Fantine has readily found a job in M. Madeleine's factory. Unaware of her child's plight, she feels a momentary surge of optimism as her fortune improves. Even though she is not very skillful, she earns enough to make ends meet. She rents a little room and furnishes it on credit. But clouds gather quickly on her peaceful horizon. Her letters to the Thénardiers arouse the curiosity of the town's busybodies. A certain Mme. Victurnien, a woman of malevolent piety, undertakes to investigate the mystery and discovers Fantine's secret.
Unbeknown to Madeleine, Fantine is abruptly fired by his assistant as "immoral." Unable to leave town because of her debts, she works at home, sewing coarse shirts for the soldiers of the garrison. Her ill-paid occupation earns her 12 sous a day and her daughter's board costs 10. Fantine works interminable hours and economizes desperately. In addition, she suffers the opprobrium of the whole town. At first she cannot face the accusing fingers. Soon, however, she adopts a defiant attitude that rapidly becomes brazen.
Her situation grows worse. Overwork undermines her health. She is racked by a dry cough and contracts a fever. Her debts accumulate and the Thénardiers hound her unmercifully. One day they send her a frightful letter. Cosette needs a new wool skirt for the winter. It costs at least 10 francs. That night Fantine goes to the barber and sells him her hair for 10 francs and spends it on a skirt. Her mutilation causes her joy rather than regret. "My child is not cold any more," she thinks; "I dressed her with my hair." Unfortunately her sacrifice does Cosette no good. The Thénardiers have invented the story of the skirt to extort more money from her. Furious at having been unwittingly outsmarted, they give the skirt to their daughter Eponine and Cosette continues to shiver in the cold.
Misfortune also begins to take a moral toll. Fantine mistakenly attributes her troubles to Madeleine and begins to hate him. She has a sordid affair with a beggarly musician who beats her and then abandons her.
One day a new blow increases her misery. The insatiable Thénardiers bill her 40 francs to cure a fever Cosette has supposedly contracted. Fantine tries to ignore their exorbitant demand, but not for long. One day Marguerite, Fantine's neighbor, finds her sitting on her bed overwhelmed by grief. When the candle suddenly lights Fantine's face, it reveals a gaping hole where her two front teeth had been. The desperate mother has sold them.
Fate now persecutes her relentlessly. She is reduced to the bare necessities of existence. Exhausted, she surrenders to dirt and rags. Creditors plague her. Bad health and endless work sap her vitality. Competition from cheap prison labor reduces her income to a pittance. The crushing blow comes from the Thénardiers. Now they want 100 francs and Fantine becomes a prostitute. But this is not the last ignominy. She is destined to drink her cup of pain to the dregs.
In January 1823, a certain Bamatabois, one of the local idlers, amuses himself by insulting a wretched creature soliciting on the street. Exasperated by her indifference, he sadistically pushes some snow down her back. Fantine, for it is she, retaliates with an explosion of fury, scratching and swearing. Suddenly Javert makes his way through the crowd and peremptorily arrests her. At the police station, despite her pleas, he condemns her to six months in prison.
Without warning, M. Madeleine enters and quietly interrupts the execution of the order. Fantine, still laboring under her mistaken impression of him, spits in his face. Undeterred, Madeleine carries through his merciful deed. Javert, of course, is stupefied by this outrage to authority and refuses to carry out his superior's order. It is only when the mayor explicitly invokes his authority that Javert is forced to set Fantine free. Fantine, before this titanic struggle that holds her fate in the balance, feels an upheaval in her soul. Finally, when Madeleine promises her financial help and the return of her child, she falls to her knees and faints.
Fantine's degradation is skillfully portrayed, and every detail of Hugo's rather lengthy earlier description of her carries weight here, as the golden hair becomes a cropped stubble, the voluptuous lips give a gap-toothed grimace, and the dainty white blouse turns into a patched bodice topped by a dirty cap. The final touch of the snowball down the back is in the best traditions of realism, which involves us in the scene by an almost photographic accuracy of impression rather than by any commentary. By comparing M. Bamatabois and Félix Tholomyès in his essay on dandies, however, Hugo subtly underlines the point that Fantine's last torment, like her first, is the work of masculine vanity and callousness. The snowball incident was actually seen by Hugo in 1841. He waited over twenty years to find exactly the right place to use it in fiction.
The scene in the police office is again a graphic rather than a literary one, and in posing and lighting the three principal characters, Hugo may have been influenced by a theme common in medieval painting — the struggle between an angel and a devil for the possession of a cringing soul. Indeed, in their taste for local color and specific detail, as opposed to general truths, the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century are much alike.