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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
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.
There are echoes of Cinderella, the
Grimm fairy tale, in the relationship between the Thénardiers and
Cosette, which Hugo uses to comment on the role mothers play in
the development of their daughters. While Thénardier plays a more
prominent role later in the novel, most of Cosette’s maltreatment
actually comes at the hands of Mme. Thénardier and her two daughters,
Eponine and Azelma—Hugo’s interpretation of the evil stepmother
and evil stepsisters, respectively. Hugo notes that “[Madame Thénardier]
was unkind to Cosette and Eponine and Azelma were unkind, too. Children
at that age are simply copies of the mother; only the size is reduced.”
Here, Hugo identifies the mother as the most important factor in
determining a child’s development and suggests that Cosette’s upbringing
is impaired because Fantine is absent.
The relationship between parents and children, which
is emphasized throughout the novel, surfaces in the letter that
Tholomyès and his friends leave their mistresses. In their letter,
the four students write, “Understand, we have parents. Parents—you
barely know the meaning of the word,” indicating that Fantine and
the other working-class girls come from broken homes. Here, Hugo
points to the breakdown of the traditional family among the working
class, a dissolution brought about by the struggle to survive. These instances
of ruptured family relations—of orphans, unwanted children, and
foster parents—represent Hugo’s comment on the upturned social order
and broken family ties that he felt plagued the working classes
of early nineteenth-century France.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!