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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 1, Book 7 : Fantine (The Champmathieu Affair) | Summary



Sister Simplice is introduced as an example of an honest person who never lies. This nun who is ministering to Fantine is known for having never spoken, "for any purpose whatever, even carelessly, a single word that was not the truth." Fantine is getting worse, and after Madeleine leaves detailed instructions for her care, he goes back to his office to figure out the shortest route to Arras, some 60 miles away, where Champmathieu is being held.

When Madeleine (who is officially unveiled by the narrator as Jean Valjean) is alone with himself, he examines his conscience. He has succeeded in starting a new life, using the money from the bishop's silver (although he kept the candlesticks). He has made himself "unassailable" and has been working to "sanctify his life; to escape from men and to return to God." He has unsuccessfully tried to find the chimney sweep from whom he took a coin, but now he is hesitant about confessing everything to the curé (priest) or turning himself in to save Champmathieu. If he does, he will immediately be seized for the robbery of the chimney sweep and sentenced to life imprisonment under the same legal logic: he is a repeat offender. He rationalizes Providence has intervened in his fate, and God has finally answered his prayers for security; if Champmathieu is convicted as Jean Valjean, he can be free of worry for the rest of his life.

But Jean Valjean has had pure thoughts for eight years, and now these wicked ones have a bitter taste. He remembers his true goal is to save his soul, not his body, "to become honest and good again. To be an upright man!" If he does not save Champmathieu, he is robbing him of his "peace, his place in the world," and in the moral sense he would be a murderer. He was bound to return to the "appearance" of his old self to save his new, redeemed self. Nevertheless, if he turns himself in, his cathedral of good works will fall down. He has revived a city and a region, keeps innumerable people employed, and takes care of children, women, and the old and infirm. Should he really sacrifice all of those people for one "miserable old thief"? As he goes through this mental turmoil, he takes out his old convict's clothes and walking stick, which he has saved, and throws them into the fire. But he cannot destroy the candlesticks. Valjean continues to struggle, the narrator says, as Jesus also "trembled in the fierce breath of the Infinite."

The miserable man decides to go to Arras, and despite the fact that a broken wheel on the vehicle he is traveling in almost makes it impossible for him to get there, he improvises and gets to his destination in time. Meanwhile Fantine is agitated because Madeleine has not come, and she jumps to the conclusion he has gone for Cosette. Fantine is dying, but the thought of soon seeing her child sustains her. Back in Arras, Jean Valjean has reached the court and hesitates again but then gains admittance to the packed venue because he is something of a celebrity. He is standing behind the judges and can observe the proceedings without being seen and notes the man standing trial indeed looks like him. Although he continues to deny he is Jean Valjean, three convicts come forward to identify Champmathieu as Jean Valjean. By now the real Jean Valjean's gray hair has turned completely white in the space of an hour, and he steps forward and identifies himself. After he is able to recite pertinent facts about the witnesses he would not know unless he had lived intimately with them, he is finally believed. Jean Valjean then leaves the courtroom and Champmathieu is acquitted.


Sister Simplice is a very pious nun who has taken her name from a martyr who undergoes torture rather than lie; telling the truth is her special spiritual practice. Sister Simplice is especially devoted to Fantine's care, but she cannot lie to her. Thus she tells the distraught Fantine that Madeleine has gone. She doesn't contradict the sick woman when she says he's gone for Cosette; no one actually knows the reason for the mayor's journey. This first dilemma is a preview, to emphasize how difficult the next challenge to Sister Simplice will be, when she lies to save Madeleine/Valjean in the next book.

Jean Valjean struggles to keep his hard-won virtue through a series of tests presented to him by Providence. In this novel Hugo does show the hand of Providence, and some of the key coincidences ought to be read as a form of divine intervention. In this first test, Providence has provided a sacrificial lamb for the hero: someone who looks like him and was in the wrong place at the wrong time, conveniently ready to replace Jean Valjean in prison and close the books with Javert once and for all. It's not hard to look at Madeleine's situation and conclude he has good reason to save himself, not only for his own sake, but also for the sake of the people he will no longer be able to help if he leaves Montreuil-sur-mer. But while it might be possible, with some jaded rationalization, to square eight years of good works and the promise of additional years of the same with the life of one old man, such a course is not possible for a true Christian. Jean Valjean is not wrong to conclude that, if he lets events take their course without interfering, he is committing a form of moral murder by letting an innocent man be condemned. Whether Champmathieu stole the apples or not is beside the point—even if he did, the draconian law of the French state would show some clemency if he were not being charged for a second time. As it turns out, because of Valjean's spectacular admission, the jury sets Champmathieu free. Valjean, the spiritual son of Monseigneur Bienvenu, must follow in Christ's footsteps. He cannot chuck the candlesticks, symbolic of the bishop who has lit his way, into the fire of forgetfulness. The narrator references Christ's temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he hesitates before his crucifixion, noting "Eighteen hundred years before this unfortunate man, that mysterious Being in whom all the sanctities and all the sufferings of humanity come together ... brushed away the fearful cup that appeared before him." Jesus also struggled with that bitter cup of sorrow that had to be drunk in bowing to his Father's will; Jean Valjean does the same.

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