Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 1, Book 3 : Fantine (In the Year 1817) | Summary

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Summary

Two years later four young, middle-class Parisian men are carrying on affairs with four pretty grisettes, or young, working-class women. The men are well-to-do university students. Louis XVIII is on the throne and is called the "immortal author of the Charter," meaning he rules as a constitutional monarch, although the legislature has limited power. The couples are Félix Tholomyès and Fantine, Listolier and Dahlia, Fameuil and Zéphine, and Blacheville and Favourite. The women work as seamstresses, although they are partially taken care of by their lovers. The youngest, Fantine, a beautiful blonde with pearly white teeth, is still quite innocent, while the others have already experienced love affairs. Favourite, the eldest at 23 and the most experienced, is the child of a mathematics professor and a chambermaid.

Haphazardly named by someone, Fantine was born during the years of the Directory and does not know who her parents are. At age 10 she "went into service among the farmers in the suburbs" and came back to Paris at 15. The men are friends together, as are the women. Félix Tholomyès is the oldest of the men, a rich, 30-year-old rake. As he rapidly loses his looks, he increases his dissolute behavior and becomes more cynical and ironic. He decides it is time to break it off with the women and proposes a nasty practical joke to which his comrades agree. The women have been asking for a surprise, so the men plan a day out in the country (the suburbs of Paris) that ends in dinner at a well-known restaurant on the Champs-Elysées. After dinner, Favourite asks about the surprise, and each of the men plant a kiss on their respective mistress's forehead and leaves. The women wait for them to come back, and after about an hour, the waiter brings them a note which says the dinner is paid for but that the men must return to their parents and are breaking up with them. "We are returning to society, to duty and order ... It is necessary to our country that we become ... prefects, fathers of families, country policemen, and councilors of state," they say. This ironic letter is written by Tholomyès. The women take it in stride and laugh at the joke, but when Fantine gets home, she weeps. She loves the careless man who has cast her off, and she is carrying his child.

Analysis

Hugo begins this book by recounting various moments of historical and cultural interest associated with the year 1817. Life in France has more or less returned to normal. However, most important is that Louis XVIII is on the throne, and the author notes the situational irony that he is called the author of the constitution, since the French had very little additional freedoms under the first constitutional monarchy following the Revolution and Napoleon. While the restored monarchy has some limits on its power, by and large life has not changed for the working classes. The king remains head of state, with the power to propose and veto laws, and a legislature made up of an appointed Court of Peers and an elected Chamber of Deputies has primarily a consulting role. Only 1 percent of the population can vote. The bourgeoisie lovers of the working-class women disdain them and use them as playthings. The experienced women try to make the best of their situation and take advantage of temporary luxuries while they are being courted by the sons of the middle class. "Poverty and coquetry are fatal counselors," the narrator says, "and the beautiful daughters of the people have both of them whispering in their ears ... They are overwhelmed with the splendor of all that is immaculate and inaccessible." But Fantine is heartbroken, abandoned by the heartless father of her unborn child, who no doubt realized it was high time he disappeared.

Abandoned and orphaned children are a recurring motif in the novel, and Fantine herself has been abandoned in the chaos of revolutionary times. It was not uncommon for the poor to abandon their children, but mostly they were left at public orphanages. Nonetheless, some were taken care of by strangers and/or grew up in the street. Hugo doesn't give much back story on Fantine before she is 10, when she begins working in the country. Now that she is pregnant, she is ripe to repeat the cycle of abandonment and abuse, although she will make heroic efforts to keep her child and take care of her.

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