The Character of Javert in Les Miserables
If you’ve followed me at all, you know I have a dangerous soft spot for villains. I love a good, deliciously evil villain. I love cackling maniacally right along with them as they carry out their nefarious deeds.
So, why then, did I dislike Javert from the book and musical Les Miserables so much? He’s a turd, to be sure. Evil? Meh. Not really. Not in the supervillain sense of the word.
A great foil? Certainly.
But he always felt a bit tacked-on to me. A bit like the villains in Logan whose only purpose is to stop the mutants from getting to safety. Javert is just there to stop Jean Valjean. There’s no point to him.
Javert just isn’t that interesting.
And so when he commits suicide, I have always been left rather…meh. I didn’t really care that he killed himself. There was no empathy or self-righteous justification.
That all changed when I had a revelation.
Perhaps, I thought, Javert’s utter blandness is precisely what makes him a good character.
Hear me out.
Victor Hugo, who wrote Les Miserable in 1862, describes Javert as a man whose life is one “of privations, isolation, self-denial, and chastity—never any amusement”.
Javert keeps himself in check. He’s not a man of passion, in fact, he perceives any kind of amusement or passion as inherently dangerous.
In other words, he’s a bowl of bland oatmeal.
I wanted to break down his character and learn more, and see if by making up a childhood, I can understand him better…
In the musical, Javert sings “I was born inside a jail / I was born with scum like you / I am from the gutter too.”
Hugo tells us his mother was a fortune teller. So let’s pretend for a moment that Little Javert adored his mother. He believed she was some kind of angel with special powers. Then one day, while playing passionately with a friend, Javert bumps the table where his mother keeps her expensive trinket she uses to cast fortunes.
The trinket falls to the floor and shatters. Javert’s mom, in a fit of rage, beats him again and again. Suddenly Little Javert has to reconcile this woman he’s adored with one capable of terrible brutality.
Or perhaps, in the midst of the beating, a police officer steps in and rescues Little Javert. Little Javert is given respite in which to recover from his mother’s lashing, and while in the care of the cop, he’s given a glance into another kind of life–a life of order and control. And he grows to hate his mother and all that she–and his upbringing–represents.
In that moment, the line between good and evil is clearly drawn.
To smudge that line is to lose control and risk falling back into the gutter.
And so, behind the barricade when Valjean spares Javert’s life, Valjean smudges that line for Javert.
And Javert can’t deal.
Should he have committed suicide? Of course not. But more than not wanting to live in a world where things aren’t black and white, I think Javert’s mind may have gone to a much darker place.I think in that moment he was forced to admit to himself that in keeping such strict control over his life, his life was wasted. No passion. No amusement.
Nothing but order and oatmeal.
And that, above all else, was something he couldn’t abide.
What do you think? Do you find Javert boring? Did this post make you look at him any different? Do you think my understanding of his character is flawed? If so, how would you describe him?
Let me know in the comments below!