with nothing. He does know a number of useful country tricks, like how to exterminate growths from a field or make medicine from plants. He is often completing good actions discreetly, so no one knows. But people whisper that he has millions deposited at the Laffitte bank, though in reality it’s the 630,000 already mentioned.
Once again the narrator attempts to create a kind of “physiognomy” of a character, taking apart his various characteristics in order to better understand how he ticks. Madeleine seems to be a mix of urbane, sophisticated businessman and strong country stalwart. This combination confuses and intrigues many of the inhabitants of the town.
Chapter 4 In 1820, M. Myriel, Bishop of D---, dies at age 82, having been blind for several years, though happily accompanied by his sister and servant. This kind of love, the narrator says, means he did not lack anything. The day after the announcement of his death, Madeleine begins to wear only mourning clothes. People conclude that he had some sort of relationship with the Bishop, but he says only that he was a servant in the family as a young boy. It’s also noticed that every time Madeleine sees a young Savoyard boy wandering in the town, he asks for his name and gives him money.
The narrator begins to give the reader hints as to Madeleine’s true identity. This won’t be the last time that characters wear disguises and conceal their names and pasts—actions that recall the question of whether redemption is possible for characters in the novel. The Bishop’s death also underlines the way he led his life. In Les Misérables, characters often receive the deaths the narrator believes they deserve due to their life choices.
Chapter 5 Slowly the townspeople lose their skepticism about Madeleine. One person, however, is instinctively against him—a policeman named Javert who watches him as though he knew him. Javert is tall, with a heavy cane and hat, and has the authoritative air of a policeman. He had been born in prison to a fortune-teller. He decided that society excludes only those who attack it and those who guard it, so he became a policeman. He has a flat nose, large jaw, and permanent frown between his eyes. He loves authority and hates rebellion, scorning all who had ever committed a legal wrong. He would have arrested his own father if necessary, and without remorse.
This is another instance of a “physiognomic” description of a character, in which physical traits and personality characteristics meld into a unified picture of a certain person’s inner self. Though Javert has an obsession with authority, the narrator makes it clear that he is not too distant from the underworld of prison and poverty, given his own background—suggesting that obsessive authority and criminal rebellion may have something in common with each other.
Chapter 6 One morning Madeleine is passing through M.-sur-M. when an old man, Father Fauchelevent, falls beneath his cart, his horse having fallen. Fauchelevent had lost his business just as Madeleine’s was growing, and thus he tried to hurt Madeleine at any chance he could. Now, the man is caught in the wheels, which rest on his chest. The only way to get it off is to lift up the vehicle. When someone tells Madeleine that it will take 15 minutes to fetch a jack-screw, he begins to name prices—10, 20 louis—for someone to lift the cart with his back. No one answers, and Javert, who has just arrived, say that it’s not for lack of will but for lack of strength.
Chapter 6 sets up a scene of an ethical challenge for Madeleine, whose supposed enemy now finds himself in a place of vulnerability. For the others who begin to gather around the cart, the question is less one of moral integrity than of physical capacity. We recall how one of Madeleine’s apparent qualities is great strength, and this helps to fill in the gaps as to why the narrator lingers over this particular event.
Javert says he only knew one man, a convict in the galleys, who was strong enough to lift such a thing. Madeleine turns pale, but at that moment Fauchelevent yells that he is being strangled. Madeleine smiles sadly, darts under the cart, and slowly lifts the cart, quickly joined by twenty others and saving Fauchelevent. In the joy that follows, Javert stands still, staring at Madeleine.
It should by now be clear to the reader that Madeleine is in fact Jean Valjean. The ethical quandary is even greater than it first appeared, in that Madeleine can only save one person by risking the exposure of his own carefully concealed identity.
Chapter 7 Madeleine takes Fauchelevent to the hospital. The next morning, Fauchelevent finds a 1,000-franc note, on which Madeleine has written that he’s purchased his cart (broken) and horse (dead).
Madeleine’s goodness extends to the aftermath of the accident, since Fauchelevent will remain wounded and is unable to be a very effective manual laborer.
Soon afterwards, Madeleine is appointed mayor, and Javert begins to avoid him as much as possible. Meanwhile, the tax collection begins to increase exponentially—the sign of a prosperous place. When Fantine returns, she’s admitted to the women’s workroom and begins to earn her living.
The narrator notes tax collection rates at various points, suggesting that adherence to the law is eased and facilitated when people don’t have to worry about their every meal.
Chapter 8 The ability to earn her keep makes Fantine enormously happy, and she thinks only of Cosette and their future. She writes often, which leads the other women to gossip about her, as people are wont to do. Finally, a certain Madame Victurnien travels to Montfermeil to talk to the Thenardiers, having seen the address on Fantine’s letters. She returns and tells everyone about Fantine’s illegitimate child. Not long after, the workroom superintendent tells Fantine that she is no longer employed and asks her, in the mayor’s name, to leave the neighborhood. But she’s in debt for her rent and furniture, and doesn’t dare visit the mayor herself. In addition, the Thenardiers have just increased their demands to 15 francs a month.
Fantine finally seems to have achieved a certain level of stability—redeeming herself for her past actions, and ensuring the wellbeing of her daughter. But as is often the case for characters throughout the book, Fantine continues to be haunted by her past. Madeleine had decreed strict morals in the workroom, but the harsh judgment of Madame Victurnien and of the superintendent means that this well-intentioned rule now backfires.
Chapter 9 Madeleine had heard nothing of this, for he relies wholly on the superintendent of the women’s workroom. No one in the neighborhood will hire Fantine as a servant, and her furniture dealer says that if she leaves he’ll have her arrested as a thief. She begins to sew soldiers’ shirts, but barely makes anything, and begins to pay the Thenardiers irregularly. She learns to live on increasing privations, sleeping and eating little. Seeing her passing, Madame Victurnien sometimes congratulates herself on having put Fantine back “in her place.” Fantine’s small cough grows worse, and her only small joy is to comb her still-beautiful hair each morning.
Madeleine either forgets or would rather not believe in the judgmental character of so many others. Within his successful, prosperous town, Fantine is an anomaly, but the narrator’s acute, detailed descriptions make it impossible to consider her as an insignificant casualty of this success instead of as a tragedy of great proportions. The narrator balances this with an acknowledgement of personal weaknesses and human idiosyncrasies, like Fantine’s love of her hair.
Chapter 10 In winter, lack of light means that Fantine earns too little. She has her hair cut off for 10 francs to buy a petticoat to send to Cosette. The Thenardiers, who wanted money, are furious and give it to Eponine, while Cosette continues to shiver. Fantine grows bitter and begins to despise the mayor. She takes a lover who abuses her, and sinks lower and lower. One day the Thenardiers say that Cosette is ill with military fever, and they need 40 francs to pay the doctor so she won’t die. Fantine laughs wildly, but as she crosses the town square, a tooth-puller approaches her and says he’ll give her two gold napoleons for her two front teeth. After thinking hard and asking her sewing partner about military fever, she heads back out that night to have the two teeth pulled. Of course, Cosette’s fever was all a ruse by the Thenardiers.
The one source of material pleasure for Fantine is now taken away, and though she grows happy at the thought of how Cosette will benefit from the earnings, she cannot know that her misery doesn’t even help counteract her daughter’s plight. Hugo shows how for the poor and vulnerable, a series of minor misfortunes and necessities can pile up. Fantine’s desperation quickly grows wildly out of proportion to her and her daughter’s true needs, but because of the Thenardiers’ conniving schemes, she cannot know this.
Fantine works 17 hours a day for nearly nothing. She feels hunted, and finally, when Thenardier asks for 100 francs at once or else he’ll throw Cosette out, she becomes a prostitute.
By tracing Fantine’s path to prostitution in excruciating detail, Hugo again makes the case for sympathy on behalf of society’s outcasts.
Chapter 11 The narrator says that Fantine’s story is one of society purchasing a slave: prostitution pits man’s disgrace against woman’s grace and beauty. Fantine has become deaf and cold to feeling, resigned to her fate, though she doesn’t realize there are always new depths to sink to.
Hugo was a man of his time, and this passage reads as pigeonholing men and women into separate spheres and norms, but his defense of women in desperate situations is also powerful.
Chapter 12 It’s January 1823 and a man named M. Bamatabois is amusing himself by following Fantine up the street, making fun of her ugliness and heaping insults on her. Finally, he picks up a handful of snow and throws it into her bare shoulders. She yells and buries her nails in his face, swearing and cursing at him. Javert notices the scuffle, and takes Fantine away, as the dandy escapes.
The book’s portrayal of the unequal fates of men and women continues in another example, as a woman is forced to deal with the consequences of something for which a man was at blame, while the man himself is able to escape without a blemish on his character.
Chapter 13 Upon arriving at the station, Fantine crouches down like a frightened dog. It’s a rare occasion for Javert to seem troubled by the kind of judgment he should impose, but ultimately he tells the other policemen to bring the woman to jail for six months. She grows desperate and frantic, saying that she must send money for her daughter. She begs for his mercy, saying that she is not to blame. She begins spewing frantic phrases about the Thenardiers and her need to make money, finally growing silent and sobbing. Javert simply says that she will get six months, and that’s the end of it.
Even Javert, who is always so singleminded in his pursuit of legal justice, wavers as he witnesses the obvious desperation and vulnerability of the woman he’s arrested. However, his embrace of authority ultimately prevails, and once he does decide on a sentence that he believes to be fair and just, he is deaf to any emotional appeals or to contextual explanations about Fantine’s situation.
As the soldiers drag Fantine back up, the mayor—having slipped in without anyone’s notice—asks for a moment. Fantine laughs hysterically and spits in his face. Wiping it off, Madeleine tells Javert to set the woman free. Javert feels like he is going mad, and Fantine is similarly shocked and bewildered, spewing forth another diatribe about how the mayor was the one who unfairly dismissed her and forced her to become a bad woman. Suddenly, she seems to realize that she is free to go, and she stands up, no longer weeping, and puts her hand on the door latch. This stuns Javert protesting that it cannot be, since the woman has insulted a citizen. Madeleine explains that he had been in the square, and had seen what happened. Javert continues to insist that she serve six months, but Madeleine orders him to obey. Finally, after continued protests, Madeleine tells Javert to leave the room. Fantine feels a strange confusion, failing to understand how the mayor had saved her after she insulted him.
Fantine’s action is a physical manifestation of her descent from an innocent, kindhearted country girl to a frantic and desperate woman. She’s fixated on Madeleine as the source of her misfortunes, just as Jean Valjean—for good reasons as well—fixated on society as the root of his troubles and became hostile and bitter as a result. This scene, indeed, recalls in many ways the scene of the gendarmes returning to the Bishop’s house with Valjean, bearing the silver candlesticks, and the Bishop’s offer of mercy and forgiveness. Fantine is similarly bewildered. Javert’s astonishment takes a different angle, as his own understanding of justice and injustice clashes with Madeleine’s act of mercy.
Madeleine tells her he did not know that she had been dismissed. He says he will pay her debts and send for her child. If she is telling the truth, he says, she has never ceased to be virtuous. Fantine can only exclaim, “Oh!” and then she faints.
In this case, Madeleine’s forgiveness and compassion towards Fantine is so great, and so unexpected, that her conscious mind literally fails to process it.