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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Javert ~ The Misunderstood Villain

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And by 'brick', I mean the unabridged version of the book.

Ideas for this post have been going through my mind for quite awhile now and since Miss Elizabeth just started her Villain's Tournament, I thought now was as good a time as any to finally write this post.

He was born in prison, the son of a fortune teller whose husband was in the galleys.  As he grew older he came to believe that he was outside society with no prospect of ever entering it...he joined the police...his mental attitude was compounded of two very simple principles, admirable in themselves but which, by carrying them to extremes, he made almost evil - respect for authority and hatred of revolt against it. ~ Les Miserables, Part I, Book V, Chapter V - Flickers On The Horizon

Despite the title of this post, I don't believe Javert is the villain of Les Miserables.  He's an antagonist which means that he is an obstacle in the way of the protagonist but is not necessarily evil.  Thenardier is evil.  Javert is not.  Basically, Javert believes in the absolute authority of the law and the reason he chases Valjean for over fifteen years is because he thinks that by breaking his parole and living as a free man, Valjean is rebelling against the law (which he is, but I think that's taking things a little too far - I mean, he only stole a loaf of bread) and he deserves to be brought to justice.

I'll admit that at times Javert is cruel.  Take Fantine's arrest from the book...

She spoke thus, rent in twain, shaken with sobs, blinded with tears, her neck bare, wringing her hands, and coughing with a dry, short cough, stammering softly with a voice of agony. Great sorrow is a divine and terrible ray, which transfigures the unhappy. At that moment Fantine had become beautiful once more. From time to time she paused, and tenderly kissed the police agent's coat. She would have softened a heart of granite; but nothing can soften a heart of wood.

"Come!" said Javert, "I have heard you out. Have you entirely finished? You will get six months. Now march!" ~ Les Miserables, Part I, Book V, Chapter XIII - The Solution of Some Questions connected with the Municipal Police

And from the musical...

I have heard such protestations
Every day for twenty years
Let's have no more explanations
Save your breath and save your tears
`Honest work, just reward,
That's the way to please the Lord.'
And then, of course, Valjean comes and saves Fantine.  This is the final straw and Javert, who had had previous suspicions denounces Valjean (or Monsieur Madeleine which is the name that everyone knows him by) to the Prefect of Police in Paris.  They write back and say that he is mistaken because the real Valjean has been found.  And then comes Javert's best scene...the one that truly illustrates his character.
Pinned ImageJavert comes and apologizes to Monsieur Madeleine and asks him to dismiss him because Javert has shown disrespect to a higher authority - monsieur le maire.  And then he delivers the news that the 'real' Valjean has been found.  Madeleine is about to leave, probably wanting to be left alone with his thoughts, when Javert says...
"Excuse me, monsieur le maire," said he.

"What is it now?" demanded M. Madeleine.

"Monsieur le maire, there is still something of which I must remind you."

"What is it?"

"That I must be dismissed."

M. Madeleine rose.

"Javert, you are a man of honor, and I esteem you. You exaggerate your fault. Moreover, this is an offence which concerns me. Javert, you deserve promotion instead of degradation. I wish you to retain your post."

Javert gazed at M. Madeleine with his candid eyes, in whose depths his not very enlightened but pure and rigid conscience seemed visible, and said in a tranquil voice:-- "Monsieur le maire, I cannot grant you that."...This was uttered in a proud, humble, despairing, yet convinced tone, which lent indescribable grandeur to this singular, honest man.

"We shall see," said M. Madeleine.

And he offered him his hand.

Javert recoiled:-- "Excuse me, monsieur le maire, but this must not be. A mayor does not offer his hand to a police spy."  He added between his teeth:-- "A police spy, yes; from the moment when I have misused the police. I am no more than a police spy."

Then he bowed profoundly, and directed his steps towards the door.

There he wheeled round, and with eyes still downcast:-- "Monsieur le maire," he said, "I shall continue to serve until I am superseded." ~ Part I, Book VI, Chapter II - How Jean May Become Champ

Javert soon learns that monsieur le maire is actually Jean Valjean and he chases him from the apartment where he lived with little Cosette, to the convent, to the Thenardier's apartment and finally finds him at the barricade.  Or rather, Valjean finds him.  And when given the chance to shoot Javert, Valjean lets him go.  This throws Javert but the biggest turmoil in his life is yet to come...

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The barricade has fallen.  All the defenders are dead.  Valjean grasps Marius and drags him through the Paris sewers and finally believes himself to have reached safety when Javert catches up to him again.  Javert agrees to let Valjean take Marius home and once that is done, surprises Valjean (and himself) by also allowing him to go home for a few moments to settle his affairs.  Valjean goes up to his apartment, turns for a moment, perhaps to see where Javert is...but he's gone.

He beheld before him two paths, both equally straight, but he beheld two; and that terrified him; him, who had never in all his life known more than one straight line. And, the poignant anguish lay in this, that the two paths were contrary to each other. One of these straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one? ~ Volume V, Book IV, Chapter I - Javert Derailed

Javert has always allowed himself to be guided by the law, to accept its rules as absolutes but Valjean's act of kindness to him and then his act of kindness to Valjean, especially his kindness to Valjean both amazes and frightens him.  All his life he has only known one thing: duty.  And now the thought that there could be something more than duty confuses him. 

There were only two ways of escaping from [the quandary]. One was to go resolutely to Jean Valjean, and restore to his cell the convict from the galleys. The other . . .

He commits suicide.  Unable to live with the knowledge that because of him, Valjean will go as a free man, he throws himself into the Siene.

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on....


It's heartbreaking in the book and heartbreaking in the musical.  The intriguing (and incredibly sad) thing about this song is that it's set to the same tune as 'Valjean's Soliliquy' and while Valjean turned his life around after he was shown an act of kindness, Javert couldn't handle the fact that he owed his life to Valjean (because, after all, any of the other barricade defenders - except Marius - would have shot Javert) and he ultimately commits suicide.  You really need to read the scene in the book because it reveals so much more depth and thought in Javert.
What are your thoughts on the character of Javert?
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Bethy said...

Great Post! Very well thought out.
I find Javert in the book seem's more villianous than Russell Crowe's version. Although you would know better as I haven't finished the book yet!
I do agree that he is not evil! I hate it when people call him "the bad guy from Les Mis"
Also Thendardier (in the film)is less evil and more comedic it seems.
Love, Bethy xxx
P.S What Les Mis translation do you have?

Charity U said...

Javert...I always liked him, though I didn't mean to. His voice in the musical was awesome too! I wasn't able to hate him. I so enjoyed the book excerpts here! I need to read that. :) Enjoyable post!

Anonymous said...

Look at me! Look at me! I'm commenting, Eva!! Aren't you proud?? :D Hahahahahaha...

ANYWAY. I couldn't resist commenting because I think Inspector Javert just might be my very favorite Les Mis character. He tries so hard to do what is right, yet he is still so confused and misled. And after all his hard work and determination, his story ends so tragically. :(

And c'mon. He's just epic in the musical, right? He has the best songs and he always has one of the best voices (COUGHPhilipQuastandRussellCroweCOUGH).

Hayden said...

Oh, I must comment!

I have always felt sorry for Javert...I just couldn't help it (although I admit the scene with Fantine made me hate him in that *was* cruel)

I can only nod my head with pretty much everything you said and emphatically agree. My sister and I were even discussing his and Valjean's songs and comparing them and said the same thing- both of them were faced with forgiveness, and they both chose different directions to take because of it.

His suicide is something I've still not quite recovered from. I still feel wounded. :(

I had him on my own villains post, but I even said I considered him the antagonist rather than the villain...I completely agree with you on that point! And I think the scene with him and Jean Valjean where he says he must give up his job because of his accusation against him shows that his actions don't stem from wanting to hurt people, but from obesssing over justice. He holds himself to the same standard that he holds over everybody else.

Eva said...

@Bethy - Well, I think that Javert from the musical is somewhat different from the Javert of the book ('Stars' is completely non-canon) but I still really, really love Javert from the musical. And about the the musical they're mostly comedic, in the book they're pure evil. I don't really understand why their characters were changed so much in the musical. Maybe to give some comic relief because Les Mis is a really tragic, heartbreaking story.

My favorite translation is the Norman Denny one but I recently fell in love with the Julie Rose translation as well. Some of the language is more modern and there's a bit more language than in the ND translation(I seriously think it takes away from Valjean, Marius, Javert and Enjolras' characters to have them talk like the Thenardiers). I'm planning to go through and mark out all the swearing ASAP.

@Charity - Yup. Russell Crowe has an amazing voice which totally suits the character of Javert :) Glad you enjoyed this post (and yes, you really do have to read the book)

@Petie - How did I know you would be commenting on this post? Hehehehehehe...I knew that he was probably your favorite character and yes, Javert really does have some very admirable character traits and his story is so tragic...

YES. Javert is amazingly epic in the musical. I'm fast coming to the conclusion that 'Stars' is my favorite LM song, ever. Especially when it's sung by such amazing actors ;)

@Hayden - That scene with Fantine was my least favorite Javert scene. He didn't even bother to try to find out the facts (although I admit that appearances were against her). But the coming-to-apologize-scene made me like him again :) Ack. I just find his suicide so heartbreaking. Especially in the book.

And Javert wasn't vengeful - he just took his job to the level of Extreme. But it really spoke to me that he didn't see *himself* as being above the law. Vive Javert!

Jennifer S. said...

What can I say? This is so well written. You did an excellent job defending Javert!

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