In this book, we are introduced to one of the most pathetic characters in the novel, Fantine. A young girl of humble origins, she has retained her candor and compassion in the libertine company she keeps. Although she has taken a lover, Félix Tholomyès, she treats her affair with the romantic intensity of a first love. One summer day of the year 1817, Tholomyès arranges an outing in the country for Fantine and three more lighthearted couples. The day is spent in carefree amusements and concludes with a dinner in a restaurant, accompanied by banter and laughter.
But the festivities are marred by a macabre incident. An old horse dies before the eyes of the students and their girls. For Tholomyès, it is only an occasion for a pun, but Fantine is touched by the nag's death.
The event seems to be the knell of her happiness. The men steal away from the restaurant and leave behind only a callous goodbye note — they are deserting their mistresses. Fantine's life is shattered, for she has had a little girl, Cosette, by Tholomyès, and he has left her without resources.
Victor Hugo was one of the earliest supporters in France of the "Shakespearean" approach to drama: mingling comedy with tragedy, and the sublime with the grotesque, to create a powerful contrast. Here, following the shadows and sufferings of Jean Valjean in Book II, he introduces youth, gaiety, and spring in the persons of Fantine and her companions on their student frolic; the effect of each tableau is heightened by the other.
However, the contrast is only apparent. In fact, we are about to begin another cycle of descent, despair, and regeneration, and as Jean Valjean plays out for us the fate of Man, Fantine and her baby will trace the fate of Woman and Child as they descend into the dark world of "les misérables."
In the earlier part of the nineteenth century, Balzac and the historical novelists developed the technique of the "significant detail," precise external description which nevertheless gives many clues to the inner nature of the person being described. We are so accustomed to this technique today that we automatically fill in any suggestive gaps in the text and find a writer like Hugo — who gives us the significant detail (Fantine's modest yet charming openwork blouse contrasted with the low necks of the other girls) but then goes on to explain its inner meaning (the purity and idealism of Fantine's passion contrasted with theirs) — old fashioned and boring. However, it must be remembered that Hugo was not writing for college students or for a literary coterie; he wanted to reach the masses and was willing to say the same things in as many different ways as necessary to carry his message home, regardless of the esthetic effect. Hugo, in fact, was always willing to sacrifice his art to his conscience.