The next section of the novel takes place in 1817, two years after Myriel gives the candlesticks to Valjean. The narrator provides a quick sketch of contemporary Parisian politics, culture, and art, and then introduces four well-to-do university students named Tholomyès, Listolier, Fameuil, and Blacheville. The four are good friends, and all have mistresses who come from the working or lower-middle classes. The youngest of these four young women is Fantine, an orphan raised by the state. Whereas the other women are more experienced in the ways of the world, Fantine falls head over heels in love with Tholomyès and makes him her first lover.
One day, Tholomyès proposes to the other four men that they play a trick on their mistresses. The following Sunday, the students invite the women out to dinner, then announce that they must leave to prepare a surprise. The women are excited, but their pleasure turns to chagrin when the waiter brings them a sealed envelope. Inside they find a letter, signed by all four men, in which the men announce that their parents will no longer allow them to consort with working-class women. The three older women do not seem surprised, and Fantine pretends to laugh along with them. In reality, however, she is heartbroken, all the more so since she is pregnant with Tholomyès’s child.
A few years pass. Fantine decides that she can best support her daughter, Cosette, in her hometown of Montreuil-sur-mer. She leaves Paris, but realizes that she will be unable to work in Montreuil if the townspeople discover that she has an illegitimate daughter. She stops at an inn to rest and consider what to do next. While resting, Fantine sees two girls playing happily in front of a tavern. She makes conversation with their mother, a woman named Madame Thénardier. Fantine eventually begs Mme. Thénardier to look after Cosette while Fantine looks for work. At this point, Monsieur Thénardier intervenes, demanding that Fantine send money to the Thénardiers every month in return for looking after Cosette. Fantine is reluctant to leave Cosette, but she is comforted by the thought that her daughter will be in good hands.
The Thénardiers, however, turn out to be swindlers. They force Cosette to perform heavy household work, dress her in rags, and frequently beat her. The Thénardiers use the money Fantine sends to cover their own expenses, and they pawn Cosette’s clothing. When Thénardier discovers that Cosette is an illegitimate child, he begins to demand more and more money from Fantine.
Hugo gives Book Three a very theatrical feel, using fast-paced dialogue and humor to show us how overwhelmed Fantine is by her surroundings. Though Fantine emerges as a major character in the novel, Hugo’s emphasis on spoken dialogue in this section prevents us from recognizing Fantine’s importance immediately, since Fantine is often so silent that we can easily forget she is there. A humorous tone dominates this section and reinforces our sense of Fantine’s naïveté. She often does not understand when her companions are joking and therefore does not realize that her relationship with Tholomyès is the biggest joke of all. Instead, Fantine takes Tholomyès’s promises of love as earnestly as she takes his jokes, and she gives herself completely to him. The ways in which Hugo uses humor and dialogue makes his prose read almost like a play, with Fantine as a simple spectator who does not fully understand the action unfolding in front of her. The four students view life as a comedy, and they are too callous and selfish to care that Fantine has mistaken their idle jests for sincere emotions.
Hugo further satirizes the middle class through his depiction of the Thénardiers. Unlike the idly rich students who abuse and abandon women like Fantine, the Thénardiers do work for a living. However, the fact that they earn their keep does not make them sympathetic. Without any trace of scruples or remorse, the Thénardiers enslave Cosette and force her trusting mother to pay more and more money for their own amusements, denying Cosette any benefits from these payments. The Thénardiers’ only goal is to make as much money as possible while doing as little work as they can. In this respect, they are simply a poorer version of the aristocrats. The Thénardiers are far lower on the social ladder than Tholomyès, but they exploit Fantine more ruthlessly than he does.