Les Miserábles: Valjean and Javert

I watched the movie Les Miserábles recently, and discovered a gold mine. It’s a story I was aware of through other movie versions, and I knew of the Victor Hugo novel through a plot synopsis. I definitely wasn’t familiar with the musical beyond “I Dreamed a Dream.” This story is overwhelming and has a lot of grist for the theological mill. If you haven’t been in touch with the story before, or haven’t thought about it for a while, I heartily invite you to dive deep into this narrative. I referenced a couple of stories on my post last Friday, and would like to probe some more issues from this story.

One of the articles I linked was about the Two Christianities of Les Miserábles, which contrasted the beliefs of Jean Valjean and Javert: Valjean the theology of mercy that can transform, and Javert the theology of judgement for Sin. Although this makes sense to me, I think there are few more things about these two that can be teased out, especially what Valjean and Javert have in common.

Both of these two men have been touched by grace, have been saved from a dark fate. Valjean leaves prison and quickly becomes embittered: without the Bishop’s intervention, he would have ended up back in prison or dead rather quickly. Javert grew up in the gutter, as he puts it, and through an unspoken opportunity is able to escape and join the police. Their response to this grace is to take care of others, this commitment is central to their faith and their existence. They do what they do in response to the evil around them, they seek to keep the darkness they once knew from spreading to the innocent.

Both are father figures, so involved in their duty to protect and serve that it’s tough to imagine either of them as a husband or lover. Giving without thought of return makes it difficult to receive on a regular basis from another: in some ways, both men have a priestly vocation. They do what they do because they feel God has called them to a unique role that’s more important than life itself. Their capacity for love entirely empties them.

Neither one is able to survive once his calling is finished. Valjean retires to a convent and prepares to die once Cosette’s wedding is arranged; Javert commits suicide when he realizes his mission might not be valid (more on this shortly). They both exhaust themselves in their vocations, and we see little (in the musical) apart from their main passion.

Valjean responds to the Bishop’s generosity by imitation: he seeks to redeem others the way he’s been redeemed. His long, unjust imprisonment threatened to consume him with anger, but being freed by the Bishop’s gift of silver, all his efforts are to help others, even when he built a business and employed hundreds in his factory. When he makes a mistake, such as trusting his lecherous foreman’s faulty judgement in dismissing Fantine when she’s persecuted and unjustly accused. he seeks to repay it and redeem those affected. A man who’s about to be convicted unjustly in his place, and Valjean has to go and save him, even at the cost of his own liberty and livelihood, when silence would have been easy and benefitted more people. He raises the orphaned Cosette to make up for the fate of her mother Fantine, whose degradation and death he felt partly responsible. He’s even able to reach out to Javert, the man who implacably pursued him for decades, arranging Javert’s escape from certain death at the hands of the student revolutionaries.

Javert is really tragic in my book. He responds to his escape from his past, to his undocumented salvation by grace, by becoming the guardian: placing himself between Good and Evil, and making sure justice is done. His motivation is really unselfish, and he feels he’s serving the people he’s protecting, even though he almost never meets them. His life as a policeman isn’t much different than a policeman today, spending most of his time on the dark side of humanity and developing a jaded view of the undeserving. The tragic flaw of Javert isn’t only a lack of compassion, but a lack of vision as well. It might be better to say his lack of compassion means he doesn’t have the vision needed to be a person a real justice. He never thinks through the justice of the Law he serves or the effects enforcing the Law has on others. The upper classes are protected no matter what and the lower classes are disciplined implacably: the letter of the Law is what matters. The morality of the Law is irrelevant to him, which means he doesn’t consider if someone benefits unjustly from the law, and mercy is off his radar. If someone hasn’t turned their back on the evil of their pasts as he did, they deserve their fate as much as Satan, being a rebel against God. A lawbreaker is incapable of real good in his universe, which is why he must pursue Valjean even though there’s evidence he isn’t a threat to society (especially Valjean’s unexpected mercy toward him). Javert becomes judge and jury as well as enforcer.

So when Javert is spared, when he’s set free when he was ready to die for his failure, he can’t cope. Valjean spared him early on, when Javert accused him at his factory and offered his resignation in disgrace. This repeated grace doesn’t liberate Javert: the world has to be one way for him, and when it disappears, he can’t live. He couldn’t become another Valjean; there was no well of compassion for him to draw from to give him a new vision. Life has no meaning for him any longer, and so it must end.

Most of us live somewhere between Valjean and Javert. It’s true that actions have consequences, and we need guardians against those who practice evil, who would victimize the innocent. The spirit of Javert is needed for human society to function: we need protectors, but not ones who are judges as well. However, the spirit of Valjean is needed as well: to respond to the goodness and unexpected grace we receive by sharing it as we’ve received it. Justice is more than enforcing the Law; Justice is about making things Right. Like both, we need to have a vocation to serve others, to be there when another needs us, to live our lives as a sacrifice to God that makes Christ present in the world. We need to respond to God’s incredible, unearned grace with a compassion that gives us vision.

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2 comments

  1. Monica Chapman · · Reply

    Splendid movie – splendid meditation! Thanks!

  2. Gerry Downs · · Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and affirm much of your thought. I was deeply touched, not only by the story but also the wonderful music. It was a total package for me. I am still mining it for meditation.

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