Last time we saw how Fantine got canned because her coworkers at the factory were malicious busybodies. Father Madeleine required the women at his factory to be honest and have good morals; unfortunately the part about good morals did not extend to gossip and meddling in others’ business.
Now we see Fantine’s descent into utter and abject poverty. This portion of the story is a real downer, so I will try to get through it as quickly as possible.
At first, Fantine was ashamed to go out after she was fired. She imagined that every passerby in the street knew about her secret, and that they all stared at her and talked about her behind her back. But eventually she became accustomed to disrespect as she had to poverty, and started going out with her head held high and a bitter smile. Madame Victurnien, the busybody who started all this trouble for Fantine, saw her out occasionally:
From her window Madame Victurnien sometimes saw her going by, noticed the distress of “that creature,” “thanks to me put back to her place,” and congratulated herself. The malicious have a dark happiness.
And to make matters worse, Fantine was starting to get sick. She had a slight dry cough, which got worse because of the strain of excessive work.
She made a little bit of money by sewing shirts for the soldiers who were stationed in the garrison at MSM. This did not give her nearly enough to live on, but at least it was better than nothing. A year passed like this for Fantine: she was fired at the end of winter, summer came and then winter came around again. Victor Hugo describes it as follows:
Short days, less work. In winter there is no heat, no light, no noon, evening touches morning, there is fog, and mist, the window is frosted, and you can’t see clearly. The sky is a dungeon window. The whole day is a cellar. The sun has the look of a beggar. Horrible season! Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man. Her creditors harassed her.
Fantine was still in debt for her furniture, even though she had returned a goodly portion of it shortly after being fired. And she was falling farther behind in her payments to the Thenardiers. Now the Thenardiers were having financial troubles of their own, so they looked to bleed Fantine for whatever they could possibly get from her. So one day they sent a letter saying that Cosette was in need of clothes for the winter. She cut off her hair and sold it for ten francs, this enabled her to buy a wool skirt for Cosette. She sent this to the Thenardiers; they were furious because they wanted the money and not the skirt. They had no intention of using the money to buy winter clothes for Cosette. They gave the skirt to Eponine.
Later the Thenardiers sent Fantine a letter saying that Cosette had come down with military fever and that they needed money for medications. At first Fantine laughed, but upon learning that military fever is a very serious disease, she realized that she had to do something. As she passed through town she saw a crowd gathered around a traveling juggler and dentist who was offering complete sets of teeth for sale to the public. He saw her and offered her forty francs for her two front teeth. Reluctantly she accepted; this would give her enough money for Cosette’s medications. As it turns out, the Thenardiers were lying about the military fever. Cosette was not sick at all.
Through all of this, a change was taking place inside Fantine’s heart. And not a good one.
When she saw that she could no longer comb her hair, she began to look with hatred on everything around her. She had long shared in the universal veneration of Father Madeleine; nevertheless by dint of repeating to herself that it was he who had turned her away, that he was the cause of her misfortunes, she came to hate him particularly. If she passed the factory when the workers were at the door, she would force herself to laugh and sing.
An old working woman who saw her singing and laughing this way, said, “That girl will come to a bad end.”
Here we have someone who has no concern whatsoever for Fantine, who wants the freedom to make the judgment that she will come to a bad end without the responsibility of doing anything to help her not come to a bad end. What was not said in this remark, but clearly implied, was that Fantine deserved to come to a bad end. Why? Simply because she looked and carried herself in a certain way. All of Fantine’s coworkers shared the same thought process: they wanted to be intimately concerned about her life but they wanted nothing to do with the responsibility to make her life better. They passed a judgment on her, simply because she looked and behaved in a certain way, and that was the end of any compassion which they might have felt for her.
Fantine threw her mirror out the window. Long before that she had left her tiny room on the second floor for an attic room closed only with a latch; one of those garret rooms where the ceiling slants down to the floor and you constantly hit your head. 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….She coughed a great deal. She hated Father Madeleine profoundly, and she never complained. She sewed seventeen hours a day, but a contractor who was using prison labor suddenly cut the price, and this reduced the day’s wages of free laborers to nine sous. Seventeen hours of work, and nine sous a day! Her creditors were more pitiless than ever. The secondhand dealer, who had taken back nearly all his furniture, kept saying to her, “When will you pay me, woman?”
Good God! What did they want her to do? She felt hunted down, and something of the wild beast began to develop within her.
And then Thenardier wrote to tell her that they needed a hundred francs immediately, or else Cosette, who was convalescing from her illness (which was all a lie concocted by the Thenardiers), would be turned out into the street. This pushed Fantine over the edge:
“A hundred francs,” thought Fantine. “But where is there a way to earn a hundred sous a day?”
“All right!” she said. “I’ll sell what’s left.”
The unfortunate creature became a woman of the streets.
When we first met Fantine we saw that the primary marks of her beauty were her teeth and her hair. Both of these were gone now, sold off to pay her ever-increasing debts. This left her with only one thing to sell–herself.
Fantine’s coworkers turned against her and had her forced out because they judged her to be a woman of loose morals and a whore. And finally, as a direct result of their actions against her, she became exactly what they had judged her to be in the first place.