Valjean, or Javert?

Long before Clint Eastwood’s presentation of his one man show, “Soliloquy to a Ladder-back,” empty chairs appeared in other productions, on other stages.

One such performance by an empty chair was in Les Miserables.

In Les Miz, the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a rousing homage to fallen comrades and survivor guilt. My favorite performance of “Empty Chairs” was by Michael Ball, the original Marius Pontmercy in the 1985 London production. It will be interesting to see how Eddie Redmayne handles the role, and the song, in the upcoming movie. If you are a fan of Masterpiece Theatre, you might recall Eddie from his role as the young, shell-shocked soldier in Birdsong, and the righteously unforgiving Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Young and righteous seem good practice traits for this character. Marius Pontmercy is one (in a long list) of my (many) literary boyfriends. When I was fourteen, Marius’ dogged devotion to Cosette was thrilling. The way he put on his best suit to get a glimpse of her in the park—so romantic! His outraged sensibilities when her skirts flew up in a stray breeze? Evidence of his honor. He even averted his eyes from her cleavage after she purposefully snipped a little extra off her gown’s neckline. A healthy fellow ignoring a flash of boobage–how chivalrous can you get?

While Marius mooned, I swooned in sympathy.

I’ve been re-reading Les Miserables. My first read was at fourteen, after Mrs. Barker, my 9th grade English teacher, pulled a copy of a romance novel out of my hands and said, “You need to read this.” The “this” was Victor Hugo’s classic.

Now, viewing the story through an adult perspective, at best Marius seems like a typical idealistic law student smitten with a pretty girl; at worst, he’s a creepy stalker who needs a hit on the head with a stick.

Now, my interest is captured by the two other primary male characters: Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Which of these two men, I wonder as I read, is the real story hero?

While I have outgrown my crush on lovelorn types like Marius, and, long before the chair thing, Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre of silent & violent didn’t hold much charm for me, I seriously consider what makes a male character tick. I write about them, dissect them in books, discuss them in manuscripts. When Les Miserables appears in theaters later this year, you can bet your chapeau I’ll be there, perhaps still asking myself which of the two males totes the most—and most interesting—emotional baggage.

Valjean, or Javert?

Jean Valjean seems the obvious choice. He was sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread, to feed his sister’s starving family. When he was finally paroled, he discovered life on the outside for an ex-con in 1815 France was unforgiving. He was well on the path of recidivism when a priest demonstrated faith in him. This kindness begat more kindness, and Jean Valjean turned his life around. He changed his name and invented a do-dad that brought in a fortune. His story arc seemed redemptive: he became a fair employer, kept a deathbed promise to a prostitute, adopted an orphan, refused to let an innocent man go to jail in his place, saved his daughter’s lover even though he couldn’t stand the young pup, and sacrificed his greatest joy—fatherhood—when he thought it would disgrace his beloved child.

But he did all of this under an alias. Eventually, at least in books, all lies catch up to you, and Jean Valjean’s lies were embodied by the tenacious Inspector Javert. Javert relentlessly tracks Jean Valjean. Late in the book, when Valjean has the chance to kill Javert and end the hunt, he chooses not to do so.

To a reader, this is not a surprise. We saw Jean Valjean reach peace early in the story. He has always been a decent man.

Now look at Javert, the obsessive policeman and jailer. He was born in a jail, “in the gutter too,” so his origin story is powerful and his bitterness understandable. He is a man of his times, stern in his faith that he is doing the work of the Lord. Javert is a relentless avenging angel. To him, a con is a con is a con. He seeks justice and he will never rest until the bad guy in his sights is put away.

In modern times, a doggedly determined officer like Javert is the detective who never gives up on cold cases; who promises grieving mothers he will find the killers of their daughters; who sacrifices home and hearth and health to The Job. When you’re a victim, you want an Inspector Javert on your side.

But Javert is also also the petty, badge-heavy cop who’ll sit all night in an unmarked car waiting for some small-time criminal who ticked him off by calling him fat or ugly or bald, to break parole by stepping outside after curfew for a smoke.

Javert is a complex guy, and Victor Hugo makes an extraordinary thing happen to him in Les Miserables. After decades of the chase, Inspector Javert finally captures Jean Valjean, who is carrying the gravely injured Marius away from the battle at the barricade. Jean Valjean asks to be allowed to carry Marius home. And though he seems outraged at the request, Javert relents and lets Valjean go.

It is an unexpected act of mercy. It is also an unendurable one. When Javert breaks the rules he lives by, he can’t handle the guilt, and kills himself.

Two very different men. Two heroes? One saint, one guardian? One grifter, one nutjob? One con, one cop?

Readers are drawn to stories of redemption, but is there redemption in Les Miserables? Is the tale of Jean Valjean one about a character who grows and changes, or one who remains the same and merely adapts and survives? Is Javert’s decision to show empathy for his enemy a sign of weakness—and what of his suicide?

Valjean has always been a decent man. Javert has never been a forgiving one.

Does a character grow if he ends up at the end of the story the same man he was at the beginning? What is the message from a character who cannot live with himself for showing mercy to his fellow man?

Two men. One sets his enemy free and frees himself from his past. The other sets his enemy free and destroys his own future.

Is it any wonder I want to see this movie?

So tell me, who is the most fascinating to you: Valjean, or Javert?

8 thoughts on “Valjean, or Javert?

  1. I appreciate Javert more as I get older – or at least I appreciate Norm Lewis in the role (shallow, I know, nearly an insult to the writer of such a fine piece – but then – I know the writer’s obsession with a certain blonde actor, so I am hoping she will let it slide). The biggest problem with Javert is that he is a bully. He has his reasons, but he’s still cruel. Valjean is in fact a criminal (if not a thief, then a fraud) but treats people humanely. If I weren’t in a politics black-out, I’d make a comparison to certain talking heads who seemingly take the high road but are bullies just the same. But what I really want to know (since I already brought up casting) is how in the HELL Russell Crowe was cast as Javert? Maybe he will surprise us, but I think it’s more likely that Hugh Jackman, who can hold a Broadway theater in the palm of his hand, will outshine him.

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    • Consider yourself slided, Kathy. 😉

      Javert interests me because Hugo did not provide a full background to his character, so I get to plug in what was left out. But I’m not sure Javert is cruel so much as close-minded and self-righteous. I don’t recall that he seeks out to hurt Valjean until Valjean breaks the law, IMO, he merely tries to administer the justice he believes in, albeit as you note, in a bullying and merciless fashion.

      And while Valjean is considered a benevolent employer, he allows his underlings to do the actual dirty work. He trusts his foreman to treat Fantine fairly, and we know how that turned out. So I find his goodness questionable when he is laissez-faire about the people he employs. This begs the question of how much does he owe his workers, other than a fair wage? A good topic for Labor Day!

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  2. Valjean, for sure. Javert is way less multifaceted than Valjean, who is such a complex character, and who undergoes so much change throughout the course of the story. Javert’s character is almost static; he’s single-minded, and seems to have no other life except for tracking down his obsession, Valjean. Too creepy for me.

    One of my daughters discovered Les Miserables, the novel, when she was in fifth grade, because of the older girl who sat next to her on the bus to school. The other girl was mad for any kind of theater, and my daughter caught her enthusiasm and insisted we get the book. Since Robin was only 10, I read it, too, so we could discuss if need be. Later on, she bought the music, and watched the PBS special, and I took her and the other two daughters to a production of Les Miz in NYC. We still have the poster we bought for her that day.

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    • Ah, Karen, the joy of having a reading daughter! I have the 25th anniversary CD, and I listen to it whenever I drive for a long time.

      I think Javert suffers from not being written as thoroughly, but maybe there was not much to say. He is certainly obsessive and single-minded. I think they are opposite sides of a coin.

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  3. Javert has always fascinated me because of his inner demons and for me Norm Lewis displays that far more than the other Javerts I’ve been privileged to watch…it’s a difficult role to play and they all do it well but Lewis somehow permits a glimpse of his humanity even when he confronts the evil-doers he relentlessly seeks. But for me, the telling difference is in “forgiveness”. Valjean’s compassion, his quest to make things right for others because one person made things right for him, drives him. Even though he stumbles along the way, lies to Javert in order to keep his promise to Fantine, and lives under an alias, he cares for his fellow man (How will they live if I’am not free). He can forgive his own missteps as he makes a final peace with God. Javert on the other hand forgives no one…from his mother onward. His strict and inflexible moral code sets him on a path to self-destruction because he simply cannot comprehend someone’s compassion toward him. Valjean could have killed him…should have killed him in Javert’s rationality…but set him free. Kindness is not in Javert’s lexicon and this act eats at his sense of justice until he commits the most grievous sin of that time…suicide.
    That said, I think Valjean struggles with his own demons but has made his pact with God and tries to be a better person. Javert simply believes he is superior to all but God and acts accordingly.
    I cannot wait for the national tour to hit Chicago. It’s been far too long since I read the book or saw the entire play on stage. And Ramona…I too think Michael Ball the quintessential Marius. His duet with Alfie Boe of Empty Chairs (on the Alfie UK album)is my favorite piece.

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    • Maryann, I love your comment about suicide being a grievous sin. Of course you are right, and I had not considered it in those terms. Not only did he end his life on earth, Javert in his own mind, made sure he could not achieve salvation. So his act was truly one of self-punishment in the extreme.

      I have only seen snippets of Norm Lewis as Javert, but he certainly has a strong fan base right here. Oh, and Michael Ball as Marius. There really is no other, is there? At least not to me.

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  4. I’ll confess that I’ve never given Javert much thought, but now I feel as I used to when I’d go to guidance and find out why a “horrible” student acted as he/she did . . . and realize that I’d likely have been as bad or worse given that student’s problems. Now you have me wondering what would have happened if someone like the kind priest had intervened in Javert’s life . . .

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    • The funny thing is, Mary, Javert’s character is one in a position of power and respect. He was born in a jail, presumably the child of a criminal, but went on to a career focused on upholding the law. There is no reason to believe he is dishonest, though his methods may have been brutal, as was not uncommon at the time. So apart from this obsession with Valjean, there’s no reason to look at his life with anything other than admiration. On the surface, he’s a person who rose above his circumstances. A closer look, however…well, that’s why we are here, to have that closer look.

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