Tag Archives: Javert

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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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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Valjean’s Hidden Decisions and the End of Resilience

We don’t see inside Jean Valjean’s head when he decides to go to the barricade, so it’s not clear why he goes. But the lead-in to the decision is much like the lead-in to the Champmathieu fiasco: There’s a threat to his way of life, but all he has to do is wait for another man to lose his, and he’ll be safe. From that standpoint, the question of whether he goes to protect Marius or to watch him die isn’t so ambiguous. It’s the same kind of dilemma, and whether he’s decided or not (just as before, it’s Schrödinger’s decision), he can’t let fate relieve him of the responsibility, so he goes.

Valjean has wrapped up way too much of his sense of self-worth in his role as Cosette’s father. That’s what makes the prospect of losing her seem like such a threat. And he’s right: not that it should be a danger, but that it is, because he can’t handle the transition. After nineteen years of prison and seventeen years on the run from the law, Valjean has latched onto supporting Cosette as the one thing he’s good for. And if Marius is doing that, he can’t see any place for himself.

Just like Javert, he dies from inflexibility.

Javert kills himself because he realizes that his world view is wrong, and he can’t see a place for himself in the world as he now understands it.

Valjean sinks into depression and starves himself because his world has changed, and he can’t see a place for himself in the new one.

In the past, Valjean has been incredibly resilient. He adapted to life in prison, out of prison, as a businessman, a fugitive, a father, a gardener, and a retiree. But he’s become stuck here, seeing his life with his adopted daughter as the endgame, not as one more stage in his life, unwilling to let it change until his conscience forces his hand, and then unwilling to embrace it

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Javert in his Element

It’s impressive to see Javert in his element, being every bit the protector he thinks he is. Most of the time we see him persecuting people who don’t deserve it.

Interrupting the ambush shows us that he’s an antagonist rather than a simple villain. More to the point, the way Javert interrupts the ambush is what shows it: A dramatic entrance, clever quips, bravery in the face of danger, pausing to start his report while his deputies cuff everyone, and he’s going against actual criminals. For this one scene, he’s portrayed heroically.

This is how Javert sees himself: the vigilant protector of society.

But he’s only heroic in this instance because he’s in the right. He doesn’t understand that he can be, and often is, on the wrong side, because he values authority and order more than people.

Anyway: I’m done with part three after 3½ months of weekday lunch hours. The biggest difference I’ve noticed between this time through and the last is that I’m looking ahead when making connections, not just back. Last time I’d forgotten a lot of the structure and story that wasn’t in the musical. This time it’s only been five years, so I remember a lot more.

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Javert and the Citizen

The scene where Javert takes Marius’ report of the impending ambush is interesting because it’s the only time we see Javert interact with someone who isn’t under suspicion for something. He’s almost friendly. He actually engages in small talk.

It’s eerie.

The only other time I can think of would be when he thinks M. Madeleine has been cleared, but he’s dealing with a superior official (and authority is extremely important to Javert), and it’s full of baggage because Javert had suspected him for so long.

Also, it’s utterly bizarre from a modern perspective that a police inspector would

  • Hand some random stranger a pair of loaded pistols.
  • Enlist him in a sting operation.
  • Not worry about damage to the building from the shot.
  • Not bother to track down the missing weapons after the sting.

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