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BOOK THIRD: In the year 1817
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 21 st 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.
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.