Twelve years have passed since Fantine has been to her hometown of Montreuil-sur-mer, and she is surprised at how much the town has grown and modernized during the past decade. The changes are largely due to Monsieur Madeleine, a stranger about whom little is known. The narrator says that Madeleine arrived in Montreuil in 1815 with a newer, cheaper method for producing black beads, the town’s largest industry. A manufacturing revolution ensued, and Madeleine’s cunning and philanthropy so impressed the king that he made Madeleine the mayor of Montreuil in 1820. No one knows much about Madeleine’s past, but he has been wildly popular since the day he saved two local children from a fire. The townspeople do not, therefore, comment on Madeleine’s quirks and foibles, such as his wearing of a black hatband after the death of the bishop Myriel.
Only Javert, the town’s police inspector, suspects that Madeleine may be harboring a dark secret. Javert suspects that Madeleine is actually Jean Valjean, an extraordinarily strong convict whom Javert once guarded. Javert’s suspicions are heightened when he witnesses Madeleine rescue a man, Fauchelevent, by lifting him from underneath a fallen carriage. Though Madeleine is aware of Javert’s suspicions, he does not appear to feel threatened by them.
Fantine finds employment in Madeleine’s factory, but her secretive manner makes her coworkers suspicious. The illiterate Fantine writes letters to the Thénardiers by dictating to a scribe who turns out to be a gossip and who tells the factory workers that Fantine is hiding an illegitimate child. Fantine is subsequently fired from her job on charges of immorality. She owes many people money, and although she tries to live on as little as she can, the Thénardiers continue to raise their price for taking care of Cosette. To satisfy their demands, Fantine first sells her hair, then her front teeth, and finally, becomes a prostitute. Nonetheless, Thénardier threatens to kick Cosette out if Fantine does not pay him one hundred francs.
One night, a man harasses Fantine as she waits for potential clients outside a bar. The man hits Fantine with a snowball, and she snaps and attacks him. Javert arrests Fantine and threatens her with six months in jail, ignoring her pleas that he think of her child and show mercy. Madeleine intervenes, freeing Fantine and promising to take care of her and Cosette. Fantine, who blames Madeleine for firing her, spits in his face. Madeleine does not flinch and repeats his offer of help. Fantine is so overwhelmed by Madeleine’s kindness that she faints. Javert is outraged that Madeleine has overruled his decision and decides to investigate Madeleine’s past.
Hugo’s focus on Montreuil-sur-mer’s new prosperity shows his enthusiasm for the Industrial Revolution. He depicts the Industrial Revolution as nothing short of miraculous, a time when a few simple changes in manufacturing technique can rejuvenate an entire region. By having Madeleine revolutionize a traditional industry, Hugo preemptively counters the argument that industrial development comes at the expense of tradition. He links Madeleine’s prosperity with his philanthropy and the success of his factories. Hugo believes that technology levels the playing field, creating a world where what is good for one is good for all, where even a passing stranger can make a fortune. Madeleine seems to be a man with no past and no connections, but this apparent lack of background makes no difference in the world of the Industrial Revolution. Unlike the characters in class-conscious Paris and Digne, Madeleine prospers and thrives by using his brains.
In his enthusiasm for the Industrial Revolution, Hugo reverses his usual perspective by focusing on a hero, Madeleine, who is a prosperous man. Hugo continues to champion the rights of the poor and oppressed, but in Book Five the workers are responsible for bringing most of their misery upon one another. Fantine’s misfortunes and descent into prostitution are caused by the nosiness of her fellow workers—not, as she suspects, by any cruelty on Madeleine’s part. Hugo still criticizes the upper classes—the man whom Fantine assaults is a bourgeois dandy—but he makes the hero of these chapters the town’s wealthiest man. In contrast to other novels set during the Industrial Revolution, in which factory bosses are often portrayed as brutal, heartless, and greedy, in Les Misérables it is the boss who helps the poor escape the injustices of outdated social hierarchies. While this sympathetic portrayal of the wealthy industrialist does not contradict the message of Hugo’s earlier chapters, it is a surprise from an author whose sympathies are usually with the poor.