With the recent resurgence of Les Miserables in popular culture, I want to take this opportunity to discuss a fascinating literary character: Inspector Javert. In one of my very first blog posts, I gave a quick review of Hugo's literary masterpiece and briefly mentioned my connection to Javert. However, I now want to indulge in further discussion of those feelings. (You can read my original post here.)
I think that Javert is one of the most misunderstood characters in literature. He is almost always categorized as a villain and criticized. (Russell Crowe is likewise receiving criticism for his portrayal of this character, but I'll get to that a bit later.) The second time I saw Les Miserables on stage, I overheard the man behind me trying to describe Javert at intermission: "He is a despicable human being... scum of the earth." My heart leapt in objection, and I had to restrain myself from heartily expressing my dissent.
I believe that Javert is Valjean's foil but not the story's villain. A villain is typically described as "an evil character in the story," but it is almost impossible to argue that Javert is evil. Although he may have a skewed sense of right and wrong, he relentlessly pursues that which he perceives as good. A foil, however, is described as "a character who contrasts with another character in order to highlight each other's particular qualities." Javert and Valjean are certainly set in contrast throughout the novel, but this emphasizes each man's core beliefs and principles.
To really understand Javert, you must read the book. But because the book is absolutely massive, I will try to fill you in as best as I can to save you some of that work. Javert is a man of the highest integrity and discipline. He has dedicated his life to public service and believes that the only way to be just is to be completely unbiased. Yes, he develops a Captain Ahab-type obsession with Valjean, but it comes from dedication to his job. In truth, I think all of Hugo's characters are fairly one-dimensional, but that doesn't bother me because of the broad variety of characters and the grand scale of time and action in Les Miserables. However, Javert experiences arguably the most drastic character development when he encounters Valjean's mercy.
The chapter that describes Javert's suicide is absolutely breath-taking. In fact, it is the passage of the novel that I remember most clearly and carries the most lasting impact after a few years have passed. I just read it again after watching the recent movie, and I was just as enthralled by it. Although there are many brilliant ways in which the musical version of the story captures the essence of the novel, I do not think it adequately represents Javert's suicide. So allow me to let the book speak for itself:
"Javert's ideal was not to be humane, not to be great, not to be sublime; it was to be irreproachable. Now he had just failed."
"His supreme anguish was the loss of all certainty. He felt that he was uprooted. The code was now but a stump in his hand."
"'In sparing me, what has he done? His duty? No. Something more. And I, in sparing him in my turn, what have I done? My duty? No. Something more. There is then something more than duty.' Here he was startled; his balances were disturbed; one of the scales fell into the abyss, the other flew into the sky, and Javert felt no less dismay from the one which was above than from the one which was below."
"All that he had believed was dissipated. Truths which he had no wish for inexorably besieged him. he must henceforth be another man. He suffered the strange pangs of a conscience suddenly operated on for the cataract. He felt that he was emptied, useless, broken off from his past life, destitute, dissolved."
You see, Javert's torment and subsequent suicide were a picture of deep humility. Rather than stubbornly refusing to change his mind, he recognized that he had been wrong. He spent a considerable period of time in deep thought, coming to the humbling conclusion that his strict moral code was imperfect, and he was crushed by this realization. Javert had not been pursuing evil, and he was anguished by the discovery of his own error. His death is the loss of a good and upright man, a loss you have to both respect and mourn.
Thank you for allowing me to explore this fascinating character in detail. In closing, I want to say that Les Miserables is a beautiful, fabulous, brilliant book. The musical is a masterful interpretation of the story. The recent movie is a heart-wrenching and powerful adaptation of the musical. All three forms of this story are worth your time.