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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Les Misérables!