Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 1, Book 5 : Fantine (The Descent) | Summary



When Fantine returns to Montreuil-sur-mer in 1818, she finds a prosperous town. Toward the end of 1815, a new man arrived and revamped the manufacturing process to make the black beads and black glass trinkets for which the town is known. The "black goods" are now made much more cheaply, which has increased profits and wages and lowered prices. The inventor has become rich and builds a large factory where Fantine gets a job. Father Madeleine, the inventor, is a well-respected citizen of the booming town. While he has about 600,000 francs in the bank, he has already given away more than 1 million to the poor. Madeleine refuses various honors and keeps a low profile, but finally agrees to become mayor in 1820 after repeated coaxing.

In early 1821 the bishop of Digne dies, and Madeleine wears mourning for him, since the mayor is none other than Jean Valjean. Valjean/Madeleine has easily gained entry into the town because he saved two children from a fire on the day he arrived, so no one thought to ask for his papers. The mayor is as well respected as the bishop once was, with people coming from miles around to consult him. Although widely revered, one man looks askance at Madeleine—a police inspector named Javert; he thinks he has seen him before. Inspector Javert, born in prison of a gypsy mother and convict father, is outside society and decides to remedy that situation by becoming a man who guards society. Through his honesty he advances to inspector. He has a slavish devotion to the law, and his creed consists of "respect for authority and hatred of rebellion."

Javert becomes more suspicious of Madeleine after he saves an old man, Father Fauchelevent, who falls under his cart. The wagon is sinking in the mud, and the man will be crushed if the wagon is not lifted in time. Madeleine doesn't wait for help but gets under the wagon and with his prodigious strength lifts it off the man. Shortly after, Madeleine gets Fauchelevent a job as a gardener in a convent in Paris.

Fantine's decent life comes to an end when a busybody learns about her child and gets her fired. As she sinks deeper into poverty, she sells her beautiful hair and even her two front teeth so that she can send money for her child. As a last resort she turns to prostitution. One night she is insulted and assaulted in the street when a dandy puts snow down her back. In a rage she attacks him and is arrested by Javert. The inspector refuses to hear her side of the story, but Madeleine comes to her rescue and orders the inspector to release her. Fantine has hated Madeleine and blamed him for her plight, but when he explains to her he knew nothing about her firing, she accepts his offer to pay her debts and set her up with her child, but then she collapses. "You have never ceased to be virtuous and holy before God," he tells her when he hears her whole story.


Jean Valjean's transformation from convict to industrialist is spectacular. In the secular arena Hugo shows himself to be a bourgeois liberal who has faith in capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Although Marxism and socialism were already on the scene when the author was writing this book, Hugo does not support the idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat," or more simply, a government in which the means of production are turned over to the workers. While Hugo had great sympathy for the plight of the poor, he was far from a revolutionary. Unlike other capitalists in the social protest literature of the 19th century, such as Mr. Bounderby in Dickens's Hard Times, Valjean/Madeleine's financial success is not used to oppress the poor, but rather to create jobs and raise wages. Moreover, Madeleine is a philanthropist with the philosophy of a Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who feel obliged to give much of their wealth away. Hugo believed real social change had to be based in spiritual or religious conviction, or people's willingness to do the right thing.

In the secular realm Valjean has become the bishop, and his actions at Montreuil-sur-mer show the investment of silver has netted a soul undoubtedly redeemed. Valjean takes the name Madeleine as a symbol of his repentance: Mary Magdalene was a sinner redeemed by Jesus after he cast seven devils out of her. Initially viewed with suspicion by the people of Montreuil-sur-mer, Madeleine's good deeds and charitable works win people over. Moreover, Madeleine puts good deeds ahead of his own interests, saving Fauchelevent even though he knew this feat would raise Javert's suspicions, and getting on the wrong side of the inspector by saving Fantine. After being overruled on his arrest, Javert redoubles his investigative efforts.

Unlike her own parents, Fantine is a devoted mother. Forced by poverty and a rigid social system to keep her child a secret, she nevertheless does her best to support her, believing she has left her in the care of decent people. Fantine stops at nothing to keep the money flowing to the rapacious Thénardiers, sacrificing her beauty, health, and finally her self-respect. Madeleine reassures her that, in the eyes of God, she is no sinner. Unlike Javert, Madeleine understands morality depends to some degree upon context, and sometimes it is necessary to choose the lesser of two evils. Just as following the letter of the law doesn't necessarily equal justice (a prominent theme in the novel), judging "sin" requires the application of mercy. Fantine chooses to provide for her child, and Madeleine understands that in the context of her need she is not a sinner.

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