It’s possible I’ve written about this before. Because certainly I’ve *thought* about this before. With ten years of blogging now under my belt, it’s entirely possible I will prattle on about things I’ve already covered most thoroughly.
A few weeks ago I decided to enlighten (torture?) my two-year-old son with his first listen to Les Miserables. I’ve been a huge fan of the musical since high school, when my parents took my bro and I to the show after we finished studying the book in our English class. Very cool of them.
Since then it has been the over-the-top accompaniment to many a bathroom and closet cleaning session, the thought going something like, ‘If these people can risk their lives (and syphilis) through the course of the French Revolution, I can sure as hell get this damned closet in order.’
Or something like that.
Anyway, as I sat taking in my son’s varied reactions to the songs (from total apathy to downright glee), I considered, once again, Javert.
If you’re not familiar with Victor Hugo’s story, I will give you the very briefest summary of the part of it most relevant to this post:
- Jean Valjean stole some food for his starving family and was arrested. He tried to escape prison a number of times and by the time he was finally released he’d spent 19 years in the slammer.
- Javert was his jailor and became what would be the equivalent of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio in our times. He hated Valjean with all his passion and dedicated his life to ensuring that Valjean--who performed one minor transgression after being released from prison and before his final enlightenment--be found and made to serve more time in prison.
- It is revealed that Javert himself was the son of criminals, a past of which he is deeply ashamed.
- Valjean and Javert finally come face to face, and instead of killing Javert, which Javert himself expects Valjean will do, Valjean allows him to go free.
- Javert, unable to come to terms with Valjean’s mercy (especially in terms of its contrast to Javert’s own single-minded hatred), commits suicide.
Now, I know I’m supposed to love Jean Valjean. And I do. Jean Valjean is the picture of reformation, rebirth, reconciliation. In the wake of his final forgiveness at the hands of a bishop, he makes it his life’s mission to repay his debts to society; the effects of his efforts are felt widely, and most profoundly by Cosette, the young girl he raises as his own after her own mother dies. It would be really, really, really hard not to like Jean Valjean.
But here’s what I love about Victor Hugo (and about Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil as well, who took this story and translated it into the musical so many have come to know):
Their portrayals of Javert--their allowing him to tell his own story, however bitterly and tragically--make it possible to love Javert as well. It’s a weird kind of love. The kind of love you feel for Grover of Sesame Street, well-intentioned but annoying as hell.
A lot of people would probably disagree with me about Javert’s lovability, too. I’m thinking, specifically, of my Aunt, with whom I went to see the musical most recently, back in 2004. She’d been introduced to Les Miserables when I sent her the book during her then most-recent stint in state prison. She loved it, and we made a pledge that when she got out, we would go see the musical together.
Sitting next to her in the balcony, I found myself incredibly reluctant to reveal my affections for Javert. I put myself in her shoes and imagined Javert to be every ex-con’s most profound pain in the ass. A one-man parole board from hell whose suicide was his singular redemption. There are good guys and there are bad guys. And Hugo’s tale would seem the quintessential pulling off of the good guy/bad guy role reversal. Presumably, we sat in an auditorium filled with Valjean sympathizers.
Yes, he epitomizes black and white thinking. In this case, the grey would be the space in which one considers that Valjean was only stealing bread to feed his family. One would take into account the hundreds of good deeds that followed Valjean’s less brag-worthy acts. The grey lense would find a man full of compassion and contrition and self-sacrifice. As readers and viewers we are beyond frustrated with Javert’s inability to see the full scope of Valjean’s character through and around his illegal acts.
Here, however, is where the “bad” guy requires us to also widen the scope of our own sympathies. First, let us consider modern society without the Javert’s of the world. The free-for-all that would ensue if the ends were just, on the subjective view of the transgressor, allowed to justify the means.
If you put the cruelty of his approach and delivery aside (think of the asshole Highway Patrolman who *could* just give you a ticket and send you on your way but instead decides to give you a lecture and is rude, to boot), you have to respect his sense of justice. In his own eyes, Javert IS justice. “I am the law and the law is not mocked,” he sings in the musical. Of course the law is mocked, is mockable...sometimes. But for the most part, the fact that we have laws written and people dedicated to seeing those laws enforced and their breakers punished...well it’s a good thing, right?
C'mon, just feel him for a minute:
Beyond that and more profoundly, however, I like to consider Javert from the therapist’s view. It seems clear that Javert’s deep-seated need to see Valjean brought to justice is at least partially owing to the shame and self-loathing that he felt from being the child of lawlessness himself. It’s as though he feels he can right the wrongs of his lineage in so doing. Do not forget that Javert’s dedication to justice is not felt by Valjean alone. It is, indeed, his life’s work.
I love that Hugo understood this about his character. I love that Hugo himself loved Javert enough to let us understand what drove him in life, and what ultimately drove him to death at his own hand.
Again, if you please, consider Javert's plight--his deep ambivalence--as interpreted in the musical:
I think in showing us the depth of Javert's neurosis, as well as giving us an inclination as to what may have helped give birth to it, Hugo does two things. First, he challenges us to empathize with Javert as we have so easily found ourselves empathizing with the criminal Valjean. Second, he shows us the dangers and the pain that come from single-minded thinking. When it finally dawns on Javert that there is more to Valjean than the crimes Javert condemns so thoroughly, it is more than he can bear. Black and white is just so much easier to sort and categorize and know how to approach.
I can think of many politicians and so-called world leaders who would have done well to study and learn from Javert's example.
I am in awe of Victor Hugo. One reason I probably never consider writing fiction is that I find even the thought alone of creating full-bodied, dynamic characters nearly overwhelming. How to avoid the pitfalls of making an overly simple protagonist and and equally flat, evil antagonist? How to create people rather than caricatures? Sometimes, I understand, these easy-to-digest players might be just what a reader is in the mood for. But mostly, I think it's the complexities of characters like BOTH Valjean and Javert that make them stick with us. They allow us to acknowledge our own nuances and hypocrisies and just plain wrong-headedness. They remind us that the experience of being human and of trying to figure out right from wrong, of morality for ourselves and society at large are among the most difficult--and the most worthwhile--experiences of all.
Now, go start a revolution or somethin', would ya? (this song give me chills every time)