I wrote, while half-asleep, this… essay? rant? incoherent babble at 2 AM this morning, woke up feeling kind of regretting it, but it’s too long to be thrown away. I’m mostly talking about the musical and the movie here, because I’ve only read an abridged version of the book and that was years ago. I’m currently reading the unabridged version, but it’s ±300 chapters long and I’ve just finished the sixth.
Les Misérables is a self-explanatory title, for it is a story about the miserable and wretched. However, redemption, particularly the redeeming power of love, is a leitmoif in the story; most of its major characters are redeemed by love. Valjean was saved by the Bishop’s forgiveness, God’s love, and his own love for Cosette. Fantine, although naïve and misguided, was salvaged through her sacrifice for her daughter. Éponine’s love for Marius makes her leave her immoral family. Enjolras sees his friends and himself as martyrs who die for the wretched. Grantaire’s faith in Enjolras permits him to die as the Pylades to his Orestes.
And then there is Javert.
Javert, who is as unchanging and steadfast as the stars in his single-minded dedication to upholding the law. Dura lex, sed lex; the law is harsh, but it is the Law with capital L. And the Law is not to be mocked.
Javert, whose inability to see beyond black and white makes him incapable of reconciling the dissonance between his idea of Valjean the immoral scum and the Valjean who gives him his life.
Javert should like to believe he has redeemed himself through his zealous faithfulness to the Law. Yet this devotion is a hamartia that ultimately brings his downfall, making him the most tragic character.
It is important to note that Javert’s upbringing—born in jail with the scum of the earth—permanently tarnishes his sense of self with shame. It is what drives him to become a policeman, the antithesis of the very thing he loathes. The same logic on which the brains of survivors of domestic abuse operate when they instinctively, fiercely jump to the defence of other victims of violence. The very reason he, despite not being religious*), reveres the Law with the kind of adoration that the most zealous of believers possess towards their God.
Thus, Javert would’ve think that he’s redeemed himself. “Every man is born in sin”, but he “must choose his way”. He either rises from his shameful beginnings like Javert does, or choose the way of the dark—refuse to obey the Law—like what Javert thinks Valjean does. Ironically, this very principle is what causes his downfall.
Javert is simultaneously one-dimensional and complex, because his most and only defining trait is both his greatest strength and his fatal flaw. His obsession with exacting justice makes him an efficient policeman, a model officer. Yet it also prevents him from seeing that people are more than just good or evil. He takes pride in being the embodiment of the Law, because God knows how hard he has worked to earn his place. To him Fantine is only an immoral whore, not a mother with unconditional love for her daughter. The students are a traitor to the nation he dedicates himself to guarding, not champions of the poor and powerless. And Valjean is a criminal who runs away from the punishment he deserves, not a truly reformed person.
The last one is the gravest of his errors, as it was Valjean who actually offers him redemption. Instead of exacting vengeance for Javert’s lifelong dedication to making him miserable, Valjean forgives him and lets him go without any condition. Les Misérables is after all a story about redemption.
But just because it is, doesn’t mean everyone is redeemed. Although Javert is given redemption, he is unable to accept it.
He finds having live a life that is granted by his archnemesis an utter abomination. (“It was my right to die as well / Instead I live, but live in hell!”) However, he cannot ignore the raw fact that Valjean has reformed and is no longer the convict he’s been chasing either. This is where cognitive dissonance sets in: his overly rigid logic cannot accept that the values he upholds, that he believes are as sure and impossible to fault as stars guarding the night sky, have been proven to be entirely wrong all along.
We all have been in his position before: having our dearest beliefs challenged and debunked. However, most of us can manage. Either we change our beliefs to suit the truth, like Valjean does after meeting the Bishop. Or we insist that we’re correct, the other is wrong, and stubbornly carry on believing. In this case, though, Javert is unable to ignore the proof, because 1) it concerns his very life, and 2) hits right at the core of his belief.
I have to dabble a bit with psychology here. Trauma inflicted during early childhood (between 2 – 5 years of age) results in the child, who is yet to be able to manage emotions and stress, to develop a flawed coping mechanism. It works for the child’s survival, but it is very rudimentary, far from that of an adult.
If the exposure to threatening situations continues, and the child is not taught how to healthily cope with it, he will continue on using the flawed coping mechanism, until it becomes ingrained in his personality and wired into the workings of his brain, resulting in an inflexible and hypervigilant behavioural pattern. To this person, any minor inconvenience appears to be a threat, even if it actually is not.
I suppose it isn’t too far a stretch if we extrapolate this to be the reasoning behind Javert’s lifelong shame of his beginnings in the gutter and extreme aversion to anything pertaining to crime. Being born in a prison and growing up amongst felons must have been deeply traumatising, particularly given the dismal condition of prisons in his era. Understandably, Javert hates and fears it and everything that reminds him of it. Valjean, a thief who has repeatedly attempted to run away and is prone to violence, is the embodiment of what he despises the most; naturally Javert sees him as a threat.
It would also explain Javert’s rigid faith, which appears as infallible as a stone but is actually fragile enough to be crushed by just one act of forgiveness. He is like a robot that operates entirely on a string of logical commands, but when it’s faced with a paradox that arises from the loophole in that network, it short-circuits. Valjean disproves his assertion that everything is a battle between Good and Evil by showing that the Evil can become Good.
Because his distorted worldview is the very base upon which his identity as Javert, the man of the Law, is constructed, his sense of self also shatters when its foundation crumbles to dust. The self that he’s striven to create, his idea of a consummate right-hand man of the Law, is gone. He has no more purpose in this world and doesn’t know how to go on anymore.
Javert is given redemption, but redemption doesn’t tally with his internal network of logic. Either he lives humiliated, his sense of self destroyed and his life purposeless, or holds on to his own principles. But holding on to his own principles would be pointless, as he now knows that they’re fundamentally flawed.
Javert is faced with a moral dilemma his logic cannot solve. He short-circuits. Breaks down. Self-destructs.
In a sense Valjean’s decision to let Javert live has indeed “killed [him] even so”.
It is a tragic death, because his situation is actually not as black and white as he perceives it to be. He could still be dedicated to his job with or without chasing after Valjean; he certainly hasn’t been doing nothing other than tracking him in those years between Valjean’s escape with Cosette and their reunion in 1832. He could be like Valjean, who is not so much an enemy as a mirror—are Mercy and Justice not two sides of the same coin? Valjean, too, is given a redemption that shatters the views he’s been holding on to.
The difference is that Valjean understands that change is possible, while Javert does not.
Valjean can escape not only the bars but also his sins. Javert, however, is a prisoner of his mind and remains so until his end. He thinks his values have elevated him above the gutter and enabled him to reach the stars he so admires. But the reality is he is still trapped in the gutter, shackled by his own fear and hatred. The realisation only comes too late: “I am reaching, but I fall,” he laments before surrendering himself down to the raging river below.
And that is what makes Javert the most tragic character.
*) I haven’t reached the parts of the book that involve Javert, so I’m not sure, but apparently book Javert isn’t religious. His respect for Catholic clergymen stems from the fact that the Church is a reputable authority. He sure loves law and order.
However, Javert’s lines in the movie and the musical often allude to God and religious themes. In “Fantine’s Arrest” he declares, “Honest work, just reward, / That’s the way to please the Lord.” “Stars” is meditative, almost like a worship song.
It seems that Javert’s religion is the Law, and he believes that doing what is just pleases the Lord. Per labora ad maiorem Dei gloriam. (Sorry, can’t resist making a reference to the Jesuits.) He could be that kind of Catholic who doesn’t go to church but still lives by God’s words. Or maybe his god and religion are the Law per se.
I really need to finish the book.