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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 1, Book 8 : Fantine (Counter-Stroke) | Summary



Jean Valjean rushes back to Montreuil-sur-mer, mails a letter to his banker, and immediately goes to the infirmary (located in his house) to see Fantine. The doctor is nearby and lies to the patient, saying Cosette also has come. Around the same time, Javert gets an order to arrest the mayor and with great joy rushes to the infirmary to claim his quarry. The mayor asks him for three days of grace so he can retrieve Cosette. Of course the inspector refuses. Fantine, shocked to learn her daughter is still with the Thénardiers, dies on the spot. After Valjean threatens Javert physically, he allows him a few minutes alone with the dead mother. Valjean whispers something in her ear, and later Sister Simplice says she saw a smile spread across the dead woman's face.

A few hours later Jean Valjean breaks out of jail and returns home. He packs the candlesticks and asks Sister Simplice to give the priest a note directing him to bury Fantine properly and use the rest of his property to help the poor. When Javert gets to the house, Valjean hides in a corner while the nun drops to her knees in prayer. He asks her if she is alone and whether she's seen the criminal. She lies on both counts, allowing Jean Valjean to successfully escape to Paris. The curé buries Fantine in an unmarked common grave for the poor.


Fantine is in that intermediate physical state in which she can live or die, according to her emotional distress. This is why the doctor lies to her. When she sees the horrible Javert who has treated her so badly and then hears her daughter has not come, the shock is too much for her, and she dies. Jean Valjean accuses Javert of killing her, but Javert doesn't care. He is happy to be vindicated, knowing his original suspicions about Madeleine were correct. He sees himself as a righteous angel of the state's vengeance. The difference between real and fake religion, in the estimation of the author, is shown in a number of ways. First, the obtuse Javert, who knows nothing about goodness and everything about following the letter of the law, never doubts Sister Simplice will tell him the truth. But her goodness comes from a deeper well, and she breaks her own rule, necessarily, to save a good man and Fantine's child. Her assertion that the dead woman smiled supports the idea that the spirits of the dead simply go to another place and that Jean Valjean's faith is not misplaced. The priest is another example of a man with a shallow religion. After discounting the mayor, he has also discounted the deceased woman as both a criminal and a whore and thus feels no need to follow Jean Valjean's wishes to grant Fantine a decent burial.

While Jean Valjean has given all of his possessions away, the letter mailed to his banker indicates he will retrieve the money in his bank account to carry out his future plans.

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