Les Miserables

Les Miserables Summary and Analysis of Part One: Fantine (Chapters V - VIII)

Chapter V: Degradation

A mysterious stranger arrives in the town of Montreuil-sur-mer. With a small amount of capital and a few changes to production, he revolutionizes the local industry of glass bead-making, making a fortune for himself. He donates the majority of his money to charity, establishing hospitals and schools. His first night in the village, he rushed into a burning building to save two children, who turned out to be the sons of the police chief, so no one asks for his identity papers. He calls himself Pere Madeleine, but he was previously known as Jean Valjean.

He dedicates himself to charity and justice, providing jobs to the poor and donating money to the needy throughout the district. He is offered a position as mayor due to his great wealth and service, and accepts when an elderly woman reminds him of all the good he can do with such a position.

Not everyone accepts him. He is dogged by Javert, a police officers who thinks Valjean is not exactly who he seems to be. Javert, who was born in a prison, has a rigid sense of justice. He does not believe that people are truly capable of reform. He is not quite certain that he recognizes Valjean (who has skirted the law by hiding his identity as an ex-convict), but he watched him closely. One day, an elderly man named Fauchelevent is trapped when his horse carriage overturns, and Monsieur Madeleine rushes in to rescue him. Javert calmly remarks that in his whole life he has seen only one personal that the strength necessary to lift a cart; this man was a convict in the prison at Toulon(?). Monsieur Madeleine turns pale, but rushes in and saved the man anyway. Javert becomes more certain of the wealthy mayor's true identity.

Meanwhile, Fantine returns to town and acquires a job at a factory owned by Monsieur Madeleine, sending much of her paycheck to the Thénardiers for the care of Cosette. However, a nasty older women decides to figure out where Fantine is sending her money, and uncovers Fantine's illegitimate daughter Cosette. This discovery prompts the Thénardiers to raise the cost of caring for Cosette, and also results in Fantine getting fired from her factory job. Fantine takes a job mending shirts, making a tiny amount of money; she is forced to sell all her furniture, and barely eats and sleeps. The Thénardiers demand money to buy medicine for Cosette, and Fantine sells her long blonde hair to provide it (the Thénardiers spend it on other things). In order to meet the increasing demands of the Thenardiers, Fantine sells several of her teeth - they are ripped out of her head by a traveling dentist, to be made into dentures.

When the Thenardiers demand one hundred francs for the care of Cosette, Fantine resorts to prostitution. She suffers terribly in this profession. One night on her rounds, a rude young man shoves snow down her low cut dress. Fantine launches herself at him, scratching his face and screaming. Javert appears just in time to witness this - a prostitute assaulting a citizen - and he drags her back to the police station. She begs for mercy, trying to explain her situation and her need to provide a life for her little daughter. Javert is unmoved, and sentences her to six months in prison. Fantine weeps despairingly.

At this moment, Monsieur Madeleine walks in the door. Fantine, in complete despair and confusion, blames him for her present predicament and spits in his face. Madeleine calmly wipes off her spit, and tells the stunned Javert that she is to go free. Javert protests that she has committed an awful crime, but Madeleine uses his power as mayor to overrule him. Fantine, amazed, blurts out her life story to Monsieur Madeleine; he tells her that he will provide her with a living stipend and reunite her with her daughter. Overwhelmed, Fantine faints.

Chapter VI: Javert

Fantine is moved to the infirmary; she has developed a terrible cough from the snowball incident, and she is running a high fever. A gentle nun named Sister Simplice looks after her lovingly, and Monsieur Madeleine checks on her regularly. He sends great sums of money to the Thenardiers, asking them to use it to bring Cosette to her mother. However, they merely pocket it and ask for more, reluctant to give up a child who is bringing in so money.

The next day, Javert confronts Madeleine, offering his resignation. Javert explains that he has informed the authorities that Monsieur madeleine is the ex-convict Jean Valjean in disguise; however, Javert was told that Valjean was recently arrested in the town of Arras. Javert is disgusted with his mistake, and has decided that he will resign from the police force. Madeleine (who, as the reader knows, is truly Jean Valjean) is stunned at this knowledge, as asks more about the recent arrest. Javert explains that a man named Champmathieu was arrested for stealing apples, which is a minor crime in itself. However, Champmathieu bears a strong physical resemblance to Jean Valjean, they are the same age and from the same hometown, and share similar names (Valjean's mother's maiden name was Mathieu). One police officer has testified that Champmathieu is actually Valjean. Having informed Monsieur Madeleine of the situation, Javert steps out.

Chapter VII: The Champmathieu Affair

Madeleine/Valjean is caught in a terrible conundrum. If Champmathieu is an ex-convict, he will receive a heavier prison sentence for his theft, in addition to the punishment he faces for skipping out on parole - Valjean has mysteriously disappeared from the authorities. Monsieur Madeleine, the true Valjean, is caught in a conundrum. On one hand, he has reformed his life, becoming a respected member of society and renouncing all criminal activity. Champmathieu, on the other hand, did commit the crime of stealing apples.

However, if Valjean is silent, an innocent man will be condemned to imprisonment. Valjean/Madeleine does not want to return to the nightmare of imprisonment, but he does not want someone else to be forced to suffer in his place. Valjean paces and ponders until late in the night. He also knows that if he turns himself in, all the prosperity and charity he has created in the region will come to an end, and poor Fantine will never be reunited with her daughter. But he cannot live with himself if all these good things are built on the condemnation of an innocent man. Desperate to hide his true identity as Valjean, he throws Bishop Myriel's candlesticks into the fire, but a mysterious voice urges him to do what he knows is right.

After a short sleep plagued by uneasy dreams, Valjean boards a carriage that will take him to Arras and the trial of Champmathieu. Valjean is relived when an axle in his carriage breaks - maybe this is God telling him he doesn't have to turn himself in, maybe this is a sign that he can remain free. This hope is dashed when a young boy arrives to tell him that another carriage is available.

Back in Montreuil-sur-mer, Fantine's fever worsens, and she calls out for Monsieur Madeleine and her child. Sister Simplice tells her that Monsieur Madeleine has gone out of town; Fantine becomes calmer, assuming that he is going to find her daughter.

Monsieur Madeleine arrives rather late to the town of Arras. Despite his hopes that he has missed the trial of Champmathieu, he arrives in the courthouse to discover that it is still in progress. Monsieur Madeleine is struck by the surreal sight: Champmathieu does look exactly like him, and the scene in the courtroom is the perfect mirror of the one that Madeleine/Valjean faced so many years ago. Champmathieu tries in vain to argue his innocence, but his rough speech and confusion does not win him the sympathy of the jury. Witnesses are brought in: fellow prisoners testify that this is truly Jean Valjean, a dangerous repeat offender.

Just as the judge is about to pronounce a sentence, Madeleine/Valjean stands up and proclaims his true identity - he is the ex-convict Jean Valjean. The judge immediately asks if there is a doctor present to escort the esteemed mayor home, since he seems to be in a state of confusion. But Valjean argues his case persuasively, identifying details about his fellow prisoners (scars and tattoos) that only one of their intimates would know. The court is completely stunned, and no one stops Valjean as he walks out of the courtroom. Champmathieu is acquitted and released.

Chapter VIII: Counter-Stroke

Upon his return to Montreuil-sur-mer, Jean Valjean goes to the hospital to visit Fantine and discovers that his hair has turned completely white. He also learns that Fantine is extremely ill, and remains alive only out of the anticipation of seeing her daughter. Fantine wakes briefly from a fevered sleep to ask about her daughter; Valjean lies to her, saying that Cosette is here and Fantine must regain her strength a bit before she is allowed to see her. Fantine rhapsodizes to Valjean about the joy of her upcoming reunion with her daughter, until they are surprised by the sudden appearance of Javert.

Javert has been ordered to take Monsieur Madeleine (the true Jean Valjean) into police custody. Javert feels that he has been vindicated, and doing a noble act by stamping out crime. Jean Valjean begs Javert to give him three days to retrieve Fantine's child, after which he will submit willingly to arrest. Fantine cries out in protest when Javert refuses this, and Javert snaps at her, explaining that Monsieur Madeleine is really a convict. Fantine dies from the shock of this revelation.

Javert takes Valjean to the local prison. However, that very night, Valjean's servant is stunned by his sudden appearance in his former home. He explains that he has broken out of prison, and asks the servant to fetch Sister Simplice, the nun who had cared for Fantine. Valjean gives her a note explaining that he has set funds aside for the burial of Fantine.

Javert comes up the stairs, puzzled at the light in Valjean's old room. Valjean conceals himself, and Sister Simplice confronts the police officer. Javert asks her if she has seen an escaped prisoner, a man named Jean Valjean. Sister Simplice (who has never told a lie in her life, no matter how dire the situation) says she is alone in the room and has not seen Valjean. Javert accepts this and disappears, and Valjean sets off through the woods.


During his new life in Montreuil-sur-mer, Valjean adopts the name of a famous penitent: Mary Magdalene, long believed to have been a prostitute redeemed by Jesus. Mary Magdalene was said to have abandoned her sinful life to become one of Jesus' most loyal followers. In the same way, Valjean sets aside his past life as an ex-convict to become a respected businessman who spreads charity everywhere. Still, this new life would not have been possible without a chance accident (Valjean's rescue of the police chief's children) and his continuous obscuration of his true identity.

Valjean must make a decision between hiding his identity and preserving his new virtuous life when he learns that the man Champmathieu has been mistaken for himself; Champmathieu may well go to prison because the authorities think that he is Valjean. Valjean agonizes over his decision for a long time. Not all of his reasons for wishing to keep quiet are selfish - he is afraid that Montreuil-sur-mer will fall back into poverty in his absence. He eventually does testify for Champmathieu, though he continually hopes that he will be prevented by chance from doing this thing that he does not wish to do.

Fantine embodies the horrible effects of poverty. Over the course of her story, Fantine gradually loses everything she holds dear: her Parisian life, her lover, her daughter, her beautiful teeth and hair, her dignity, her life. Author Victor Hugo frames Fantine's choice to enter prostitution as a negative thing, but emphasizes that the true fault lies with a society that deprives women of honest employment; Hugo maintains that prostitution is the product of poverty and capitalism.

This section also introduces the reader to the character of Javert, the primary antagonist of the book. Les Misérables is concerned with the development of the human soul, but this divine ascension may not always have a great deal in common with earthly success, or even society's ideas of justice. Javert is a paragon of justice, but he is unsympathetic; he has no sense of mercy, indicating by his quickness to punish Fantine despite her need to provide for her daughter. He is nearly a caricature, so fixated is he on unrealistic notions of right and wrong.