Fantine develops a chronic chest ailment. As her condition worsens, Madeleine continues to care for her. Madeleine also sends money to the Thénardiers, but they realize that it would be more profitable for them to hold on to Cosette, so they refuse to send her to Fantine. Madeleine plans to retrieve Cosette, but his plan is derailed when Javert visits him and demands to be fired. Javert tells Madeleine that he has long suspected him of being Valjean and that he denounced Madeleine after the mayor ordered Fantine’s release. Javert claims that he has since discovered that Valjean, pretending to be a man named Champmathieu, has just been rearrested for robbery and is standing trial in the town of Arras. Javert claims that he has positively identified Champmathieu as Valjean and that he is leaving for Arras to testify in the trial the following day. Madeleine pretends to be unconcerned and refuses to relieve Javert of his duties.
Madeleine, who is Valjean in disguise, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to turn himself in. If he reveals his true identity, the innocent Champmathieu will be freed, but Valjean will no longer be able to help the poor people of Montreuil-sur-mer. Valjean decides to stay and burns any clothes and personal effects that could prove his true identity. When he sees the coin he stole from Petit Gervais, however, Valjean recalls the promise he made to Myriel to become an honest man. After agonizing for the whole night, Valjean finally gives in to his conscience and decides to go to the trial in Arras.
A number of mishaps delay Madeleine, and by the time he arrives in Arras he is convinced that he is too late. A guard tries to stop Madeleine from entering the courtroom, but his fame and widespread respect precede him, and he enters the courtroom through a secret door reserved for honored guests. To Madeleine’s horror, he discovers that Champmathieu does resemble him but that the man is not smart enough to defend himself properly. Javert has already given his testimony, and three of Valjean’s former prison mates swear that Champmathieu is in fact Valjean. Just as Champmathieu is about to be convicted, Madeleine interrupts the trial and reveals that he is Valjean.
The court exonerates Champmathieu. In the confusion that ensues, Valjean has time to return to Montreuil-sur-mer and help Fantine. Javert appears, visibly excited by the prospect of arresting Valjean. Valjean begs Javert to go and retrieve Cosette from the Thénardiers, but Javert only laughs at him. Fantine, horrified by the news that her daughter is not yet in Montreuil, dies of shock. Valjean angrily breaks free from Javert’s grasp, blaming him for Fantine’s death. He whispers something in Fantine’s ear. Later that night, Valjean breaks out of jail and returns home to organize his affairs. He leaves his fortune to the poor and heads for Paris. Fantine is buried in a public grave.
Valjean ’s decision to reveal his identity is an agonizing one, since he knows that both admission and concealment will have huge consequences. Hugo appropriately titles the chapter in which Valjean makes his decision “A Tempest within a Brain,” revealing how torturous this choice is. The two perspectives argue with each other within Valjean’s mind, and he hears so many different voices that the chapter almost feels like a bout of schizophrenia. Valjean’s desire to exonerate Champmathieu is laudable, but doing so would be, in his thinking, an act of egotism: since the entire town has come to depend on Valjean’s business and philanthropy, he would be abandoning many people who count on him if he turned himself in to satisfy his own guilt. On the other hand, Valjean’s belief that the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few conflicts with the promise he makes to Myriel.
Though Hugo spends time exploring Valjean’s heart-wrenching dilemma, Hugo’s main objective in this section is to critique the French criminal-justice system. We have already seen Myriel criticize capital punishment and the failure of incarceration to rehabilitate convicts. Hugo now takes this critique a step further by attacking the credibility of the courts. Valjean publicly denounces the prisons for turning average men into hardened criminals, and Champmathieu’s trial is an absurdity that calls into question the validity of the entire court. The prosecution’s case depends upon the statements of four unreliable witnesses—three convicts and Javert, who is too obsessed with catching Valjean to be objective. The prosecution is too clumsy to convict Champmathieu for his original crime of stealing apples. The only reason the trial proceeds is because Champmathieu is not smart enough to defend himself or understand what is going on. Hugo describes the walls of the courtroom as dirty and stained, a symbol of the corrupt court system. Champmathieu’s trial compares unfavorably to Valjean’s own deliberations of the night before, which were far more tortuous but also fundamentally more decent and honest.