In her distress, Fantine decides to return to her hometown, Montreuil, taking with her her little girl, who is now two or three years old. On her way, she becomes acquainted with Mme. Thénardier, an innkeeper's wife who is watching her two little daughters play at her doorstep. Misled by Mme. Thénardier's obvious affection for her children and unwilling to expose herself and Cosette to the shame that will result if she returns home an unmarried mother, Fantine entrusts her daughter to Mme. Thénardier.
It is an unfortunate decision. Mme. Thénardier is a vile and brutal creature whose affections are limited to her husband and her two daughters. Her husband is even worse than she. For him, Cosette is nothing but an object for exploitation. He makes increasingly difficult financial demands on her mother and treats the child like a servant. Ill-fed, cold, and ragged, she becomes ugly and hostile.
Artistic unity is complete in the confrontation of Fantine and Mme. Thénardier. The scene is a halfway house on Fantine's road to Montreuil, but she herself is at a halfway house, half Virgin with Child, half unmarried mother, on her road to Calvary. Mme. Thénardier too is at a halfway house, still capable of tenderness in the romantic dreams of her youth and in her love for her children, but under her husband's influence she has begun to lapse into brutality. Fantine's love for Cosette will save the child, but Cosette is also the agent who will bring about Mme. Thénardier's spiritual doom. Provided with a helpless victim, the innkeeper's wife will give way to all her worst instincts, and Cosette will totally corrupt her.