As Lucifer Fell: An Essay on Inspector Javert

Les Miserables
Universal Studios
2013

This post began as a response to one of WordPress’ suggestions to blog about an “earworm” and why exactly the song was stuck in my head. At the time, I had the song from Les Miserables entitled “Stars”, sung by Inspector Javert. As I meditated on the song, this post evolved from a post about a song into a post about a character. I’ve come to the opinion that, in a work whose English title is translated “The Miserable Ones”, Inspector Javert is the most miserable character of all.

First, take into account the background of each of the major characters.

Jean Valjean is a thief. He spends 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread and subsequently trying to escape, a charge he never denies. Upon his release, he wanders the French countryside and is turned away at every opportunity for work, shelter, and food. Valjean then robs the first man to take pity on him, and a priest at that. When the priest, one Bishop Myriel by name, has mercy on Valjean, he vows to become an honest man. However, this “honesty” involves breaking his parole, assuming a false name, and living in constant fear of discovery.

In the film, we are not given Fantine’s complete back story, yet the songs “At the End of the Day” and “I Dreamed a Dream” gives us some clues as to what her life was once like. At some point in her life she had a lover, evidenced by the existence of her child, Cosette. In those young and carefree days she dreamed of a “life worth living…that love would never die…[and] that God would be forgiving.” When we meet her in the film, Fantine has been abandoned by her man and is fired from her job in Valjean’s factory due to gossip from her coworkers.

The Thénardiers are scoundrels and cheats, what they have in life they have stolen from someone else. They have no qualms in extorting money from a single mother. They take pleasure in cheating the guests at their inn and outright robbing the drunks at their bar. They are the dregs of society, yet they are aware of the fact and revel in it.

Enjorlas and the the ABC Students are relatively poor and lack influence of any kind. Nevertheless, they see themselves as the voices of reason and democracy in a society that has forgotten them. They plan and plot revolution – not for their own gain – but for the benefit of a downtrodden Paris. As the film largely glosses over the political aspects of the students, many readers will not be familiar with the events surrounding the rise of the ABC Students. In brief: France had a bloody Revolution from 1789-1799. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte began to take complete control of France and waged war with most of Europe until finally being deposed and exiled in 1815. The events of Les Miserables take place between 1815 and 1832, with 1832 being the year the ABC Students mount their failed revolution. At the time, the monarch of France was Louise Philippe, a relatively weak king who angered the Bonapartists (those who supported Napoleon), the Legitimists (those who supported a return to the Bourbon dynasty), the Republicans (those who supported more democractic reforms), and the anti-monarchaists (those who wanted to end the monarchy altogether). The ABC Students of Hugo’s novel were mainly Republicans, although he made it clear that many political views were represented in the group. Marius is a perfect example of this disparity; being born into wealth, he has willingly cast aside his right to riches and has cast his lot in with the poor of Paris.

Truly these characters are les miserables, but, as the saying goes, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Brought to their lowest estate in life, these characters can sink no more.

In contrast stands Inspector Javert. By his own admission, Javert was born inside a jail with the scum and sweepings of the street. He has risen from the gutter to the housetop. Nearly every time we see Javert in the modern film, he is physically higher than the rest of the cast: he stands watch above the prisoners in the shipyard, he stands in the mayor’s office above the factory workers, he rides on horseback while searching for Valjean, he walks on rooftops high over Paris while contemplating his duty to the law, he looms over Valjean and Marius in the sewers, and he walks the railing on the bridge over the River Seine while in a state of mental crisis. Having risen to the top, Javert has the most to lose.

Second, take into account how each of the characters view life.

Valjean’s purpose in life is to make up for his previous mistakes. He takes Bishop Myriel’s words to heart and works hard to become an honest man. He opens a lace factory, providing work in hopes that his workers will be kept from starvation and his own crime of theft. He turns himself in when an innocent man is arrested in his place for the crime of breaking parole. After she was unjustly fired from his factory, Valjean tries to help Fantine.  As Fantine lies dying, Valjean promises to provide security for Cosette. When the June Revolution begins, he tries to keep Gavroche away from the barricades and is willing to sacrifice his own life to save Marius.

Fantine’s driving force is her daughter, Cosette. She works herself nearly to death in Valjean’s factory, enduring the advances of his lecherous foreman in order to pay the Thénardiers for keeping Cosette. When she is unjustly dismissed, Fantine resorts to selling – quite literally – her body in order to continue paying for Cosette’s keep. Fantine’s dying thoughts are of Cosette; in a delirium she sees Cosette approaching her bed, and when the vision disappears, she wants assurance that she will be reunited with Cosette “when I wake.” In her dying moments, Fantine is convinced that she will be reunited with Cosette in the Resurrection.

Enjorlas is utterly devoted to the cause of democracy. Although the film disregards the extremely political nature of Les Miserables, enough has been left in place to see how Enjorlas sees himself in the grand scheme of things. This is best seen in the lyrics to “Red and Black”:

It is time for us all
To decide who we are…
Do we fight for the right
To a night at the opera now?
Have you asked of yourselves
What’s the price you might pay?
Is it simply a game
For rich young boys to play?
The color of the world
Is changing
Day by day…
Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!
. . .

[N]ow there is a higher call

We strive toward a larger goal
Our little lives don’t count at all!

Enjorlas is a pawn in the grand scheme of life, but he knows it and is content. He is willing to sacrifice his own life if it means that others can be free.

Eponine is motivated by unrequited love. In love with Marius, her advances are either unseen or purposefully ignored due to Marius’ infatuation with Cosette. Nevertheless, she is willing to do what makes Marius’ happy: she tracks down Cosette’s home and warns Cosette and Valjean of Monsieur Thénardier’s ill intentions; she joins Marius at the barricade and ultimately gives her life for him. In return for these acts of love, all Eponine asks is that Marius stay with her while she dies (“A Little Fall of Rain”).

While all these characters are devoted to someone else, to another living person, Javert is obsessed with an idea: the law. While others live their lives out of a sense of duty, Javert lives to uphold the law. Take, for instance, his words when threatening Fantine with arrest:

 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.’

Javert is a man unmoved by pity and unwilling to act on mercy. Consider the first words we hear about Javert, coincidentally the first in the film: “Look down/Look down/Don’t look him in the eye”. As the epitome of the unyielding law, criminals and convicts live under the stern gaze of Javert.

Nevertheless, Javert is just as serious in his devotion as any other character. When Javert accuses Valjean of breaking parole, and is subsequently told that Valjean is in custory, Javert declares that he has disgraces his uniform, and asks Valjean to press charges and show no forgiveness. Javert’s reasoning is simple: he has been just as hard “on any rouge [he has] known”. In Javert’s world, there are two paths: the path of the Lord and the path of unrighteousness. As a follower of the law, Javert’s path is the way of the Lord. Any who deviate from this path must face “the flame, the sword”.

Finally, consider how each character ends the film.

Two notable sets of characters survive the film: Marius and Cosette and the Thénardiers. Marius and Cosette receive the happier ending; they are married and are able to enjoy the wealth of Marius’ family. On the other hand are the Thénardiers.  No longer are they “Masters of the House”, but rather “Beggars at the Feast”. Nevertheless, they are still conniving, still strategizing – and still surviving.

Many major characters do not survive the film: Fantine dies at the beginning of the film (of consumption, shock, betrayal – take your pick); Eponine, Gavroche, Enjorlas, and the ABC students are killed at the barricade; and Valjean apparently dies of old age at the end of the film. However, we see these characters again in the film’s “Epilogue”, a heavenly barricade where all those who struggled finally have the lives they dreamed of.

Inspector Javert is notably absent from this scene, and I believe there are two reasons he is not there. First, Javert was a suicide; at the time of Hugo’s novel, France was still under a heavily Catholic influence (despite the Revolution and Napoleon), and Catholic doctrine states that suicides are destined for hell. The second reason is that the characters seemed to receive what they expected to receive in the afterlife, and – alone of all the major characters – Javert expected damnation. Look back at the lyrics to “Stars”:

And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword!

Having failed in his duty to uphold the law, Javert sees himself as having fallen from the path of the righteous. The only afterlife Javert expects to receive is one of punishment. Therefore, Javert is the most miserable of Les Miserables. He rose the highest, yet fell the farthest. He alone of all the characters in the film failed utterly – even the  Thénardiers fare better in that they survive. He alone of the deceased is absent from the heavenly barricade.

And yet, there is something about Javert that resonates with me. I’ve heard many critiques about Javert’s character (and Russell Crowe’s singing) in this most recent version of Les Miserables. However, I think that Javert’s detractors are trying to find fault with him for one obvious reason: most of us are like Javert. We emulate Valjean, sympathize with Fantine, cheer for Marius and Cosette, and sorrow over the loss of Eponine, Gavroche, and the ABC Students. But, at the end of the day, we are Javert. We hold others to our own lofty ideals and are often unforgiving when they fall short. We are quick to point out others’ shortcomings, but when confronted with our own, we refuse to deal with them. We hate Javert because Javert reminds us, as Walt Kelly once said, that we have met the enemy, and he is us.

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4 thoughts on “As Lucifer Fell: An Essay on Inspector Javert

  1. Well written! I would recommend the book to you, if you have not read it. It fills in so many of the holes left in the musical and movie. In my opinion, the musical and movie made more sense after I read the Hugo novel.

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  2. Not a show or film or book that appeals to me, and yet this lucid and well written discussion was consistently interesting, and I feel now that at least I understand them all better, I know something of what they are about. Well done.

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  3. Great insights! I started to wonder something along those lines, ironically during the same song you mentioned (“Stars”) with that visual of him walking the literal edge of the parapet as his character metaphorically tiptoes the edge of his own ruin.
    Personally I found Javert the most compelling character in the story, maybe because I identify with single-minded obsession (which also might explain my love of Hitchcock films). I sometimes wonder if David Twohy used Javert as the basis for Tommy Lee Jones’ US Marshal character in The Fugitive, but then I haven’t seen the original TV show on which the movie was loosely based.

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