Category Archives: Book Commentary

It’s Not Just Javert. It’s the System.

A lot of Les Misérables adaptations tend to put extra focus on Javert’s role as Jean Valjean’s persecutor, making it personal. It makes for good drama, but it misses Victor Hugo’s point that the system is unjust.

It’s not just that Inspector Javert is an overly zealous and strict cop, or that he’s offended by M. Madeleine’s (to his mind) fraudulent upending of the social order, or that he’s the only police officer in France who believes Jean Valjean is still alive and resents the fact that he got away all those years ago.

It wasn’t Javert who arrested Jean Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Or sentenced him to five years imprisonment and hard labor in a harsh, inhumane prison system. Or extended his sentence to nineteen years because he tried to escape. Or paid him less than his labor was worth after he was finally released. Or insisted that he show papers identifying him as an ex-convict and “a dangerous man” every time he arrived in a new town. Or refused to allow him to buy food or stay at an inn. Or sentenced him to death (commuted to life in prison) for recidivism when he was recaptured, despite nearly a decade of honest living that built up a region’s prosperity.

It wasn’t Javert who railroaded Champmathieu, either. He helped, of course, but it was already in motion before he got involved. The system had a Jean-Valjean–shaped hole it needed to fill. It found someone who was close enough, and gathered witnesses who agreed that he fit.

Inspector Javert weaves in and out of the tale of everyone else’s misery, dealing out more when he sees fit. He suspects and denounces M. Madeleine, arrests Valjean for breaking parole and testifies against him at his trial, and pursues him to Paris. He arrests Fantine for defending herself (because her attacker was more respectable) and treats her cruelly on her deathbed. He’s set against the rebels in the June Rebellion.

But Javert, like everyone in the novel, is a symbol of some aspect of society: In this case, a justice system that cares more about preserving order and hierarchy than actual people. He puts a face on it, but he’s not an outlier, or a bad apple. He’s an exemplary cop, in fact — in several senses of the word.

The point isn’t that Javert hurts people with the justice system’s backing. The point is that the justice system hurts people unjustly, and Javert shows us how.

Les Misérables is more than an inverted detective story. It’s about showing how society is broken, and how that breakage causes human suffering, in the hopes of inspiring people to fix it.

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I listened to the latest episode of the Les Misérables Reading Companion, which brings us up to the introduction of Patron-Minette and the “Jondrette” family. A few thoughts:

  1. I’m impressed with the callback to the miner’s candlestick from back in Digne as Hugo dives into the mining metaphor. (Valjean considers using it to attack the sleeping Bishop. The Denny translation calls it a spike, losing the more immediate callback in the Bishop’s gift of actual candlesticks.)
  2. Now that she points it out, Éponine’s description when we first meet her as a teenager does rather resemble Fantine’s by the time she’s dying: skin and bones, prematurely aged, missing teeth, even a raspy voice.
  3. Three times through the book. Three times. And I never caught on to the implications of just how far Thénardier goes in exploiting his daughters. The way she’s undisturbed walking into Marius’ bedroom, phrases in the letters, the way she smiles at Marius at one point… Ugh.

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Marius Joins the Persecution

It’s so frustrating to watch Marius take part in the same condemnation that the people of Digne showed Jean Valjean when he arrived there two decades earlier. With all his ideals, you want him to know better, but he “had not yet made full progress” and still believes that shunning the ex-convict is the right thing to do. He makes Valjean unwelcome and does his best to distract Cosette and weaken her emotional ties to her father.

But Marius has also scrupulously tried to pay back Thénardier for saving his father’s life, despite knowing how vile he is. Unlike Javert, who struggles with the idea of owing Valjean his life, Marius wouldn’t hesitate to honor his debt of gratitude.

Valjean knows this. Maybe not the Thénardier connection, but he’s observed Marius’ character, and Marius has mentioned looking for the man who saved his life at the barricade. And he knows that Marius would insist that he stay…which is why he doesn’t tell him. Valjean tells Marius the bare minimum, leaving him to fill in the blanks as darkly as possible: he already believes Valjean murdered Javert, and as he investigates, he comes to believe that Valjean defrauded M. Madeleine.

Strangely enough, the one time Thénardier proves to be better at something than someone else is in investigating Jean Valjean. He turns up irrefutable evidence that Valjean is Madeleine, that he did not kill Javert, and that he rescued Marius. To be fair, that’s not what he was trying to prove…

But if Marius had asked questions, and Valjean had answered them, he would have reconciled the conflicting views right then and remained welcoming. Valjean might still have fallen into despair, might still have insisted on leaving (as he does in the musical), but Marius wouldn’t have been complicit.

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Valjean’s Depression Pretends to be his Conscience

Valjean’s steps to remove himself from Cosette and Marius’ new family are infuriating: he doesn’t need to do that! Why does he think he needs to do that?

But you can’t argue with depression.

It’s the beginning of a downward spiral: he’s come to believe that Cosette is better off without him.

His internal struggle, trying to decide whether he can accept the place offered in their household, is presented as the same type of struggle he fought at Digne before and after robbing the bishop, deciding to go to Arras to rescue Champmathieu, deciding whether to rescue Marius at the barricade…what kind of man will he be, and will he put others ahead of himself? It’s presented as the final test of his conscience, but I can’t read it that way.

All those cases involved significant harm to someone else balanced against his own wishes. That’s not the case here. While the law might still catch up to him, it’s a flimsy risk at best, and the danger to Cosette is no greater now that it has been for the past decade.

It’s no longer about sacrificing himself to help others. It’s about self-sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, because he feels deep down that he doesn’t deserve happiness. It’s the lingering impact of his 19 years in prison, how he was treated and the “dangerous man” he became as a result of it. He thinks his conscience wins out, but I disagree. It’s not his conscience. It’s the triumph of the prison system that condemned him to nineteen years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread for seven starving children. He’s free in body, but still there in spirit.

Despite everything he’s done, all the people he’s helped, the way he transformed other lives the way the bishop transformed his, deep down Valjean still believes he’s the scum of the earth, just like Javert did. So all the entreaties from Marius, Cosette and even Gillenormand that Valjean should stay can’t compete with the voice of his “conscience” – really his depression – telling him “they’re better off without you.” And he pushes them away.

Everyone is worse for it, himself included. But he simply sees it as proof that he was right: he doesn’t deserve to be happy with them.

I want to take Valjean by the shoulders, shake him, tell him he’s being an idiot, he doesn’t deserve to cut himself off, he’s loved here…

But depression doesn’t work that way.

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Cosette is Separated from Another Parent

By the time Jean Valjean rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers, she no longer remembers her mother. (She was about two when they last saw each other.) By the time she’s grown, she’s blocked out the trauma of those years so thoroughly that she’s forgotten that Valjean isn’t her real father.

This comes up when Valjean, drawing on his experience as a mayor, lays out a false paper trail giving her a legitimate family history (all dead) so she can legally marry. The money he had stashed away is presented as an inheritance from one of these dead relatives, setting her and Marius up for life.

It’s telling that he doesn’t fabricate this history in a way that makes him officially her father, but instead claims that he’s her uncle. (The nuns didn’t pay much attention to which Fauchelevent was Cosette’s father.)

In part it might be too easily disproven. Even if no one is looking for him anymore, he’s still a fugitive, and Thénardier at least is still out there. On the off chance he is found out, she’s insulated by being his ward and niece instead of his daughter. He even goes so far as to fake an injury so that he can’t sign her marriage certificate, so that there’s no risk of it being invalidated.

But he’s also already preparing to leave, and this makes it cleaner.

Also worth noting: the money he’s stashed away helps smooth over “a few peculiarities here and there” in the legalities. That’s not something Fantine would have had access to if she’d tried to pose as a widow back in Montrieul-sur-Mer and keep Cosette with her.

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