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BOOK FIFTH: The Descent
Upon returning to M sur m, Fantine finds her town greatly changed. An unknown man has changed the method of manufacturing a popular glass trinket (know as jet work) and has turned it into a highly profitable industry with jobs for many. The man is Jean Valjean. On the day he entered the town, a fire had broken out in one of the buildings. Valjean had rushed into the building and saved the lives of 2 daughters of one of the gendarmes (French police). He is consequently dubbed “Father Madeleine.”
As Madeleine, Valjean does so much for the town, including the building of two new factories and additions to the hospital, that he is offered several different promotions. He refuses them all, but eventually has the title of Major all but forced on him. Major Madeleine continues doing good deeds in secret and spends time teaching the poor how to do things to make their lives easier.
(Subsection IV) Valjean receives word of the death of Monseigneur Bienvenu and is seen in mourning. Thus people begin to assume that he was related to the Bishop somehow.
Subsection V introduces Javert, the police inspector of M sur m. He is a man completely devoted to his duty under the law-or at least to his perception of his duty. He has no pity for any one who breaks the law, no matter how slight the offense. In his youth he was stationed in the galleys at Toulon. He is convinced that he knows Monsieur Mayor, but can’t place him. Madeleine gives away his true identity one day when he rescues an old man, Monsieur Fauchelevent who has fallen under his cart as it was sinking in the mud. When no one is available to lift the wagon, Madeleine crawls underneath and lifts the wagon on his back. Javert, who watches the episode, says that the only person he ever knew with the strength to lift such a wagon was a convict in the galleys. That convict was of course Valjean, but if Javert truly believes Madeleine is Valjean, he is unable to do anything about it. The entire town virtually worships Madeleine.
(Subsections VIII-XII) Fantine enters M sur m and takes a job at the jet work factory. The job enables her to send money twice a month for Fantine. Her letters bring the suspicion of her co-workers who soon discover where her letters are going. Someone investigates the Thenardiers and discovers that Fantine has a child. The woman foreman, Madame Victurnien, fires her for lack of morals. Fantine takes a job mending shirts, living on nothing for herself, refusing even to light a fire for heat. When that is not enough, she sells her hair and teeth for money, then soon turns to prostitution. Her situation is made more desperate by the Thenardiers demands for additional money on the pretext that Cosette is sick.
Finally Fantine gets arrested by Javert for attacking a dandy who threw a fistful of snow at her bare back-after several minutes of insulting and ridiculing her. Madeleine comes to the rescue and refuses to allow Javert to put her prison. Fantine mocks Madeleine’s generosity, blaming him for her condition in the first place. When Madeleine hears her story, he takes on the responsibility of providing her with sustenance and promises to get her and Cosette back together.
Fantine is something of a foil to Valjean. Like him, she is the victim of a system mired in its own tunnel vision. Her co- workers catch her sending regular letters and get snoopy. Soon a person discovers that she has a child and reports it, accusing her of illicit behavior. The Madame never looks for other possibilities, but just assumes that a girl could not have a baby out of wedlock unless she was a prostitute or some similar low life. Valjean trusts his supervisors a little too much and does not ask them to account for the people they hire and fire. Thus Fantine’s only sin is one of innocence; her punishment, like Valjean’s is to bear the injustice of society on herself. Perhaps one reason Valjean is so sympathetic toward her is that he realizes her situation is not unlike his own.