“Fantine,” opens the novel. It is 1815 and amidst France’s restoration to monarchy and the impending downfall of Napoleon I , readers are introduced to Jean Valjean, a former convict who served 19 years in the galleys for breaking a window and stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery. As the novel starts, so does Valjean’s new life as a free man. On the brink of hating the injustices of society, Valjean meets a man who shows him that there is still kindness and hope left in humanity. Valjean’s tainted soul is bought back for him by the saint-like bishop whom Valjean had stolen from. Ashamed and repentant, Valjean vows to live an upright life, helping the poor, the sick and the needy.
In 1818, we meet Fantine, a young woman who is older than her years. She has had a hard life, wanting nothing in life except to live and love freely. A poor girl from the province who goes to the city to seek her fortune but finding hardships instead, Fantine seeks solace in the arms of a man who shows her what love is. Unfortunately, their affair was short-lived, but it bore fruit nontheless, in the form of a little girl which Fantine called Cosette.
Needing to survive but also wanting the best for her daughter, Fantine decides to leave Paris and return to her province to find work and start a new life. On her way home, she finds a kind couple who runs an inn, who are willing to take care of Cosette while she finds work. She promises the innkeeper and his wife to send money regularly for the care of Cosette, and to send for her when she had enough money.
The innkeepers, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier are less than kind and hospitable. They accept Cosette, with the intent of keeping her as a milk cow. As long as they had Cosette, the Thenardiers were ensured of recieving money from poor Fantine.
Fantine, happy at finding such seemingly warm and loving people whom she can trust her precious daughter to, travels back to her province, which is now an economically stable town due to factories on the rise. The factories have ensured employment for those who seek it and fortune for those willing to work hard.
The factories are owned by now wealthy Jean Valjean, also known as Monsieur Madeleine, who made good on his promise to the bishop to live an honest life. He had set up factories which employ anyone needing a job. He used his wealth to build hospitals for the sick, schools for children and homes for the elderly. His kindness is not lost on the people, who have asked him to become mayor of the city. Valjean concedes to the request of the people and becomes mayor of the city.
At first things go well for Fantine. She finds work in one of the factories and sends money regularly to the Thenardiers for the care of her daughter. Unfortunately, due to her unpopularity among her peers, when her secrets were discovered, her employment was terminated and she was left to fend for herself. Due to the unending demands of the Thenardier in behalf of her daughter, Fantine is forced to sell, at first, parts of her body – her hair, her teeth, and later, her body, to send money to her daughter. As poverty tightens its clutches on Fantine, she slowly deteriorates, both in mind and in body.
Enter, Inspector Javert, a straight and righteous police officer whose one goal in life is to do what is right; to punish the wicked and to uphold the law. He is strict and dogmatic and makes no exceptions to anyone who breaks the law. Javert, a fanatic at enforcing the law and serving justice, suspects Monsiuer Madeleine, the Mayor, of being the ex-convict Jean Valjean.
Fantine’s and Valjean’s paths cross one day after Fantine is wrongfully arrested by Inspector Javert. Valjean orders her release and takes it upon himself to care of Fantine after discovering that he was ultimately the cause of her unemployment and fall from grace. Fantine tells Valjean of her daughter Cosette, and Valjean promises her that she will soon be reunited with Cosette.
While Jean Valjean vows to take care of Fantine and Cosette, he is faced with another problem. Inspector Javert confesses to Valjean that he had reported him to the police for being the ex-convict that he was, but was shamed when he was told by the police that the real Jean Valjean had been identified and arrested in another city.
This discovery causes great conflict in Valjean’s mind. On the one hand, he is the mayor of the city and looks after the welfare of thousands of people, yet on the other hand, how can he live with himself knowing that an innocent man was going to jail in his stead.
As was his promise to the bishop to live a straight and honest life, he had worked hard to become wealthy and to help the less fortunate. However, now that his lie has caught up with him,how can he go on with life knowing that he has sentenced another man to a life of hard labor by pretending to be someone else?
Jean Valjean decides to do the right thing by admitting that he, and not the accused man, was indeed, the real Jean Valjean. Javert exalts in Valjean’s confession and loses to time to arrest the ex-Mayor.
But what of his new life as the Mayor of the town and the owner of factories which employ thousands of people?
And what of his promise to Fantine to save Cosette?