Although all of Fantine’s misfortunes are caused by the callousness or greed of others, society always holds her accountable for her behavior. In this sense, she embodies Hugo’s view that French society demands the most from those to whom it gives the least. Fantine is a poor, working-class girl from the desolate seacoast town of Montreuil-sur-mer, an orphan who has almost no education and can neither read nor write. Fantine is inevitably betrayed by the people she does trust: Tholomyès gets her pregnant and then disappears; the Thénardiers take Cosette and use the child to extort more money; and Fantine’s coworkers have her fired for indecency. In his descriptions of Fantine’s life and death, Hugo highlights the unfair attitude of French society toward women and the poor. Fantine’s fellow citizens criticize her for her behavior and depravity, but they also take every opportunity to make her circumstances even more desperate.
Hugo’s portrayal of Fantine’s mistreatment distinguishes the honest, hardworking poor from the parasitic opportunism of the working-class Thénardiers. By juxtaposing Fantine with the Thénardiers, Hugo suggests that poverty does not necessarily equal indecency. In doing so, he condemns a system that allows the indecent poor to survive even as it crushes the honest and needy.