Tag Archives: Death

Derailing Javert’s One-Track Mind

One of his anxieties was that he was being made to think… In thinking, there is always a degree of inner conflict, and it angered him to have that inside him.

The scene is very still, taking place after midnight on a gloomy, starless night in a quiet part of town, where everyone has long since gone to sleep. Unlike the discordant song in the musical, it reads as silent…but the spot where Javert stops to think is above river rapids, swollen by the rain the day before. Stillness above, turmoil below — just as Javert shows no outward sign of the battle raging inside him.

Javert has always been a strict, by the book, no mercy, criminals and suspects deserve all the punishment they get kind of guy. He doesn’t need to think, just follow regulations. Cruelty doesn’t faze him, it’s just part of enforcing the rules. Kindness? Please.

When Jean Valjean spares his life, and Javert finds himself sparing Valjean’s freedom, he grows a conscience. He’s confused.

Suddenly he has to justify his actions to himself. He can’t just rely on hierarchy and dehumanization, he actually has to consider the human face and individuality of the people he’s locking up. And he thinks of several (minor) ways to improve humane treatment of prisoners.

Javert believes his cruelty in law enforcement is justified by authority and hierarchy and order, and he figures God agrees with him because earthly government is part of the same hierarchy. It’s only when, decades into his career, he’s confronted with the undeniable humanity and goodness of someone he’s persecuted that Javert starts to realize that his way of enforcing the law might actually be, in some cases, immoral.

Javert can’t handle that.

He can’t handle uncertainty.

He can’t deal with the fact that he was wrong.

He’s not prepared to consider each case individually.

He’s definitely not prepared to figure out which duty to follow when two come into conflict.

He’s used to following one track. Now there’s a fork, and he can’t decide which path to take.

Jean Valjean is faced with a number of these difficult life-altering choices. He weighs his options, puts off the decision until the last moment, and jumps head-first onto one path or the other.

Javert is broken by having to face a decision between two paths.

So he chooses neither.

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Jealousy

The musical gets rid of this part, but Éponine literally arranges to get Marius killed because he rejected her.

She’s been in full “If I can’t have him, no one can!” mode since foiling the robbery. She’s manipulated Jean Valjean and deceived Cosette to keep her away from Marius, and she’s sent Marius off to the barricade to die. She does throw herself in front of the bullet meant for him…but she says it’s because she wants to go first. It’s sort of a Rube Goldberg murder-suicide by cop.

This is not romantic. It’s villain territory. Reading it a few days after the Santa Fe school shooting (the killer had reportedly harassed and been rejected by one of the girls he shot) brought it into starker relief.

While she’s been helpful in the past, at this point she’s following in her father’s footsteps: the same sense of aggrieved entitlement, manipulating people from the shadows, and seeking revenge for perceived wrongs. But while her father’s too stubborn to give up, her life has been so awful that she has no hope left. The same desperation that allowed her to stand up to Patron-Minette leaves her feeling that there’s nothing left for her once she gets rid of Marius. The best she can hope for is that they’ll be together in death.

When Éponine is first re-introduced as Marius’ neighbor, she’s presented as someone who could have gone a different way, but the world had already started to grind her down. There’s no indication that either of her parents could have turned out better people, but we do get the sense that she could, under better circumstances. Her brother did, under similar deprivation but with more freedom. And since their parents neglected him to begin with, he didn’t see them as role models.

She’s fifteen, so she feels everything acutely. But she’s also world-weary. She has no hope of a future any better than the misery she’s lived through, and in fact there’s a good chance things will get worse for her if she survives.

In the musical, Éponine’s death is a tragedy. In the book, her tragedy has already unfolded, and her death simply completes it.

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Part 37: This is the End

The wedding is a new beginning for Marius and Cosette, but it’s the beginning of the end for Jean Valjean. Fortunately, Thénardier tries to blackmail the happy couple.

If M. Gillenormand has gone overboard with joy and opulence, Valjean has fallen into despair. He leaves the wedding early and agonizes all night.

In part, he’s concerned that his legal troubles might still spill over onto her. But it turns out after all these years of being a good person, doing good works, helping people, and so on, he still believes he’s the horrible no-good piece of scum who tried to rob the bishop.

Now that Javert’s gone, Valjean has taken over his role, apparently having internalized Javert’s opinion of him. At his most charitable, he feels like he’s manure used to help a beautiful flower grow.

Once again, it comes down to identity. As far as he’s concerned, only what he’s done as Jean Valjean really represents himself. Any good he’s done as “Madeleine” or “Fauchelevent” doesn’t count…and his conscience will no longer allow him to live under a false name.

This is the point where I really have trouble agreeing with Valjean’s decisions. Philosophically, if you do good deeds for a good reason, you’ve done the good deeds. Saying that doing good pseudonymously doesn’t matter is like saying that doing good anonymously doesn’t matter…and yet people will often do so because they want their deeds to speak louder than their names.

Conversely, you’d have to accept that evil done under a false name doesn’t accrue to your soul, and I can’t imagine Jean Valjean agreeing with that.

Separation Anxiety

So, the morning after the wedding, not having slept all night, Valjean goes to speak with Marius and starts trying to socially separate himself from Cosette as well.

Marius hasn’t slept all night either. (Bom-chicka-waaaa!) Later on, Cosette wanders out of their bedroom, hair all messy.

Valjean tells Marius just enough to make himself look bad, but leaves out critical information like: That money in Cosette’s trust fund was obtained through legitimate business. “As to how it came into my hands, that is quite unimportant.” No, you idiot, it’s a matter of life and death. (Yours, incidentally.)

He tells Cosette to call him “Monsieur Jean” instead of “father,” starts addressing her formally as vous and Madame, refuses to move into the Gillenormand household even though he’s been invited, visits only in the dampest first-floor room, etc.

“You mean that you’re no longer my father? You’ll be telling me next that I’m not Cosette!” Well, technically, you’re not…Euphrasie.

Cosette starts spending time with “new acquaintances brought to her by marriage.” WHO? All of Marius’ friends are dead.

Marius: All my friends are dead.

Toussaint, the live-in servant whom Hugo doesn’t mention that often, goes with Cosette, and eventually quits because she doesn’t get along with the Gillenormands’ maid. This leaves Valjean alone in his home and Cosette with one less link to her past.

Marius goes back and forth as to how much he trusts Valjean at this point. But ultimately, he believes that Valjean murdered Javert, and becomes more and more convinced the money in the trust fund is the loot from Valjean having defrauded M. Madeleine. This drives even more of a wedge between them: Valjean feels himself unworthy, and Marius starts making him unwelcome.

Eventually, Valjean can’t bring himself to knock on the door. Then he can’t bring himself to walk past the street corner. His walks get shorter and shorter, and eventually he stops leaving the apartment altogether. After a while he stops eating.

Cosette thinks he’s just gone off on one of his mysterious trips, a fiction encouraged by the fact that Valjean has instructed the doorman to tell people he’s not at home.

Valjean’s decline in the musical is shockingly rapid. Here it’s slower, but much, much sadder. This is what dying of a broken heart really means.

Blackmail Gone Wrong

Thénardier shows up at Marius’ office dressed in a costume rented from a man who specializes in providing outfits for criminals. No, his name isn’t Gambi.

Marius has done his research, and not only does he see through the disguise, he tells him point blank, “I already know what you’re going to tell me.” Thénardier, trying to regain the upper hand, proceeds to show him newspaper clippings proving otherwise: That Madeleine was in fact Valjean, that Javert survived the barricade after being spared by one of the rebels, only to be found drowned the next morning.

What a switch: He makes a point of providing printed evidence, because it’s so much harder to forge than handwritten evidence.

“The words murderer and thief, which Marius had thought disposed of, came like a cold douche.” Yes, Thénardier is a douche. I think we can all agree on that.

Of course, the master-stoke of showing the piece of torn fabric from the “murder victim’s” coat is foiled when Marius walks over to the closet and pulls out his old coat to show that the piece matches exactly.

Marius decides to hand Thénardier some money anyway to settle his long-standing obligation, and urges him to start an honest life in the Americas. He does go to America, but he goes into the slave trade.

Death of Valjean

With Thénardier’s information, Marius finally understands what’s been going on, and he and Cosette go to see Valjean in person. Valjean is on his deathbed, having not eaten in days, but brightens at their arrival. He can hang on a few more minutes.

“‘I told you the truth,’ said Valjean. ‘No. The truth means the whole truth, not just part of it. Why didn’t you tell me that you were Monsieur Madeleine and that you had spared Javert?” Probably because you might have talked him out of leaving.

Cosette: “I won’t allow you to spend another day in this horrible place.” Valjean: “Certainly I shan’t be here tomorrow.” Gallows humor isn’t something I really associate with Valjean, and yet here it is. The “forbid me to die” exchange is also in here.

Cosette: “there won’t be any more of this “Madame – Monsieur Jean” nonsense, we’re a republic and we call each other tu, don’t we, Marius?”

Jean Valjean’s “last confession” is a description of the manufacturing method for making those glass beads and bracelet clasps. At one point he interrupts their last-chance reunion to point out something he forgot to write down. It seems a little odd at first, but it was the fact that Marius believed Cosette’s fortune to be ill-gotten that drove his side of the schism.

Apparently Valjean never told Cosette her mother’s name until now. You’d think the Thénardiers might have mentioned her once in a while, but then she has blocked out most of her early memories.

He also remarks on the Thénardiers being wicked people whom they must forgive. Did he just come to that conclusion now, or was he willing to forgive them already but not himself? Marius doesn’t interrupt…it’s a dying man’s monologue…but I have to wonder if he caught the reference. The name doesn’t seem to have come up when he asked Cosette about her childhood, and I imagine it would have come as a shock to realize that they share still another connection.

Valjean dies happy, his face lit by the two candlesticks, after months of easily-preventable sadness. All he had to do was tell Marius the whole truth instead of just the bad parts. He might still have chosen to live apart, as he did at the Rue Plumet, he might still have struggled with depression and his conscience, he might even have still died within that year…but he didn’t need to make himself unwelcome to the only people who made him feel life was worth living.

Following Jean Valjean through despair to his death reminds me of two things: First, the old adage to count no man happy until he’s dead (variously attributed to Sophocles, Herodotus and Solon). I recently read a post by Robert J Sawyer on killing characters, which probably primed me to think of it. Second, the aspiring writer in the first volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, who had figured out the secret to happy endings: You have to know where to stop. Otherwise, all stories end in death.

They bury him in a hidden grave, marked only by a plain slab of stone. Someone — perhaps Cosette? — writes a verse in chalk:

He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,
He lived; and when his dear love left him, died.
It happened of itself, in the calm way
That in the evening night-time follows day

The Final Pages

Pages covered: 1139-1201.

And that’s it. It’s been a long, long project, and I can’t believe it’s done. I didn’t feel like I was really finished when I read the last page, but now that I have a full series of commentaries — within the calendar year, no less — it actually feels complete.

I don’t think I’ve ever finished a blog before. Abandoned, sure, but not concluded. I do still want to re-watch the movie now that I’ve finished the book, and I’ll write up some thoughts on that, and there’s going to be polishing to be done on the site: fixing typos, cross-linking articles, cleaning up the leftover boilerplate text from when they were on my other blog, things like that.

And who knows? I picked up the new Christine Donougher translation, The Wretched, because the Kindle edition was only a dollar. I might read that next year. Though if I do, I’ll probably confine myself to a single post, or at most one per volume.

If you’d like to continue reading my thoughts on other subjects, please check out K-Squared Ramblings, where I talk about life, tech, and geek interests, or Speed Force where I write about comic books and superheroes, particularly the Flash.

Thanks for following along with me on this journey, and I hope to see you elsewhere online!

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonReads@BookToot.Club on Mastodon.

Part 35: Jumper

Seine Bridge and Clouds - Vintage

After Javert helps Valjean take Marius home, Javert allows him to walk inside for a moment, then leaves before Valjean walks back out.

Javert in Disarray has also been translated as “Javert Derailed” and “Javert off the Track.” The idea that there might be more than one path, or that kindness exists (and might be shown by a felon!) is utterly foreign to him — as is reflection, which he finds “singularly painful.” It’s not just that Valjean showed him kindness. That might have shaken him, but not killed him. But that he himself did as well? Inconceivable.

He doesn’t even think about “the young rebel,” figuring he was probably dead anyway — and apparently doesn’t recognize Marius as “that little nincompoop of a lawyer” from last winter.

The spot he’s gone to is known as a treacherous part of the river. Even strong swimmers falling from a boat don’t emerge.

His thoughts go back to M. Madeleine and the Champmathieu affair, when he found himself in dispute with his superior and the only proper course was to resign. Now he sees a higher authority, “But how resign from God?”

Once he makes his decision, he walks to the nearest police post, writes up a list of policy recommendations for the service, leaves it with the on-duty officer, then walks back to the bridge.

The list is an odd mix of practical matters like ensuring that police carrying out surveillance have backup, and specific prison practices that he can’t justify morally, like forcing prisoners to take off their shoes when returning from interrogation (which leads to hospital expenses). Some of them I can absolutely see as being thoughts Javert has had in his mind for a while, but never felt he had the standing to recommend them. Others he must have noticed, but wouldn’t have considered them wrong until today.

I’ve gone over it a few times and I’m still not sure how much is “This is my last chance to make these suggestions” and how much is “I can finally make recommendations without endangering my career.” Hugo details his thoughts on the dilemma in great detail, but the moment he decides, the POV steps out of his head.

It was the sepulchral moment that succeeds midnight, with the stars hidden by cloud and not a light to be seen in the houses of the Cité, not a passer-by, only the faint, distant gleam of a street-lamp and the shadowy outlines of Notre-Dame and the Palais de Justice.

The Hat

Moments before he jumps — well, drops forward is more accurate — he sets his hat down on the railing. Something about this jogged a faint memory of a school assignment to rewrite a scene. I vaguely recalled trying to write a version where he simply walked away, leaving his hat behind but otherwise keeping the events intact (Hugo doesn’t actually tell you he jumps at this point, only that there was a splash)…but I can’t imagine how I would have earned that.

I did find an assignment from high school theater class back in 1993, saved in a file format for a word processing program that no longer exists, but that fortunately used plain text with control codes so that it’s still readable. I wrote a shorter version of the scene, describing Javert’s thoughts and pulling something else out of it: The thought that if Valjean could change and become good, Javert could change and become evil. He was irreversibly contaminated, and had to remove himself from the world for its own good. I mentioned this to Katie, and she thought it sounded like something that Javert would consider…but his mind wouldn’t allow him to consciously think about it.

Pages covered: 1104-1109. Image: Photo of a bridge over the Seine, taken on a trip I took back in 1999 and run through a vintage filter (and there’s an odd coincidence about that shot). Next up: A happy ending? Don’t count on it!

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Part 33: Last Stand at the Barricade

The barricade, and the wider insurrection it’s a part of, is doomed. We get another philosophical chapter, as Hugo contrasts the revolt which has the support of the populace with the revolt that doesn’t. Even if the revolution is noble in purpose, “One cannot goad people into moving faster than they are prepared to go.”

“Victory, if it is in accord with progress, deserves the applause of mankind; but an heroic defeat deserves one’s heartfelt sympathy.”

Nice: “We say to them: ‘You are robbing Hell of its pavements!’ To which they might reply: ‘That is why our barricade is built of good intentions.’”

Every once in a while, Hugo reminds the reader that, however socially progressive he might be, he still has his own blind spots. He wants society to stop exploiting women, but doesn’t want to fully enfranchise them. Here he comments on the need for civilization, and revolution, to have artists…but that “a civilizing race must be a masculine race.” It’s a bit jarring, even when you consider how imbalanced the cast is in both size and agency.

“The modern ideal finds its prototype in art and its method in science.”

“…in this play which centres upon a social outcast, and of which the real title is, Progress.” Well, it’s certainly easier to spell.

Page 1048: Hugo lays out the main theme of the whole book in a single paragraph.

The book which the reader now holds in his hands, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its details, whatever gaps, exceptions, or weaknesses it may contain, treats of the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from limbo to God. Matter itself is the starting-point, and the point of arrival is the soul. Hydra at the beginning, an angel at the end.

Fall of the Barricade

It’s still broad daylight when the army makes its full attack. Waves of soldiers attack, are repulsed, attack again. The army has a huge advantage in numbers, weaponry, and having actually eaten in the last day, but the barricade has the advantage of position…and being manned by idealists.

Enjolras is keeping himself out of sight while trying to keep track of the entire battle, while Marius “I want to die” Pontmercy sets himself up as a target.

“The defenders’ ammunition was running low, but not their sarcasm.” Bossuet asks what Courfeyrac did with his hat. “It was taken off by a cannon-ball.” Combeferre remarks of those who said they would join but didn’t, “There are people who observe the rules of honour as we do the stars, from a very long way off.”

After several waves of attacks, most of the defenders are killed, and the barricade is breached. Marius and Enjolras are the last of the students/leaders to survive, Marius drenched in blood from head and shoulder wounds, Enjolras remarkably unscathed because someone’s always there to hand him a new weapon when he needs one.

The last few rebels fall back to the tavern, Enjolras covering them alone while Marius collapses from loss of blood. They’re so focused on breaking into the tavern that no one notices Valjean carrying Marius off.

By the time the soldiers breach the door, the rebels have all retreated to the upper floor and cut down the staircase. Paving stones, the last few bullets, and finally those wine bottles serve as weapons.

Last Stand

Enjolras and Grantaire at the Firing SquadThe soldiers climb up to the second floor, where they find Enjolras standing there, alone, surrounded by his dead comrades, saying, “Shoot me!” Come at me, bro!

One of the soldiers lowers his musket, remarking that he’s too pretty to kill. “I feel as though I’d be shooting a flower.”

Grantaire has slept through the whole battle in a drunken stupor, and awakens in the silence. Realizing what’s happened, he interrupts the firing squad, walks over to Enjolras, and says, “Might as well kill two birds with one stone.” Then he turns to Enjolras: “If you don’t mind.”

The man dedicated to the ideals of the movement, and the man who rejected them all but idolized their leader, die together. While I think Hugo was going more for rebuffed hero worship here, I can definitely see a parallel between Marius/Éponine and Enjolras/Grantaire.

A few minutes later, the soldiers take the last few holdouts in the attic and cellar, and it’s all over.

Trapped

Valjean has spent his time tending to the wounded, shoring up the barricade, and other support jobs, not willing to take part in the fighting. This makes his request to be the one to execute Javert stand out even more than it would otherwise.

We start to see into his head again as he tries to figure out how to escape with the unconscious Marius, calling back to the chase through Paris years before, but we still have no sense of why he’s there, except that it involves Marius. The epiphany portrayed in “Bring Him Home” takes place entirely off the page, and it’s not clear when he reached the decision to rescue him, or even whether it was made deliberately or on the spur of the moment.

It’s strange that, because of the staging of the show, I can’t help but picture this as happening at night, when it’s actually early in the afternoon.

As the battle rages inside the tavern, offering a few minutes of cover, Valjean desperately looks for a way out, finally spotting an iron grate in the street. Into the sewers!

Pages 1041-1060, concluding the epic “War Within Four Walls” chapter. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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