Chapter I: An Upright Man
The story begins with a description of Monseigneur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel, Bishop of Digne. He was born the son of one of the noblesse de robe (part of the French aristocracy) steeped in power and privilege. A handsome and well-liked man, he married at an early age and was expected to inherit his father's position. However, tragedy stuck: the French Revolution destroyed his family's prestige and power, forcing him to flee his home. His wife died while in exile, leaving him childless and alone. One might imagine that these experiences would have made him a hardened man, callous and unfeeling. In fact, it had the opposite effect. He became a priest, devoting himself to justice and the betterment of the poor, conducting himself with humility, kindness, and good humor.
A number of stories are told about Myriel. He earned the bishopric after a chance encounter with Napoleon; Myriel said that he was looking at a great man and Napoleon was looking at a plain one, but they might still both learn something. A few days later, Myriel discovered that he had been awarded the prestigious bishopric of Digne.
He arrived at Digne accompanied by his sister, Mademoiselle Baptistine. She is tall, thin, and illuminated by the goodness of her spirit. They are joined by their servant Madame Magliore, a busy and pragmatic older woman who dotes on the siblings.
The bishop's palace at Digne is a magnificent place; vast gardens, sumptuous dining rooms, and numerous luxurious bedrooms. It is located next to the hospital, a tiny cramped building. After hearing about the suffering at the hospital during epidemics and other times of crisis, Bishop Myriel decides that hospital will be relocated to the bishop's palace while Myriel, his sister, and their servant take up residence in the former hospital.
Bishop Myriel spends the vast majority of his generous bishop's allowance on charitable causes (such as food for hospital patients, maternity societies, and orphanages) setting aside a tiny portion to sustain his sister, Madame Magliore, and himself. When he is offered a stipend to hire a carriage for his journeys, he promptly donates it to charity instead; he causes a great deal of astonishment by riding into a nearby city on a donkey, an unfit vehicle for a man of his high rank. He convinces the wealthy of his region to give more of their substance to the poor though the poverty and need of the region is so dire that this is an ongoing project. He is creative and effective in solving problems among the many districts if his vast bishopric, speaking everyone as his equal.
Nor is he intimidated by the violent or dangerous. He comes to the cell of condemned murderer who is full of rage and sorrow, and utterly lacking in remorse for his crimes. Myriel sits by him all night and speaks to him with the tenderness of a father or brother, helping to come to peace with his life and face death calmly. Myriel is haunted and disgusted by the man's execution by guillotine; he despises laws that require the death penalty.
Moreover, the bishop is a scholarly and learned man. When he is not tending to his people, he studies the Bible in a variety of languages and reads the work of obscure theologians. His only two indulgences are keeping an immaculately clean house and retaining a few items made from silver, including knives, forks, a two beautiful candlesticks that he inherited from a great-aunt. Despite these cherished treasures, Myriel never locks his doors at night; he wants to be available to anyone with need at any time of night.
A truly remarkable incident occurs when Bishop Myriel plans to travel to a remote village to preach; unfortunately, this area is plagued by a group of bandits so savage that they recently robbed a cathedral. Heedless of his own safety, Bishop Myriel tells his concerned parishioners that he trusts himself to God, and departs on this hazardous trip. The bandits do not harm him, and more remarkably, they return the stolen items from the cathedral so that Myriel can conduct religious services.
Despite his goodness, Myriel is not without his flaws. He goes unwillingly to the deathbed of an elderly revolutionary (one who participated in the violent upheaval of the French Revolution) to offer last rites. He debates the man about the harm caused by the revolution; the old revolutionary maintains that this was a necessary gain for the ordinary people of France, who have been oppressed far too long. Myriel never entirely accepts the revolutionary argument, but he does leave this encounter with an even deeper commitment to the poor.
Myriel is a man of a deep and simple faith. He does not care much for the ambition and striving that occupy many bishops, but rather he focuses on loving the people around him.
Chapter II: The Outcast
A ragged stranger appears in the town of Digne. He attempts to find lodging and food at a local inn, but this is impossible - the man's name is Jean Valjean, and he is an ex-convict. No inn will feed or board a man with a criminal record, and news of his status circulates quickly in the small town. In desperation, he knocks on the door of the prison to ask for lodging for the night, but he is told that the only way to get in there is to get arrested again. He begs for a glass of water at a private home, but the man there threatens to shoot him if he does not leave. Valjean can find no food or shelter from the darkness and cold.
He lies down on a park bench. A kindly women offers him a few coins and a suggestion - go to Bishop Myriel's house. He arrives at the house just as Myriel, his sister Baptistine, and their servant Madame Magliore are sitting down to dinner. Madame Magliore is horrified by the appearance of this unkempt stranger; she has heard rumors of a disheveled wanderer in town, and is afraid that he may rob or harm them. Jean Valjean explains his desperate situation, and Myriel invites him in to have dinner with them. Jean Valjean is stunned at the bishop's kindness.
Valjean has recently finished serving nineteen years in prison; five for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephews and nieces and fourteen for a series of escape attempts. His imprisonment has caused him to despise the inequalities in society and to develop a deep dislike towards most people. Even his release does not bring him any joy; once people find out that he is an ex-convict, they do not want to hire him or have anything to do with them.
Bishop Myriel is the great exception. He allows Valjean to stay in his house, offering him a comfortable bed near his own. Valjean waits until the household is asleep, and then goes to the cabinet where the silver items are stored and empties them into his knapsack, sneaking out of the house.
Myriel is unfazed when the theft of the silver and Valjean's sudden disappearance are discovered the next morning. He comments that the silver has gone to benefit a needy source. When Valjean is dragged back to the house by policemen, Myriel publicly describes the theft as a gift; he brings the silver candlesticks to Valjean, admonishing him for forgetting these valuable items. The policemen release the awestruck Valjean. Before sending Valjean on his way, Myriel tells him that he must use these funds to make himself a honest man, for Myriel has bought Valjean's soul from evil and given it to God. Valjean encounters a little boy flipping a coin, and unthinkingly steals the coin from him. The revulsion he experiences at this act shows him that he is a changed man; he feels an enormous amount of guilt, and realizes that he can no longer live a life of crime.
Chapter III: In the Year 1817
The author sets the scene for this chapter by describing the various cultural, social, political, and intellectual events of the year 1817. The true focus, however, is on the life of a young woman named Fantine.
Fantine has grown up in poverty; however, she is a great beauty with golden blond hair and white teeth, and her beauty is enhanced by her purity and gentleness. Still, she cannot remain chaste for long. She has taken up with a young man named Félix Tholomyés, and her friends Dahlia, Favourite, and Zephine date his companions. Tholomyés is a student in Paris, and known for both his rude humor and his dedication to a life of indulgence.
The four young men bring the four young women out for a delightful day in the countryside and a romantic dinner by candlelight. The men hint that they have a surprise for the ladies, but continue to hide it. During the dinner, Tholomyés expounds on his selfish philosophies: he believes that all men should sleep with many women, and women should give up marriage. The men leave the room, saying its time for them to show the women their surprise. A short while passes, and then a letter arrives. The letter says that the men have gone back to their parents to assume their fortune, and they won't ever see the girls again. Dahlia, Zephine, and Favourite chuckle at this cruel but witty prank. However, Fantine is devastated: she has given birth to Tholomyés' child, an infant of about one year old.
Chapter IV: To Trust is Sometimes to Surrender
Two children play on the wreckage of a war machine left over from the battle of Waterloo while their mother (a strong, sturdy woman) watches over them. A ragged woman approaches; it is Fantine, recognizable by her blonde hair and white teeth, carrying her infant daughter. After being abandoned by Tholomyés, Fantine has fallen on hard times. She cannot find work, and she has been forced to sell all of her fine possessions to pay off her debts. She has decided to leave Paris and return to her home village, but she cannot take her daughter with her. She will have no chance of finding a good job if it becomes common knowledge that she has an illegitimate daughter.
Her little daughter Cosette goes to play with the other two little girls. Watching them together, Fantine hesitantly asks the woman if she would be willing to watch her daughter for a while. Fantine is hopeful that her daughter will be treated as well as these happy, clean children, and she offers to pay the woman a small fee every month for this service. The woman, who is called Madame Thénardier, consults with her husband and they ask Fantine for a higher sum, which she desperately accepts.
As Fantine departs, Madame and Monsier Thénardier congratulate themselves on what a clever trap they had set. The Thénardiers are grasping and selfish people, not quite criminals, but certainly apt to cheat people and to act in a cowardly manner. They do, however, dote on their daughters, who are named Éponine and Azelma.
The Thénardiers value Cosette solely as a source of income and a servant. Despite her very young age (she is not yet five), they force her to perform most of the household chores. The people of the village often see her early in the morning, sweeping the ground in front of the house. The Thénardiers extort ever more money from Fantine, especially when they discover that Cosette is an illegitimate child. So the little girl grows up, deprived of love, given only enough to food and clothing to sustain her life.
It may seem peculiar to devote the first seventy pages of the novel to the characterization of a relatively minor character (Myriel only appears in these chapters), but the kindhearted bishop offers the model for goodness that will shape the rest of the narrative.
The author uses a series of anecdotes to develop Myriel's character. The reader is left with an unforgettable image of selflessness, kindness, good humor, and generosity. Still, Myriel is no caricature; he acts coldly towards the dying revolutionary, perhaps because this man participated in the violent uprising that destroyed Myriel's family and caused thousands of deaths in France.
Valjean is an example of the many lives that are stifled by poverty. It is difficult to condemn his original crime (the theft of bread to feed his sister's children); it is also hard to blame him for the anger he feels about his harsh punishment for this minor infraction. He has lost nineteen years of his life for this small theft and escape attempts fed by desperation. By the time he is released, most of his life has passed him by. Even after meeting Bishop Myriel, Valjean's choice to lead a life of goodness is not an easy one. He has plenty of reasons to hate society and to make his living in a criminal way.
The novel emphasizes Fantine's innocence and goodness, despite her indulgence in extramarital sex. She becomes a victim of sexism and classism; she loves Tholomyés deeply, but he views her as disposable due to her lack of social standing. She has absolutely no recourse to make him take responsibility for their infant daughter. Because of the terrible stigma against unmarried motherhood, she can only earn a living for herself and her daughter by doing the unthinkable: leaving her daughter with strangers.
Through the life stories of Fantine and Valjean, author Victor Hugo offers a powerful critique society that allows people to fall through the cracks, where their only option is to turn to a life of crime for survival. Think of Valjean's social exclusion due to his status as an ex-convict, and Fantine's struggles to support herself in an honest manner. Yet it's also possible, despite these social forces, to choose a life of goodness and charity.