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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 1, Book 4 : Fantine (To Trust Is Sometimes to Surrender) | Summary



Not far from Montfermeil is a cheap tavern called The Sergeant of Waterloo, run by the Thénardiers. Madame Thénardier, a massive woman, sits in the doorstep, watching her two toddlers play. Fantine, now 22, passes by carrying her own child on her back. Fantine has been unable to get a job in Paris or any help from Tholomyès, who ignores her letters. When she stops to rest and sees the lovely girls, she tells the woman she is a widow returning to her home town of Montreuil-sur-mer to look for work. She asks her if she can temporarily board her daughter, Cosette. The innkeeper's husband suddenly appears and says they can do it for more money than Fantine has offered, paid six months in advance. Fantine is desperate, so she agrees.

The narrator says Madame Thénardier is "at heart a brute," while her husband is a "blackguard," both "capable of that hideous sort of progression that can be made toward evil." The new boarder is "scolded, punished, [and] beaten," and after they realize she is probably illegitimate, the Thénardiers demand even more money to keep her. They continue to extort greater sums of money from Fantine over the next three years, while using Cosette as a house slave before she turns five. The people in the neighborhood call the child "the Lark."


Victor Hugo shows people can change, for better or for worse, and the Thénardiers, already hardhearted and greedy, have the capacity to descend into pure evil; as the novel progresses, that is exactly what happens. Fantine has changed in a short space of time. She is out of the habit of working, after being kept by a lover, and she is also a new mother, alone, with no friends or means of support. She can likely get work in her old town, but only if she is alone, without Cosette. A mother with an illegitimate child is a pariah. She would be cast out of decent society and unable to earn a living. Coming upon the Thénardiers, Fantine seizes upon them as a solution, thinking if the innkeeper loves her daughters, she can easily love a third child. Of course she has no idea what kind of people the Thénardiers are; the mother and her daughters physically abuse Cosette, while Thénardier robs the child of the resources that belong to her. The couple turn Cosette into a cash cow. This outcome shows how the poor are exploited even by members of the lower classes. Illegitimacy is a mark of the outcast, similar to Jean Valjean's yellow passport. Once les misérables make an error, they do not get a second chance. Fantine makes a serious mistake, but because of her class she will be unable to recover from it as someone with more means and some friends may be able to do. She is practically born as an orphan, doomed to a lonely life of privation, much like Jean Valjean. When help finally arrives, it comes too late to save her.

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