Fantine: Summary and Analysis

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4000

The Fall - Summary
New Characters:
Jean Valjean: the main character

Illustration of PDF document

Download Les Misérables Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Jacquin Labarre: host of the inn

Madame la Marquise de R——: the woman in the square

Madame Magliore: the bishop’s servant

Mademoiselle Magliore: the bishop’s sister

Maubert Isabeau: the baker of Faverolles

Petit Gervais: a street musician from Savoy

One evening a weary traveler enters the small town of D—— in a western region of France near the French Alps. His clothes are ragged and torn, and he is exhausted from walking all day. The time is October 1815. He stops briefly at the mayor’s office and then searches for shelter for the night.

He visits an inn called Le Croix de Colbos where the host, Jacques Labarre, offers him dinner and lodging. Labarre writes a note on a scrap of paper and sends a child out of the inn with it. When the child returns with a reply, the innkeeper abruptly refuses service. The stranger protests until the innkeeper identifies him as Jean Valjean and indicates that he knows who he is.

Valjean next seeks shelter in a tavern, in the local prison, and in the home of a young couple. Turned away by all, he finally crawls into a hut only to discover that it is a dog house. Despondent, he wanders out of town and into a field. The barrenness of the countryside, the contours of a twisted tree, and gloomy light images reflect the hopelessness of his situation.

Returning to town, he finds a stone bench in Cathedral square and lies down. An old woman, Madame la Marquise de R——, comes out of the church. She gives him four sous and advises him to knock on the door of the bishop.

The Bishop of D——, his servant, Madame Magliore, and his sister, Mademoiselle Baptistine, are preparing for the evening meal. The women discuss the necessity of calling the locksmith to put bolts on the door. Madame Magliore has heard talk in town of the arrival of a vagabond and they are afraid. Before the discussion ends, there is a knock on the door and the bishop says, “Come in!”

Jean Valjean enters and immediately confesses that he is a convict who was released from prison four days ago after serving 19 years — five for burglary and 14 for four failed escape attempts. He has walked 12 leagues (a league is equal to three miles) from Toulon and is going to Pontarlier. He tells them that his yellow passport, which he is obligated to present to the mayor’s office, identifies him as a convict and prevents him from finding shelter.

Valjean is astonished when the bishop not only offers him dinner and a place to sleep but also shows him respect by calling him monsieur. The bishop tells him, “This is not my house; it is the house of Christ.” Madame Magliore places two silver candlesticks on the table and serves supper, which Valjean eats ravenously.

After dinner, the bishop takes one of the silver candlesticks from the table. He hands the other to his guest and leads him to an alcove behind his own chamber where Jean Valjean falls into a deep sleep.

Awaking in the middle of the night, Valjean reflects on his past. Born in Brie, France, both of his parents died when he was young. His father, also named Jean Valjean, was a pruner who died after falling from a tree, and his mother, Jeanne Mathieu, died from milkfever. Raised by his older sister, Jean was just 25 when she became a widow. Thereafter, he supported her and her seven children.

Unable to read, Jean too became a pruner in the town of Faverolles. He earned 18 sous a day during the pruning season. The rest of the year he worked in a variety of other jobs. During the harsh winter of 1795 he could find no work and the family had no food. In desperation, he smashed the window of the local bakery and stole a loaf of bread. The baker, Maubert Isabeau, pursued and caught him. He was tried and sentenced to five years in the galleys.

On April 22, 1796, the same day Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory at Montenotte was announced in Paris, Jean Valjean became part of a chain gang. While the iron collar was being riveted around his neck, he wept and raised his hand seven times as if he were touching the heads of his nieces and nephews.

After a 27-day journey, he arrived at the galleys in Toulon, where he was given the clothes of a convict. His past, including his name, was erased, and he was known thereafter as Number 24601.

The fourth year he escaped, but he was captured the following day and given an additional three years. He escaped again the sixth year, and because he resisted when he was caught, five years were added to his sentence. Escape attempts in the tenth and sixteenth years each added three more years. Having served 19 years, he was finally released in October of 1815.

Jean’s ecstasy over his freedom was soon squashed when he realized that his yellow passport made him a marked man. The day after his release, he worked at a flower distillery unloading bags. While he was working, he was obliged to show a gendarme (policeman) his yellow passport. Later, the foreman, who paid the other workers 30 sous per day, gave Jean only 15 because his yellow passport.

“Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave the galleys behind, but not his condemnation.”

Unaccustomed to the softness of a bed, Jean awakens at 2 a.m. He thinks of the six silver plates and the ladle that were on the dinner table and struggles with his conscience. At three o’clock, he rises, picks up his knapsack, and opens the window to observe the garden below. From his sack he removes a miner’s drill, a solid iron instrument with a pointed end that he used to quarry stone when he was a convict. Holding the drill, he moves silently to the bishop’s unlatched door.

Cautiously, he pushes the bishop’s door. A rusty hinge creaks but awakens no one. He reaches the bishop’s bed just as a ray of moonlight illuminates the bishop’s peaceful expression. Jean, still wrestling with his conscience, is terrified by his radiance. Though he hovers momentarily “between two realms, that of the doomed and that of the saved,” he steals the bishop’s silver and escapes over the garden wall.

The following morning three gendarmes return Jean and the silver to the bishop who informs them that the silver belongs to Jean. The bishop tells Jean to take the silver with him and counsels him to be good.

Leaving the city, Jean encounters a young musician from Savoy who entertains with a hurdy-gurdy and a marmot. Though Petit Gervais protests and even cries, Jean takes a 40-sous piece from him. Later, Jean tries to find the boy. Overwhelmed by guilt and thoughts of the bishop, he weeps. No one knows where Jean goes that night, but at 3 a.m. the stage-driver observes a man kneeling and praying in front of the bishop’s door.

To Entrust is Sometimes to Abandon - Summary
New Characters:
Thénardier and Madame Thénardier: innkeepers

Eponine: oldest daughter of Thénardier

Azelma: Thénardier’s younger daughter

Fantine: a young mother seeking employment

Cosette: Fantine’s child

An inn in Montfermeil, near Paris, run by Thénardier and his wife, has a picture over the door depicting a general in the midst of battle. Written beneath are the words “TO THE SERGEANT OF WATERLOO.” Part of a carriage, possibly a gun carriage, sits in front of the inn. The wife is watching her daughters play when another mother approaches with her child.

The children play together while the two women chat. The second mother, named Fantine as we will discover in the next chapter, explains that she cannot take her daughter Cosette with her to search for work. She asks Madame Thénardier to care for Cosette for six francs a month. After some negotiations, the Thénardiers agree to keep her for seven francs a month plus an additional fifteen for expenses. The innkeeper uses the money to repay his loan.

The author comments on the character of the Thénardiers who belong to a “bastard class” with none of the attributes of the middle class and all of the vices of the lower class. He reveals that Thénardier, once a soldier, had painted the sign on his inn although he did not do a good job.

Fantine finds employment in M——sur M—— and writes every month for news of her child. After six months, Thénardier demands 12 francs a month and soon raises it to 15. Fantine pays. She does not know that her child’s clothes have been pawned and that she is dressed in rags and treated like a servant by the time she is five. Cosette is called The Lark because she is like a small, frightened bird. Sadly, this bird never sings.

The Descent - Summary
New Characters:
Laffitte: the banker

The old portress: servant of Jean Valjean

Javert: the policeman

The year is 1818. Cosette travels to M—— sur M——, her native village, where she finds work in a factory which manufactures imitation English jet beads and German black glass trinkets. Though the factory had been in operation for many years, the business was revolutionized three years before her arrival by a stranger who arrived in the town with almost no money in much the same way as she did. He invented a new manufacturing process which made the factory extremely profitable and made him a rich man. On the day of his arrival, the stranger had risked his own life to save two children from a burning building. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the police neglected to ask for his passport. The man was known thereafter as Father Madeleine.

By 1820, Father Madeleine had 630,000 francs in the Laffitte banking house, and he had donated more than a million to the city and its poor. As his wealth increased, he began to be called Monsieur Madeleine. He was adored by his employees and respected by all. The king pronounced him mayor in 1819 and he was offered the Cross of the Legion of Honor. He declined both honors. The following year he again refused the appointment of mayor but finally yielded when the public insisted. He then became known as Monsieur the Mayor.

Despite his position, he continues to lead a solitary life, secretly doing good deeds and using his free time to cultivate his mind. Several of the young ladies in the town, curious because no one has ever seen his room, ask to see it. They find an ordinary room with two antique silver candlesticks on the mantle.

When newspapers report the death of the 82-year-old Bishop of D——, the mayor wears black. This leads to speculation that he is related to the bishop. When asked, he replies simply that he was “a servant in his family” when he was young.

Every time a young person from Savoy passes through the town, the mayor sends for him and questions him, hoping to find Petit Gervais. The young Savoyards tell each other that the mayor gives them money, so many of them arrive.

The mayor is highly respected by everyone. People come from miles around to seek his advice and have disputes settled. The local police inspector, Javert, a man feared by the homeless, is suspicious of the mayor, but the mayor treats him kindly.

An old man named Father Fauchelevent is one of the few people who do not like the mayor. His business is bankrupt, and he is jealous of the mayor’s fortune. Left with only a horse and cart, he makes his living by carrying goods for others. One day the horse falters and the cart overturns, pinning him beneath. Bystanders are unable to free him, so Javert sends for a jack.

When Madeleine arrives and learns that it will take a quarter of an hour for the blacksmith to arrive with the jack, he offers money to anyone who will crawl under the cart and lift it. Javert remarks that he has only known one man with that much strength, a convict in the galleys at Toulon. When the cart sinks further into the mud and Fauchelevent begins to scream, the mayor crawls under the cart and uses his great strength to raise it. “Twenty arms” help to lift it and Fauchelevent is saved.

Madeleine carries Fauchelevent to the infirmary in his factory where two sisters care for his broken knee. He leaves a thousand francs and a note saying that he has purchased the horse and cart, not mentioning that the horse is dead and the cart destroyed. He arranges for Fauchelevent to become the gardener in a convent in a district of Paris called Saint Antoine.

The success of Madeleine’s business has brought the people prosperity and happiness. The collection of taxes, a measure of public wealth, has become an inexpensive and easy matter. This is the state of the country when Fantine arrives and begins to work in the factory.

Javert - Summary
New Characters:
Father Fauchelevent: an old man

Father Champmathieu: a peasant

Brevet, Chenildieu, Cochepaille: three convicts

Javert confesses to Monsieur Madeleine that he has mistaken him for Jean Valjean and publicly denounced him. He apologizes and tells the mayor that he should be dismissed from his position. Javert says he realized his mistake when a man named Father Champmathieu was arrested for stealing cider apples. In prison, a convict, Brevet, identifies Champmathieu as Jean Valjean. Brevet claims that Champmathieu, like Jean Valjean, is a pruner and that his name combines Jean, pronounced Chan in that region, and Mathieu, the family name of Jean’s mother. Two other convicts, Cochepaille and Chenildieu, also swear that Champmathieu is Jean Valjean.

Though surprised by this information, Monsieur the Mayor minimizes its importance and refuses to dismiss Javert. Javert agrees to continue in his job.

The Champmathieu Affair - Summary
New Character:
M. Baloup: Champmathieu’s employer

From the time he arrived in M——sur M——, Jean Valjean had “but two thoughts: to conceal his name and to sanctify his life; to escape from men and to return to God.” When there was a conflict between these two goals, he never hesitated to favor the second. This was the reason he risked discovery by doing things like rescuing old Fauchelevent. His conscience dictates that he must go to Arras to save the accused. He must “re-enter into hell” to become an “angel” or become a “devil” by remaining silent.

The mayor goes to the Royal Court at Arras, where he sends a note to the judge requesting permission to witness the trial. The mayor’s reputation has spread throughout France, so the judge is honored to admit him.

Entering the court, Jean sees the judges on one side and the lawyers on the other. His attention immediately fixes on the accused. “He thought he saw himself.” All the horrors of the past are revived in his memory. The scene is a kind of nightmare vision of the worst moment in his life. He notices that, unlike his own trial, a crucifix hangs above the judge’s head. “When he was tried, God was not there.”

Valjean sinks into a chair and positions himself behind a pile of papers. The trial has been in progress for three hours. The accused, thought to be Jean Valjean, is charged with a second offense, the robbery of Petit Gervais. He emphatically denies the charge.

In his own defense, the prisoner testifies that he worked as a wheelwright in Paris for M. Baloup. Both he and his daughter worked outdoors, exposed to all kinds of weather for very little money. His daughter, whose husband beat her, worked all day, washing clothes in the river. Sometimes she did laundry indoors where it was warmer, but there her eyes were ruined by hot lye. She is now dead, and M. Baloup is bankrupt and cannot be located to testify.

Champmathieu pleads innocent to the charge of stealing, claiming that he found the apples on a broken branch on the ground. He emphatically denies that he is Jean Valjean or that he even knows Jean Valjean.

Brevet, the turnkey, positively identifies the prisoner as Jean Valjean as does Chenildieu, a convict for life, who claims they spent five years on the same chain gang. Cochepaille, also a convict for life, swears that the prisoner is Jean Valjean, also called “Jean-the-Jack, he was so strong.”

The charges are proven; the prisoner will be found guilty. Just as the judge is about to pronounce sentence, a voice calls to the accusing witnesses. People in the court are stunned when they recognize Monsieur Madeleine.

Monsieur Madeleine’s hair turns from gray to snowy white during the hour he has been watching the court proceedings. Instructing the jury to release the accused, Monsieur confesses that he is the real Jean Valjean and reveals that he has become an honest man. He proves that he is telling the truth by reminding Brevet of the checkered, knit suspenders he once wore when they were in the galleys together. He knows about the scar showing the letters T.F.P. which Chenildieu once burned into his left shoulder. He also knows about the date, March 1, 1815, the date the emperor landed in Cannes, burned with blue powder into Cochepaille’s left arm. After finishing his testimony, Jean Valjean leaves the courtroom. It is so obvious that he is telling the truth that the defendant is immediately released.

Counter-Stroke - Summary
New Characters:
Sister Simplice, Sister Perpétue: two nuns

Fantine, who is gravely ill, believes that the mayor has gone to Montfermeil to fetch her child. Sister Simplice is nursing Fantine when the mayor arrives. He tells Sister that he will bring the child in two or three days. When she suggests that he not see Fantine so that they do not have to lie about the child, he insists that he must see her. Fantine is sleeping when he enters. Opening her eyes, she asks about Cosette.

The physician arrives and is informed of the situation. When Fantine asks about her child again, he lies to her, saying that although her daughter is near, her condition will worsen if she saw the child. He tells her she will see her daughter only when she is better. Although she does not believe seeing her child will cause any harm, Fantine agrees to wait, saying that she knows she will be happy. “All night, I saw figures in white, smiling on me.” She hears a little girl laughing and playing in the courtyard below and assumes it is Cosette. Abruptly, she stops speaking and her face twists in terror. The mayor turns to see who is causing this rapid change in her expression. It is Javert.

He has come to arrest Jean Valjean. Fantine is astounded when Javert grabs the mayor by the collar. Since Javert will not speak to him in private, he has no choice but to ask to be free for three more days so he can go for the child. Fantine overhears. She realizes that they have lied to her and asks Monsieur the Mayor for her child. Javert interrupts, telling her the truth: that the mayor is really the convict, Jean Valjean. The others in the room hear the death rattle when Fantine, horrified once more, frantically tries to speak. Suddenly, she sinks back on the pillow. She is dead.

Jean Valjean rips an iron bar from the bed to use as a weapon. Warning Javert not to interfere, he goes to Fantine’s bed. He gently arranges her hair and clothing and tenderly closes her eyes. Her face seems “strangely illumined” at that moment. “Death is the entrance into the great light.” After gently kissing her hand, he gives himself up to Javert.

Jean is put in the city prison, and the news of his arrest causes a sensation. Only a few of the townspeople, including the old portress who had been his servant, continue to hold him in high regard. Sister Simplice and Sister Perpétue are in Monsieur Madeleine’s home keeping watch over Fantine’s corpse. The old portress goes through her usual nightly routine as if she is expecting Jean to return that night. She is surprised when he actually does arrive. He tells her that he has escaped by breaking one of the bars on the window. He sends her to find Sister Simplice and while she is gone, he writes a note identifying the 40-sous piece he stole from Petit Gervais and the ends of his “loaded club” which have been charred in the fire. He places them on the table with the note so they will be the first things seen when entering the room. He then tears up an old shirt and packs up his silver candlesticks. When Sister Simplice arrives, he hands her a note to give to Monsieur the Curé. He instructs Monsieur to take charge of his belongings, using some of his money to pay for the trial and giving the rest to the poor.

He barely finishes his instructions when they hear the old portress speaking to someone. It is Javert. Javert forces his way into the mayor’s chamber, but all he finds is Sister Simplice on her knees, praying. When Javert asks her if she is alone, she lies and says she is. When he asks her if she has seen Jean Valjean, she lies again “as if she were adept” at it.

At the end of the chapter, the author makes a final comment about Fantine: “We all have but one mother — the earth. Fantine was restored to this mother.”

Fantine- Analysis
When the story begins, the setting is a small town near the French Alps in 1815. It later moves to the village of Montefermeil. The author introduces Jean Valjean, the main character, as well as the primary social theme, which is society’s treatment of the downtrodden. Jean is an outcast because he is a convict. The bishop, who becomes a symbol of salvation for Jean, is the only person who reaches out to him.

After an internal struggle with his own conscience, Jean accepts the bishop’s invitation to forsake his evil ways and seek redemption. He becomes a respected citizen, makes his fortune, and does many good deeds. Twice his conscience is tested—once when he uses his great physical strength to save Fauchelevent and again when he must reveal his identity to save Champmathieu. In both instances, he unhesitatingly follows the path of goodness although he knows the price he must pay.

Two subplots are also introduced in this section. One revolves around the greedy Thénardiers who represent all of society’s ills; the other involves Fantine, another lost soul, whose poverty forces hire strangers to care for her child while she searches for employment in another town.

Hugo makes frequent use of light images in this section. When Jean is at the bishop’s, he is humbled by the sleeping bishop’s radiance in the moonlight, a physical representation of the man’s piety. Later, when Jean is caught stealing the bishop’s silver candlesticks, the bishop responds by giving them to Jean. The candlesticks become one of Jean’s most valued possessions, a symbol of the bishop’s love, illuminating the path to goodness.

Fantine’s face appears to be illuminated just after she dies, suggesting that in death she has found the peace that has eluded her throughout her sorrowful life. Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, also suffers the hardships of poverty. The writer uses the image of a songless lark to suggest her fragile nature and the hopelessness of her condition.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Cosette: Summary and Analysis

Explore Study Guides