Les Miserables: Novel Summary: Section 1 – Book 5

 Section 1 – Fantine
Book Five – The Descent
This section begins by detailing what happened to Fantine after she left the Thenardiers. She arrived in Montreuil-sur-mer to find the region prosperous due to a recent innovation in the primary industry of imitating English jets and German black glass trinkets. On a December night in 1815 a rough looking man of about fifty years age had entered the town just in time to save, at great personal risk, the children of the captain of police from a house fire. No one had thought to ask for his passport and he became known as Father Madeleine. Soon afterward he developed the techniques which made possible the revolution in the black work industry. The success made him rich and all those in the region substantially better off. After amassing a great fortune in the first year he built a large factory where everyone who wanted work could find it. This is where Fantine sought and found gainful employment. Father Madeleine was asked to be mayor of the town but declined. His innovations won him the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor at the Industrial Exhibition but he declined this as well. As his fortune increased he was courted by the high society of the region but he refused to join that elevated set. By 1820 his innovations had brought such prosperity to the region that the king appointed him Mayor and when he tried to refuse the citizens begged and he finally assented. He remained a simple man; however, who enjoyed solitude and reading. He always kept money in his pocket to give to the poor. It was rumored that he had millions of francs deposited at Laffittes financial house when in fact his philanthropy had reduced that sum to about six hundred thousand francs. One day, news reached the town that the Bishop of Digne has died and Father Madeleine dressed in mourning. Anytime a Savoyard came through the town Father Madeleine would ask his name and give him money. In time, Father Madeleine achieved almost holy status among the people of the region and he was asked to judge many disputes. A member of the local police named Javert, whose mannerisms and appearance were reminiscent of a wolf, persisted in distrusting Father Madeleine. Javert was the son of a prostitute and had been born in prison. He had absolute and unquestioning respect for authority and followed the letter of the law but he had no compassion for convicts. Javert was convinced that he knew Father Madeleine as someone else but each time he thought he had established a lead into the mans past it would evaporate.
One day an old man named Fauchelevent, who always resented Madeleines success, was trapped in the mud beneath his horse cart and a crowd soon gathered. The cart was too heavy to lift and so Javert sent for a jack. The cart, however, was sinking fast and Father Madeleine ascertained that the jack would not arrive in time to save the poor man. Madeleine offered money to anyone who had the courage to climb under the cart and lift it off. Javert looked Madeleine in the eye and stated that the only man he ever saw with that kind of strength was a convict in the galleys at Toulon. When no other man offered to help, Madeleine dove under the cart and with great exertion lifted it off the old man. Fauchelevents knee was broken and while he recovered in Madeleines hospital he received a thousand-franc note with a message that Father Madeleine had purchased his horse (which was dead) and his cart (which was broken). Madeleine secured a position as gardener in a convent in the Quarter Saint Antoine in Paris for the grateful old man.
Fantine returned to the town soon after Father Madeleine became mayor. She found work at the factory and dreamed of reuniting with her daughter. Some of the women discovered she had a daughter and the gossip led the overseer to fire her in the name of the mayor, though in fact Father Madeleine had no knowledge of Fantine or her plight. She struggled to find work and gradually succumbed to the debts she owed for rent and furnishings. The Thenardiers sent word that Cosette needed a wool skirt for the winter so Fantine sold her hair and sent a skirt. The Thenardiers gave the skirt to their eldest daughter. Ever desperate for money the Thenardiers wrote that Cosette was very ill and they needed forty francs for the necessary medicine. Fantine sold her front teeth and sent the money. Eventually she was forced into prostitution to support the demands of the Thenardiers. One cold January evening Fantine was walking a street circuit that took her by the Officers club where a dandy gentleman hurled insults at her each time she passed. Achieving no results with words the young man devilishly grabbed a handful of snow and shoved it down Fantines bedraggled gown. Fantine attacked the man and loudly cursed him. Javert arrives and leads her, trembling with fear, to the police station where he tells her that she will serve six months in prison for her offense. Fantine becomes hysterical and pleads for mercy in the name of her daughter but Javert coldly tells her that nothing can save her from a prison term. At this juncture Father Madeleine, who entered unnoticed, approaches and Javert respectfully addresses him as “Monsieur Mayor”. The name is like a trigger for Fantine, who associates the mayor with her loss of position. She approaches him and spits in his face. Without skipping a beat, however, Madeleine commands Javert to release the poor woman. This command amazes both Javert and Fantine who does not believe that it came from the mayor. She begins to speak distractedly and in the process divulges her sad history. When she tries to leave, however, Javert commands the sergeant to stop her but Madeleine once again insists that she be set free. Javert resists this command but the mayor finally trumps his authority and promises Fantine that she will be reunited with her daughter and will be comfortable and happy. She faints.
Hugo is full of praise for what the Industrial Revolution has done for the average man by allowing ordinary working men to become wealthy. This depicts the rise of the Middle Class which does not require a certain past or background.
In Book Five, Hugo again shows how the working class is void of empathy or consideration for their own. It is a co-worker that reveals that Fantine has a child and is the cause of her dismissal. Fantines inability to find a different job and her need to cover her expenses that the Thenardiers impose upon her, she resorts to prostitution.
She is finally rescued from going to prison by Madeleine who she first thought had been responsible for her initial dismissal from her job.
The technique of foreshadowing is used by Hugo when Javits, a member of the local police, hints that there is only one man, an ex-prisoner, who possesses such gigantic strength. We surmise that it could be Valjean especially when we see that Madelein wears a black armband, a sign of mourning, after hearing that Myriel had died.