Monday, March 11, 2013

Is Javert REALLY a Villain?

Illustration from the original publication of Les Mis
In case anyone who reads my blog doesn't know, I'm a HUGE Les Miserables fan. I have been since the day we watched it in my freshman choir class. In fact, Les Miserables is the show that pushed me down the rabbit hole of acting. That being said, I've had quite a while to come to terms with all of the characters, strip them down to their most basic, literary, form, dissect them and decide on my personal interpretation of each individual. After doing that I had a revelation. Javert isn't the villain most people write him off to be.

In most books/movies/musicals and plays, there are good guys, and there are bad guys. However, Les Mis isn't that cut and dry. Yes, Javert is ruthless, tries to take down the barricade from within, and will NOT leave Valjean alone, but why does he do all these things? Because that's his job. Through the whole of Les Mis Javert is carefully guided by his moral compass, and only does what he thinks is right because he came from the gutters, he knows the types of people who live there, he knows they don't always live up to the letter of the law, and he doesn't want to end up back there. Can you really blame him for that?

I will allow that he is Valjean's antithesis but only because Valjean breaks parole and thus the law. And breaking parole is grounds for immediate imprisonment. That's not archaic either. In fact, you STILL go to jail for breaking parole, and the police WILL come and find you. Just live Javert went to find Valjean. So yes, Javert is Valjeans enemy, but not a villain, because as even dear old Jean states, Inspector Javert is only doing his duty in hunting the ex-convict down.

I believe that's why Valjean is so merciful and lets Javert escape from the students virtually unharmed. Really he has done no wrong, and only upheld the law. Of course Valjean's actions cause Javert's suicide, but he doesn't jump off that bridge because he can't beat Valjean, he jumps off that bridge because for once his moral compass might not be completely correct and if that's true then he is indebted a thief and Javert cannot handle that.

After Valjean saves Javert a moral dilemma introduces itself to Javert. This man, who's original transgression was stealing bread for his sisters family and has been too busy saving other people's lives to be arrested, has also saved Javert. Javert would have died at the hands of the students and could have just as easily died by Valjean, in fact, Javert believes he was supposed to be killed by Valjean. But he was spared. He owes this man something, and the only way Javert knows to pay his debt is to let Valjean walk free, but then he is going against everything he has believed and breaking the law at the same time. And what if Valjean goes to jail? Then Javert has to live, knowing that he owed this thief his life and sent him back to a life of slavery. There is no way out.

So he kills himself. In my eyes Javert has the hardest struggle. He continually fights his morality, from the moment he first meets Valjean as the mayor and suspects him of being 24601 to the moment he takes his life.  If anything, Javert is a tragedy, not a villain. He tried to do right and ended up having to let the criminal he'd been chasing for 15 years escape.

I'm sorry you got such a crap ending, Javert. You just tried to do good.

I will not forget your name.


Broccan Ware said...

I know I'm a little late with this comment even (though it is the only one). I Just thought I'd say some things about Les misérables since I had just recently watched it.

I have a ton of mixed emotions when I think of Javert. Yes, I do believe that he is not the "Bad" guy to Jean Valjean. I also believe that some of his actions, however, would be considered evil and immoral.

Javert was very loyal to the law. He believed when someone committed a crime, they deserved to be punished. This idea would seem to be positive to many people. However, Javert some times, let this go too far. For instance, within the first few minutes of the show we see Javert's dark side. He tells Jean Valjean to pick up the flag and its mast before Valjean is set for Parole. To me, this seemed as though Javert was more or less "testing" valjean. If Valjean did not pick up the flag, then Javert could request an appeal to deny Valjeans parole for failure to obey while imprisoned. If Valjean did pick up the flag, then it would be a reminder for what would be waiting for Valjean if he chose to commit another crime. There could be other reasons, but that is how I see it. Javert also shows his dark side again when he tries to capture and Valjean as mayor after he has done s much. Javert tries to imprison Fantine after he heres that one of his men was assaulted by her. Javert chooses the higher class man over Fantine who is a prostitute at the time due to social decisions.

There are as many dark sides to Javert as there are good sides as well however. For instance, after the french barricade, Javert gives the kid (sorry forgot the name) his medal. Javert also lets Valjean walk away from Javert.

For me, this was probably the hardest character to watch and understand. It's very tragic that Javert was unable to understand the true honesty and "goodness" in man. As soon as Javert let Valjean go, he knew that he had broken the law. The law was the only thing Javert believed in, and since he broke that "moral seal" for him, he realized that he had become a criminal just like the 20+ years he had given, to imprison them.

It is a tragedy. A sad one at that. Javert and Valjean were truly very similar but had such different views, that it led them on these paths. Javert didn't deserve to die, and I do not think he is evil. Unfortunately he grew up a certain path, and everyone sees life differently.

I will not forget his name either .

Andromakhe said...

It's true. Javert's not a villain. Misguided, but he had as much humility and conscience as Valjean. It was just expressed in a different way. Both men had a sense of honor as well, and I respect honor.

I think that not only was Javert caught between a rock and a hard place. He also had to confront the shame of his own hypocrisy. Valjean was a hard and bitter man, but honestly so. Javert may have been law-abiding, but this didn't penetrate to his soul. It was a superficial sort of virtue. So it wasn't just that Javert had no viable options concerning Valjean's freedom. He was also forced to admit that in terms of true virtue, Valjean was superior. So Javert must have seen an ugliness about him that he simply couldn't bear. And Javert was too strict a guy to let himself off the hook. He probably put himself on trial and found himself wanting and deserving of death. His end was indeed tragic. Hugo's genius lies in the fact that it really couldn't have turned out any other way given Javert's character.

Andrew Stevens said...

Also, let's not forget that Javert was right. The unredeemed Valjean was absolutely a villain and it took a miracle (the grace and mercy of Bishop Myriel's buying his soul for God) to redeem him. Javert took the measure of Valjean correctly and simply could not recognize until late that an intervening miracle had taken place which transformed Valjean's character.

As for the revolutionaries, they may have been right in ideals and principles, but they were wrong in practice. They were never going to win (and wouldn't have made good rulers had they done so, for all their ideals). They were simply throwing away people's lives with their pathetic little rebellion, including their own. Javert's method, had it worked, would have saved lives on both sides.

Victor Hugo was a hell of a writer.

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