Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Fantine: Book V, Chapters 1-7
In 1818, Montreuil becomes much more prosperous than it has previously been, thanks to a mysterious stranger, M. Madeleine, who has established a flourishing industry that he runs not only efficiently but with much humanity. He has become a father to his workers and to the whole community. His unfailing generosity has won him the post of mayor.
In 1821, a shadow is cast on M. Madeleine's good fortune. The local paper carries the announcement of M. Myriel's death. The next day, Madeleine appears dressed in black with a mourning band in his hat.
Somewhat later, M. Madeleine endears himself further to the town by a heroic exploit. As he walks down the street, he sees one of his few enemies, Father Fauchelevent, caught under the wheels of his own cart. Immediate action is imperative. Madeleine offers a generous reward to induce the bystanders to lift the carriage, but the task requires Herculean strength and no one will volunteer. Faced with Fauchelevent's imminent death, Madeleine reluctantly undertakes the rescue himself and in one supreme effort manages to lift the carriage sufficiently to free the victim.
Paradoxically, Madeleine's heroism is to have ominous results for himself. It awakens the suspicions of his chief of police, Inspector Javert, for Madeleine's strength reminds him of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict he had known in Toulon.
This Javert is described at some length by Hugo. He is the epitome of the devoted police officer, incorruptible and relentless. He renders blind obedience to all constituted authority and by the same token condemns any and all lawbreakers to legal damnation.
The transformation of Jean Valjean into M. Madeleine is improbable, coincidental, and comes out of the same formula box as The Count of Monte Cristo; nevertheless, it is psychologically and artistically satisfying. We recognize, as Hugo does, that it is not enough for Jean Valjean to have experienced a spiritual conversion; this conversion must be tested in action, and the wider the field of action, the more satisfactory the test.
In any case, Hugo makes it clear that this transformation is not intended to be a happy ending. Jean Valjean is still in jeopardy, still, like Fantine, at a halfway house, as is shown by the presence of Javert.
Once every few hundred years, an author manages to delineate a character at once so individual and so universal that he becomes a new archetype in literature. Chaucer developed Pandarus; Victor Hugo created Javert. With consummate artistry, Hugo blends Javert's history, his external appearance, and his inner nature to paint for us an unforgettable and terrifying portrait of a man-bloodhound, an inexorable and incorruptible police agent — a contradiction in terms in those days, when police forces were largely made up of "mouchards," or informers themselves involved in the criminal world.
What is most terrifying about Javert, however, is neither his persistence nor his purity but the fact that like a robot he decides always according to the letter of the law and not its spirit. Because of this, he makes both Fantine and Jean Valjean suffer acutely, but in the long run their weakness proves spiritual strength, and Javert's strength a spiritual weakness.