Tag Archives: Javert

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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Rescuing Cosette

Waterloo turns out to have been critical for the Thénardiers’ inn: Looting corpses got them seed money to start it, and “rescuing” Pontmercy got them a story for their sign.

The woodcut of Little Cosette drastically understates how badly she’s treated by the Thénardiers. So do all the movie versions I’ve seen, and the musical.

Cosette overhears Thénardier saying he thinks her mother is dead, and starts singing “My mother’s dead” over and over to the toy sword she’s swaddled and rocking as a makeshift doll. 😢

That said, it still amuses me that she sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs. Thénardier probably cooked the owls from Beauxbatons.

Describing the dismal neighborhood of the Gorbeau tenement where Valjean and Cosette live when they first reach Paris, Hugo remarks that monotonous architecture oppresses the mind. There’s actual science backing him up now.

Javert is very cautious during the chase through the Paris streets, because for most of it, he still isn’t 100% sure the man he’s following is Jean Valjean. Until he gets a good look at his face, Javert takes pains to just follow, and avoid making a false arrest (and getting fired).

Once he’s sure it’s him, and he’s blocked all the exits and is certain Valjean can’t escape, Javert starts having fun with the hunt. Ironically, this is what gives his quarry time to climb the wall with Cosette.

“…thinking he could play cat-and-mouse with a lion.”

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