PartI-Fantine The year is 1815 and Napoleon has just been defeated at Waterloo. Bishop Myriel lives a quiet life as a just man, who is especially sympathetic toward the poor, bandits, and convicts. One day a strange man asks for shelter at his home and, with his usual compassion, the bishop gives him room and board. This man is Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison after serving alengthy, unjust sentence, during which he tried to escape numerous times. Valjean is angry, hurt, and vengeful. His soul has "withered" and all but died. The bishop urges him to replace anger with goodwill in order to be worthy of respect: "You have left a place of suffering. But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner, than over the white robes of a hundred goodmen. If you are leaving that sorrowful place with hate and anger against men, you are worthy of compassion; if you leave it with goodwill, gentleness, and peace, you are better than any of us."
Valjean listens. Nevertheless, he decides to rob the good bishop. During the night, he runs away with the bishop's silver. He is caught and brought back to the bishop, who tells the police that he himselfgave Valjean these precious objects. Later Bishop Myriel tells Valjean, "you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition and I give it to God!" Valjean is stunned. After he steals a coin from a little boy, he has an epiphany: "he could see his life, and it seemed horrible; his soul, and it seemedfrightful. There was, however, a gentler light shining on that life and soul."
Fantine is a seamstress unjustly fired once her employer learns about her scandalous past. Abandoned by her lover, she is hungry, destitute, and unable to care for her daughter, Cosette. First she sells her hair, then her teeth, before finally prostituting herself. At this stage of the story, Fantine has "endured all,borne all, experienced all, suffered all, lost all, wept for all. She is resigned, with that resignation that resembles indifference as death resembles sleep." She leaves two-year-old Cosette to the care of the Thenardiers, who run a tavern in the outskirts of Paris. Cosette is poorly treated by the couple and their two daughters. The Thenardiers view Cosette as their domestic slave, all the whiledemanding more and more money for Cosette's care. Fantine must continue selling her body to pay for Cosette's keep.
Valjean assumes a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, and becomes a good citizen, a rich industrialist, and ultimately mayor. Valjean saves Fantine from the police (headed by Inspector Javert) once he discovers she was fired from the very factory under his care. He wants to redeemher, but it is too late. Fantine is sick and soon dies.
At the same time, Champmathieu is falsely accused of being Valjean by Inspector Javert, whose lifelong goal has been to find the escaped convict Valjean. Javert was a "formidable man" whose mother was a fortune-teller and whose father was in the galleys "His stare was cold and as piercing as a gimlet. His whole life was contained in thesetwo words: waking and watching." After a long night of hesitation—to accuse Champmathieu would save him from Javert, to keep silent would send an innocent man to death—Valjean decides to confess his true identity to save the wrongly accused man:
He declared that his life, in truth, did have an object. But what object? to conceal his name? to deceive the police? was it for so petty a thing...