Saturday, January 12, 2013

In Defense of Javert

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.

I love Russell Crowe, and I probably always will.  So it's possible that I'm biased about his portrayal of Javert, but I do think it was well done.  No, Crowe doesn't have the best singing voice, but even he would admit that.  However, he brought nobility as well as angst to the role.  His portrayal of the suicide was phenomenal and truly brought to life the images in the book.  Crowe illustrated Javert's conscience and moral anguish rather than making him appear stubborn.  In showing these subtleties, his acting made up for his singing and added depth to the movie.

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.


Melody said...

This movie was (unbelievably) my first experience with Les Mis, though I've been meaning to read it for ages. I pretty much cried throughout the entire film and had to sit through the credits to collect myself before leaving! So, having no prior knowledge/bias of the characters, and not really being a fan of Russell Crowe previously, I have to say that my impression of Crowe's Javert was exactly how you've described him. To me, he didn't come off as merely cruel and vindictive. I thought he had a tremendous amount of loyalty and honor and faith. That was one of the things I thought was brilliant about the whole thing was how those qualities were shown in opposing forces. Enjoyed reading your thoughts...I need to get to the book soon!

Ryan said...

I completely agree with you. Javert is by far my favourite character as he is easily misunderstood and is a far more complicated character. He's seen as the 'villain' but he should in fact be hailed as the 'hero' due to him wanting to be rightous and do right by God and the Law. Valjean on the other hand stole (yes for a good reason) but is therefore not wholly good. Valjean has extremely good redeeming qualities, especially due to his actions such as adoptinh Cosette however I think that the true hero that people should look up to IS Javert!

Amy said...

Thanks for the feedback. It's interesting to hear that others may view him as their favorite character as well.

I think I particularly liked Russell Crowe's portrayal because it was a contrast to the other actors I've seen on stage. In the musical, there's not a lot of room to understand Javert as more than a villain, and most singers belt out his tunes in a sort of arrogance. Crowe brought more of a softness to the role, which I greatly appreciated. Way to go, man.

Ms. Crawford said...

I absolutely agree with the fact that he is a solid man with a divine conscience in what is right. Javert is not a Christian though. In my opinion that is where the problem with him lies. If he had the same prowess for right and wrong and had a Biblical background, people could see the good.

To me he and the bishop are perfectly foiled. Both have great noble characteristics.

Ricardo Torres said...

I loved your review, this recent movie was also the first time ever I experienced Les Miserables, and I have to admit, I absolutely loved it.

At first, though, I did believe Javert was evil (from what I read from others and the general perception of the character) but, as the movie progressed, I changed my mind. I'm a geek/nerd who loves Dungeons & Dragons, with that in mind when I saw Javert, I saw the VERY DEFINITION of a Lawful Good Paladin, strict, attached to a code and unbreakable. Javert is, by far, one of my favorite characters in literature.

As for Crowe's interpretation, in this movie I really didn't care much of how well they could sing, I loved every single part Crowe sung, mostly because of his characterization of Javert.

Breemgrrl said...

So far, I've only experienced Javert in the musical, but hearing "Stars" for the first time nearly 20 years ago was enough to tell me that this was no cartoon villain. The simplest way to look at it, I suppose, is that Javert = Justice, while Valjean = Mercy. However, if you have the right actor - like Russell Crowe or the one I just saw in a local production - it becomes clear that Javert does have a soul, albeit slightly misdirected.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful analysis. It has strengthened my resolve to finally tackle the book.

Anonymous said...

Javert is my favorite character and so incredibly misunderstood. For an example people who come from drug addict parents could decide to take that as their personal battle. I know one who his whole life is dedicated to prosecuting the addicts and saving the children. He does this in what seems to be a cold way because he is doing what he knows as right. Javert came from what he disgusts. It seems all he is doing is trying to uphold the law that his parents did not and make the world a place of order with good and bad as black and white. I don't understand why anyone hates him or would even think he is a bad person. The law is supposed to be black and white and we let the court decide. It makes me so sad that people don't understand the complexity of Javert.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the above remark. As a child of a drug addicted father myself, I can identify with the disgust Javert feels having felt like 'coming from the gutter too'. There is not much more I could add to the above breakdown, except to say it is a very good analogy and way to relate to Javert's distain for Valjean.

In this way I see Javert as having heroic qualities that many fail to uncover. I have never personally met a recovered drug addict, although they do exist. I feel Javert is similar in that he like myself, creates a conclusion about moral runagate's without knowing how to react to the exception.