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Free Study Guide for Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: "Les Mis"

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LES MISERABLES: FREE STUDY NOTES / LESSON PLANS

FANTINE

Book Third: The Year 1817

Summary

The year 1817 is one of contradictions and chaos. Names of streets and familiar landmarks have been changed to reflect governing loyalties and partisanship. Unlikely people associate with each other and people receive prison sentences for being associated with a party their judge happens to oppose. To study in Paris, to swap opinions and speculations, however pointless, seems to be the intent of many young men who call themselves students.

Four students are introduced: Tholomyes, Listolier, Fameuil and Blacheville, friends whose girlfriends-Zephine, Dahlia, Favourite and Fantine- are also friends with each other. Of the four girls, Fantine is the only one who has had no previous relationships. She is the youngest and least experienced in the ways of either the students or the streets. She is an orphan, abandoned at birth, who came to Paris at 15 to seek her fortune. She falls in love with Tholomyes, although, for him, she is a mere dalliance.

The young men have spent about two years in Paris, accomplishing little, and have apparently been trying to avoid having to account for themselves to their parents, although Tholomyes himself is thirty years old. One day he dreams up a scheme for “surprising” the girls who have been asking for a “surprise” for some time. The girls have gifts in mind, but the young men are pondering something frivolous and even cruel. They meet the girls at 5:00 AM one morning and go for breakfast, then spend the day wandering about Paris, eating, engaging in empty philosophical chat and visiting their favorite spots. A bit of foreshadowing is provided when Blacheville asks Favourite what she would do if he left her. She vows that she would pursue him to the ends of the earth, so great is her love, but a few moments later, she confides to the other girls that she actually detests him. Tholomyes delivers a lengthy lecture on the purpose of love and cautions against marriage. He describes for the girls what he perceives as each of their faults-although his only criticism of Fantine is that she is too beautiful, too innocent, too fragile. In 21st century terms, we could say that his general ideology is to “love ‘em and leave ‘em.”


After supper, Tholomyes announces that the moment for the surprise has come. The young men tell the girls to wait while they leave the inn on an errand. An hour later a porter delivers a letter which tells the girls that the men have left to return to their respective homes. This is their surprise. For three of the girls, it is just a cruel joke at the hands of men they didn’t care much about anyway. For Fantine, it is disaster, for she not only loves Tholomyes but also has a child by him.

Notes

Fantine is the picture of innocent girlhood who is taken advantage of by the playboy-type students. There is a stark if implicit double standard at work as there seems to be no repercussion for Tholomyes, the father of her child; Fantine herself, however, has to find a way to hide the child in order to provide for it. She is parallel to Valjean in her plight, as she is as much a prisoner of her mistakes as he is of his. Fantine will die for her mistake, and in a way, Valjean will also, although for him it will be much later in life.


Book Fourth: Entrust is Sometimes to Abandon

Summary

Fantine has been abandoned for nearly two years. She has sold all of her own finery, keeping only bare essentials in an attempt to care for her baby Cosette. She decides to return to her native town, called simply M-sur-m, but on the way she happens across Madame Thenardier who is sitting outside an inn with her own two children. The youngest child is the same age as Cosette and the children seem to play well together. The Thenardiers agree to keep Cosette for a monthly fee-which soon goes up-some additional expenses and her wardrobe. Fantine sends money faithfully, but as the child grows, the Thenardiers soon abuse and neglect Cosette, even to the point of using her as a slave. Fantine never knows her child’s true condition.

Notes

The introduction of the Thenardiers into the story brings in an evil element that will become a complication for Valjean more than for Cosette. Although they have the care of her for several years, they really have no affection or interest in her. When Valjean appears on the scene and unwittingly displays a contradiction between his appearance and his actual financial situation, the ground is laid for Thenardier to attempt his fraudulent practices at every opportunity. Thenardier himself is the lowest of unsavory elements, and the loss of his inn will eventually reveal his true character. The Thenardiess is no better, but is subject to her husband; thus she exercises her own cruel nature on Cosette and neglects her own son.


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