Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Fantine: Books VI-VIII
Fantine catches a high fever and Madeleine has her transported to the infirmary he has endowed. True to his word, he also writes the Thénardiers telling them to send Cosette. They, of course, sensing a profit, raise their financial demands; Madeleine immediately meets them. Unfortunately, Fantine is not getting better in spite of the nuns' devoted care. One day the doctor ominously recommends that Cosette be sent for as quickly as possible. Madeleine, armed with a note from Fantine, decides to get Cosette himself from the Thénardiers, who so far have stubbornly refused to give her up.
However, catastrophe is about to descend upon both Madeleine and Fantine. Unbeknown to the mayor, Javert has investigated Madeleine's past. Now Javert comes to see him with a surprising request: he wants to be relieved of his duties as inspector. He has in his own eyes committed an unpardonable transgression: he has accused Madeleine of being the ex-convict Jean Valjean. But the real Valjean has just been found; he now goes under the name of Champmathieu and has been arrested for stealing some apples by climbing the walls of an orchard and breaking off a branch. The identification is positive; not only has he been recognized by three of his fellow inmates, but Javert himself swears that the accused is Valjean. He is, in fact, leaving for Arras to testify at the trial, which is to take place the next day.
After Javert's departure, Valjean goes to the infirmary, stays with Fantine longer than usual, and recommends her to the special care of the nuns. Then he goes to a stable and rents a sturdy horse and carriage for 4:30 the next morning.
Until the arrival of the carriage, he spends an agonizing, sleepless night. Irrationally he locks the door and blows out the candle. For one long hour, his head burning, he contemplates with horror the abyss into which he is about to slip. Then, with immense relief, he resolves to let fate have its way, to sacrifice Champmathieu to his own security. Later, however, the reproachful image of the bishop looms before him and he decides to give himself up. He puts his affairs in order, but the battle is not yet over: doubts and fearful visions weaken his resolve. He changes his mind again, this time even more definitely because the new solution seems morally right. He convinces himself that the welfare of many others — Fantine, Cosette, the whole town — depends on his staying out of prison. But his conscience returns to the assault, more imperious, more inflexible, until it seems like a real voice filling the room. For five endless hours he undergoes this torture, like Christ at Gethsemane.
At three o'clock he falls asleep, exhausted. But nightmarish dreams disturb his rest. He sees his dead brother, finds himself in a deserted village, among enigmatic crowds. He is abruptly awakened by his servant announcing the arrival of the carriage. For a moment he listens in an uncomprehending stupor. Then he says the fateful words: "All right, I'm coming down."
Driven by a mysterious compulsion, Valjean drives furiously to Arras. On the way, the wheels of a coach going in the opposite direction strike his, but he does not stop. At daybreak he has left Montreuil far behind. Several hours later, he stops at Hesdin to feed his horse and let him rest, only to find out his wheel has been broken in the accident. Valjean, however, will not give up. He wants to take the stagecoach. Impossible. He tries to borrow a horse. None available. He attempts to rent a carriage. There aren't any. Now he allows himself a long sigh of relief. He has done his best.
But fate has decided that he is not to be spared his tragic confrontation. Suddenly, an old woman approaches him and offers him an old wreck of a carriage. He accepts and goes on. Late in the evening, after innumerable difficulties, Valjean reaches Arras.
At Arras, Valjean sets out for the courthouse. He makes his way through a crowd of sinister-looking lawyers and attempts to get into the courtroom, but the place is packed. There are only a few seats left behind the presiding judge reserved to public officials. Reluctantly, Valjean requests admission as mayor of Montreuil. Thanks to his widespread reputation, he is welcomed with great deference. He steps into the judge's chamber and, overcome by panic, flees, only to return once more with a sense of doom. Hypnotized by the copper handle of the door, he opens it like an automaton and finds himself in the courtroom. In the semi-darkness, he discovers the accused and has the anguished vision of himself back in jail, a reversion to the degenerate and wretched creature he had been. Terrified, he sinks into a seat and bides his distress behind a pile of boxes.
Then he proceeds to watch the horrible spectacle of an innocent man crushed by the weight of evidence and the formidable apparatus of the law. Before the inexorable questions of the prosecutors, Champmathieu has only one pathetic defense: bewilderment.
Dramatically, the mayor interrupts the proceeding by confessing that he, and not Champmathieu, is Jean Valjean. He turns to the convicts and gives them such personal details about themselves that they are forced to recognize him. The audience is so stunned that nobody stops Madeleine-Valjean from leaving the courtroom; indeed, someone even opens the door for him.
Back in Montreuil, Valjean goes directly to the infirmary. Sister Simplicity is surprised by his unannounced arrival but even more by his appearance, for his hair has turned snow white.
He enters Fantine's room and observes her thoughtfully while she sleeps. She, too, has changed. The approach of death has given her an ethereal glow, an inexpressible serenity. When she wakes up, she looks at Madeleine without surprise and with a touching faith asks "And Cosette?" He mumbles an inadequate reply; luckily, the doctor comes to his aid and tells Fantine that her daughter is here but will not be allowed to visit her mother until Fantine feels better. The lie comforts Fantine, but with growing excitement she begins to talk about her daughter. Suddenly she stops and points behind Madeleine. He turns around and sees Javert, who with an expression of demoniac joy orders the mayor to come with him.
When Valjean fails to comply, the policeman grabs him by the collar. Valjean does not resist but, in a quiet voice, asks Javert privately for three days to go and bring back Cosette. Javert refuses, sneeringly and loudly, and Fantine realizes that her daughter has not arrived and that the mayor is a criminal under arrest. She suffers a convulsion and the shock kills her.
In Valjean's eyes, Javert has murdered her, and he is overcome by a terrible silent anger. Defying Javert, he says a silent goodbye to the dead woman and whispers a promise in her ear. Then he places himself at Javert's disposal.
The news of Valjean's arrest spreads quickly through Montreuil. The town to which he has brought prosperity unanimously rejects him. Only his old servant remains faithful. In the evening, as she sits musing over his tragedy, Valjean suddenly appears, explains that he has broken a bar of the jail window, and asks her to get Sister Simplicity. In his room, with closed shutters, he then packs up Little Gervais' coin and the bishop's candlesticks.
Sister Simplicity faithfully answers the summons and Javert, of course, follows soon after. In spite of the protestations of the servant, he resolutely climbs the stairs. Sister Simplicity falls to her knees and begins to pray, and continues to pray as Javert enters. His first impulse is to withdraw, but his professional conscience urges him on. Twice he asks the sister whether she has seen Valjean and twice she who has never lied answers "No." The categorical denial of such a holy person satisfies Javert and he insists no further.
An hour later, Valjean is walking quickly toward Paris. As for Fantine, she is thrown in a common grave to suffer the promiscuity of the dead as she had suffered the promiscuity of the living.
Jean Valjean is sometimes spoken of as a "Christ figure," and Hugo, when he compares M. Madeleine's silent inner struggle with that in the Garden of Gethsemane, seems to underline this similarity, but it is not really an accurate comparison. Jean Valjean is a man from beginning to end and nowhere more human than here when he tries to use fate, accident, and his own responsibility to others as arguments to avoid his Calvary. Even when he does go to Arras, it is not so much the result of a conscious decision to sacrifice himself to another as out of the instinctive knowledge, which his dream has brought him, that if he does not go he will have no life left worth living. He will be spiritually dead.
The courtroom scene in which he declares his identity forms a perfect conclusion to Part One and is the exact counterpart of the meeting between Jean Valjean and the bishop early in the novel. Now, however, Champmathieu is the ignorant benighted victim persecuted by society; Jean Valjean's suddenly white hair underlines the fact that he has inherited the saintliness of the Bishop of Digne.