So what happened to Fantine after she dropped Cosette with the Thénardiers? Nothing good. She goes to a town called Montreuil-sur-mer, her former home. Luckily for her, the town is booming because some dude named Monsieur Madeleine has invented a cheap way of making popular jewels and bracelets, turning his factory into an economic engine for the whole town.
No one in the town knows where Père Madeleine comes from. He's about fifty years old, and people can remember how he wore a poor person's clothes when he first entered the town.
From what we hear, Père Madeleine sounds a lot like Bishop Myriel. The guy is super rich, but he spends nearly all of his wealth on helping the poor and downtrodden. People in the town talk smack about him and say that he's up to something, but his behavior is always good and moral.
There are two clues to Madeleine's true identity: the two silver candlesticks on the mantle in his house and the fact that he goes into deep mourning when he hears about the death of Bishop Myriel.
Surprise! Père Madeleine is Jean Valjean. Looks like the guy has done pretty well for himself in the past few years.
But not all is well. Whenever Valjean walks through town, a local policeman named Javert gets all frowny and thinks to himself that he has certainly seen "Père Madeleine" somewhere before… somewhere like JAIL. Javert makes a mission of looking into Père Madeleine's past.
While walking down the street one day, Père Madeleine comes upon a horrible scene. An old man name Père Fauchelevent has gotten himself trapped under his horse-cart and the thing is sinking into the mud and crushing him. No one has the guts to risk getting under the cart and trying to lift it off the old man.
Père Madeleine runs up to Javert (who's on the scene) and asks him to do something. With a knowing glance, Javert says that the only man he's ever known with the right kind of strength was a convict he knew many years ago.
Oops. Now Père Madeleine is hesitating, since he knows he'll be outing himself as Jean Valjean if he does it.
Turns out that Jean Valjean is wanted for breaking his parole and for stealing money from a young boy (remember that ridiculous non-issue?). If he gets caught, it's back to jail for the rest of his life.
In the end, the call of conscience is too strong. He slips under the cart and heaves it off of Fauchelevent.
After the incident, Javert's suspicions are way up. In the meantime, Madeleine finds Fauchelevent work as a gardener in Paris.
All this happens around the time Fantine arrives in town. Luckily for her, the doors of Madeleine's a.k.a. Jean Valjean's factory are open to new workers, and she makes enough money to support herself and her daughter.
But people can't leave well enough alone and eventually get curious about who Fantine is and who she keeps writing letters to. The town gossips find out who's writing Fantine's letters for her (since she's illiterate), get him drunk, and then listen as he blabs that Fantine is an unwed mother.
The woman in charge of Fantine's job fires her immediately for being immoral, although Jean Valjean never hears about any of this. Meanwhile, the Thénardiers keep asking for more money for Cosette.
Things are not looking good for Fantine.
Fantine takes up sewing for money, but the job pays so little that she has to work more than fourteen hours a day to make ends meet. The strain is so hard on her that she eventually develops a cough that won't go away. (And in nineteenth-century novels, a cough that won't go away means only one thing.)
Fantine eventually sells her hair for money. Could be worse, right? It'll grow back.
Oh, it gets worse. Thénardier sends her a (false) letter saying that Cosette needs expensive medicine, so Fantine sells her front teeth to a barber, who pulls them out. Those won't grow back.
Thénardier is remorseless. He keeps writing for more money, threatening to turn Cosette out into the cold if Fantine doesn't pay up. Eventually, there's nothing for Fantine to do but start working as a prostitute.
One night, Fantine is walking along the street when a man walks up to her and tries to act all flirty. She has no time for him, so he throws a bunch of snow down the back of her dress as a prank. Fantine attacks him with her nails, like you do, and then all of a sudden Javert is on the scene. Since Fantine is a prostitute and the other dude is a "respectable" citizen, Fantine is the one who gets pulled off to the police station.
(Are you outraged yet? You're supposed to be.)
At the station, Fantine pleads with Javert, saying that she'll do anything to avoid going to jail. But Javert is having none of it.
Luckily, Jean Valjean (aka Père Madeleine) overhears her pleas and walks over to her. She realizes that he's the dude whose factory she got fired from and spits in his face. At this point, Jean Valjean orders Javert to let Fantine go free. As the town's mayor, Jean Valjean has the power to do this.
Javert isn't happy about it, but by the end of the whole incident, Fantine is free and Javert has been humiliated. Now he really, really has it in for Père Madeleine (Jean Valjean).
Once Fantine is free, Jean Valjean wants to know the whole story. He tells Fantine that she won't have to worry anymore, because he's going to take care of her and her daughter. Fantine is so overcome with joy that she collapses in his arms.
Jean Valjean has Fantine taken to the infirmary in his factory, where she rests. That same night, Javert writes a letter to Paris concerning "Père Madeleine."
Valjean writes to Thénardier and sends him a bunch of money, telling him to send Cosette as quickly as possible, which honestly does not seem like the best idea. And it's not—Thénardier figures that he can get more out of Madeleine, so he makes up excuses for not sending Cosette.
Every day, Fantine asks when she'll be able to see Cosette, but it'd better be soon, because the woman is dying.
One day while working in his office, Jean Valjean gets an apologetic visit from Inspector Javert. He confesses that he has suspected "Père Madeleine" of being an ex-convict named Jean Valjean—but he's found out that he's wrong. See, Père Madeleine can't be Jean Valjean because the real Jean Valjean has already been found and is about to go to prison for life.
Javert is crushed by his failure as a policeman and asks Valjean to fire him. Valjean won't do it, though, and he's a little too busy having a crisis of conscience to deal with Javert's self-doubt.
The question: should Valjean continue living a good life and improving the lives of people around him, or should he do the honest, life-ruining thing by turning himself in? (Might want to grab your highlighters, Shmoop-o-nauts, because this is one of the book's Big Questions.)
In the end, Valjean can't bear to let someone else go to jail for him.
The trial of the wrongfully accused man is going on in another town, and Jean Valjean hauls butt so he gets there in time to confess in front of the whole courtroom.
The courtroom is so stunned that Jean Valjean is able to sashay out and return home while people argue about whether to arrest a guy who's so popular and successful.
Back in Montreuil-sur-mer, Jean Valjean goes to visit Fantine. He's convinced her that Cosette is waiting in the next room, when she gets this really horrified look on her face. It's Inspector Javert!
Valjean asks Javert for three days' leave to go find Fantine's daughter and bring her to Fantine, at which point Fantine realizes that he was lying about Cosette being nearby and dies, partly from tuberculosis but also partly from heartbreak.
Valjean leans over her and whispers something that no one can hear – not even us. Then he turns and surrenders to Javert.
Not long after, Valjean shows up at his home. He has broken out of the town jail and is on the run. In the meantime, Fantine gets buried in the town churchyard.