**Again, just a reminder that I am reading the Fahnestock and McAfee translation. So all quotes and page numbers are from this particular translation.**
This week’s reading brought us to the end of the Fantine section. We don’t get introduced to Fantine until well into this section; and this week’s reading shows us Fantine’s decline and then death.
Fantine goes back to her home town after having been gone for many years. It had changed since she had lived there. It was known for making certain types of beads and jewelry. An unknown man had come to town and suggested a new way of making the material and also a new way to make a clasp on the bracelets. It revolutionized things and made him rich. This same man, when first entering the town, helped when the town hall was on fire. He risked his life going into the building and saving two children who happened to be the children of the gendarme captain. In that moment, no one thought to ask him for his papers/passport. From that time he became known as Father Madeleine or M. Madeleine. And Book 7, Ch. 3 reveals to us that M. Madeleine is Jean Valjean.
We read about various things he did for the city on p. 160. We see how people would want to bestow honors upon him but he would always turn those honors down. (p. 161) M. Madeleine/Valjean is surely on his way to becoming a great humanitarian like Bishop Myriel. He tries to help the poor, improve the city, do good when he can.
We also learn that Bishop Myriel dies and Valjean goes into mourning.
M. Madeleine left all the workings of the women’s department of his factory under the head of Madame Victurnien. He had confidence in her and thought her to be upright and very respectable. Unfortunately, Madame Victurnien stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong and took it upon herself to expose the fact that Fantine had a child. As a result, Fantine loses her job at the factory. Fantine thought that this was done with the approval of M. Madeleine. However, that was not the case; M. Madeleine knew nothing about it.
Fantine tried hard to survive and provide the money the Thénardiers demanded for Cosette. She tried to be a servant but no one would have her. Her creditors were endlessly after her. She made shirts for soldiers. But it was not enough and she fell behind with money due to the Thénardiers. Her neighbor, Marguerite, taught her how to live in poverty…to stretch and make things last.
“There are many of these virtues in lowly places; someday they will be on high. This life has a day after.”
Fantine was ashamed to go out. She had to accustom herself to being stared at and disrespected. “She came and went, her head high and with a bitter smile, and felt that she was becoming shameless.” (p. 181)
She was weary and her cough worsened. Her hands were hot. But in the morning, she would comb her beautiful hair, and for a brief moment felt a happiness with that.
The Thénardiers continued to demand more money, and so she sold her hair. They demanded more again, telling Fantine that Cosette was sick and needed medicine. Of course she wasn’t sick; but Fantine did not know that. In the end, Fantine ended up selling her two front teeth in order to have enough money to pay them. Her hair was gone – the one thing that could still bring her even just a little hint of happiness. And now her two front teeth were gone, bringing her to utter desolation. Her creditors still hounded her relentlessly. And then once again, the Thénardiers demanded more money or they would toss Cosette out on the street. With no other recourse, no other work to be found that could pay her enough, she turned to the street.
“The poor cannot go to the far end of their rooms or to the far end of their lives, except by continually bending more and more.” (p. 185)
Fantine in essence became a commodity to society in order to survive.
“What is this story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from desertion, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a piece of bread. Misery makes the offer; society accepts.” (p. 186)
Let’s go back for a moment and talk about what the people in the town came to think of M. Madeliene. At first, people in the town slandered him. Then some would make mean comments about him. Then it was simply witty comments that would be made. Finally, those types of comments disappeared altogether. “…respect became complete, unanimous, cordial…” (p. 167) People consulted him. He settled disputes, differences, reconciled enemies, prevented lawsuits. The people even chose him as judge. Veneration of this man spread. But one man didn’t follow suit. And this man was Javert.
Inspector Javert is introduced in Book 6. We find out all about him, how he came to be in the police force, and what his character was like. Here’s just a couple of passages that describe him:
“The peasants of the Asturias believe that in every litter of wolves there is one pup that is killed by the mother for fear that on growing up it would devour the other little ones. Give a human face to this wolf’s son and you will have Javert.” (p. 169)
“This man was a compound of two sentiments, simple and good in themselves, but he made them almost evil by his exaggeration of them: respect for authority and hatred of rebellion…He had nothing but disdain, aversion, and disgust for all who had once overstepped the bounds of the law. He was absolute, admitting no exceptions.” (p. 170)
Javert was cautious when it came to M. Madeleine/Valjean. He felt as if maybe his face was a bit familiar to him. One day, a cart fell on an older man. No one would help M. Madeleine/Valjean get the cart off of the man. So he got up under the cart and lifted it enough and finally other people started helping. He did this despite the fact that Javert had commented that he had only seen one man in his life that had enough strength to do such a thing and that was a convict. M. Madeleine/Valjean knew that him using his strength to help the man might give him away to Javert; but he did it anyway. Javert just watched him, kept his eye on him.
There is a scene that takes place when Fantine is in front of a local business minding her own business. A guy starts giving her trouble and Fantine continues to just ignore him and mind her own business. He then puts snow down her back and she goes at him. Inspector Javert intervenes and takes Fantine to jail. In the jail scene, M. Madeleine intervenes on behalf of Fantine. Javert insists she must be imprisoned. He points out that Fantine insulted the Mayor and that insult should be in the hands of justice, no matter what M. Madeleine wants. And M. Madeleine responds, “‘Inspector Javert…the highest justice is conscience. I have heard this woman’s story. I know what I’m doing.’” (p. 195)
M. Madeleine tells Fantine that he’ll take her in, help her, pay her debts, get her child, and so forth. I appreciate this statement he makes: “‘I declare to you from this moment, if everything is as you say, and I do not doubt it, that you have never ceased to be virtuous and holy before God. Poor woman!’” (p. 197) He takes her to the infirmary that is in his own home and has the Sisters there take care of her. He visits her daily.
Up to this point, Valjean has managed to conceal his real identity and live in peace. “He lived peaceably, reassured and hopeful, with two remaining thoughts: to conceal his name, and to sanctify his life; to escape from men and to return to God.” (p. 218) But long story short, another man is mistaken to be Jean Valjean and Hugo spends a good amount of time showing the reader Valjean’s struggle of whether to remain where he is and keep his real identity concealed or go to the court and reveal that he is the real Valjean. In the end, he does reveal himself at the court and then leaves.
He goes back to his home and sees Fantine. And while he is there, Fantine dies. During this time, Javert shows up to arrest him. Arrest him he does; but Valjean breaks out and comes back home. Sister Simplice sees him enter. Valjean goes to his room and Sister Simplice follows him. Then they hear Javert arrive. Valjean hides and Sister Simplice, who was known for her complete honesty in all things, lies to Javert and says no one is in the room with her and that she hasn’t seen M. Madeleine (Valjean). Valjean manages to escape.
The chapter leaves us with an account of what happens to Fantine when she dies.
“And so Fantine was buried in the common grave of the cemetery, which belongs to everybody and to nobody, and in which the poor are lost. Fortunately, God knows where to find the soul. Fantine was laid away in the darkness among the homeless bodies; she suffered the promiscuity of dust. She was thrown into the public pit. Her grave was like her bed.” (p. 298)
“He always ate his meals alone, reading out of a book open in front of him. His library was small but well chosen. He loved books; books are cold but sure friends.” (p. 162)
“After a short silence, he added, ‘My friends, remember this: There are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators.’” (p. 163-164)
“The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves…” (p. 166)
“Though we chisel away as best we can at the mysterious block from which our life is made, the black vein of destiny continually reappears.” (p. 201)
“Nowhere can the mind’s eye find anything more dazzling or more obscure than in man; it can focus on nothing more awe-inspiring, more complex, more mysterious, or more infinite. There is one spectacle greater than the sea: That is the sky; there is one spectacle greater than the sky: That is the interior of the soul.” (p. 217)
“As he had during the morning, he watched the trees go by, the thatched roofs, the cultivated fields, and the dissolving views of the countryside that change at every turn of the road. Scenes like that are sometimes enough for the soul, and almost eliminate the need for thought.” (p. 246)
“The shocks of fate have this peculiarity, that however subdued or disciplined our feelings may be, they draw out the human nature from the depths of our souls and compel us to show it outwardly.” (p. 295)