Politics & Law

‘Les Mis’: Why do we idealize Jean Valjean and act like Javert?

Jonathan Simon

Since it opened on Broadway in 1987, the musical Les Miserables has captured the American imagination, running until 2003; the fourth longest running show in Broadway history.  The movie version, starring Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman, just opened and the show I saw last night was packed.

The story, based on Victor Hugo’s Emile Zola‘s 1862 novel of the same name, tells the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant condemned to 19 years of slavery in prison for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving nephew.  Embittered and degraded by his prison experience, Valjean commits a property crime almost immediately against a kindly priest who had given him shelter for the night.  Saved from re-imprisonment by the priest’s refusal to accuse him, Val Jean commits himself to life of service and virtue, a path he concludes he can only follow by breaking his parole and going underground.  The rest of the story tracks his success and efforts helping others always shadowed by a police officer named Javert who is obsessed with tracking down and re-imprisoning Valjean.

Les Miserables stillThe battle of these protagonists is set against the suffering of the French poor in the years after the defeat of Napoleon and the revolutionary sentiments stirring in Paris, but the moral drama comes down to two questions. First, does justice require absolute adherence to the letter of the law and condemnation of those who break it, or instead to meeting human needs and showing mercy and forgiveness to other?  Second, can a person who commits a crime change, or do they carry a moral failure that will always reassert itself?

Valjean — who broke the law only to save a child and is himself saved by the mercy and forgiveness of the priest — embodies the ideal of justice as humanity.  While his criminality seems confirmed by his committing a crime soon after being released from prison, he devotes the rest of his life to hard honest work and to helping others.

Javert embodies the ideal of justice as strict adherence to law.  Although surrounded by evidence that the savage inequalities of French society makes the protection of the law a cruel hoax, Javert believes that there can never be a greater priority than obedience.  Javert also believes that once a criminal, always a criminal.

In each of their encounters, Javert reminds Valjean that he is a dangerous criminal who will always return to committing crime.   Of course, the audience has no problem deciding which side justice and morality are on. To my observation, nobody roots for Javert to catch Valjean and return him to prison. We all want Jean Valjean to remain free.

Although the story is French, and the musical production originally British, American audiences love it deeply, and recognize in Jean Valjean a classic American hero — a character who is redeemed from a life of crime by the intervention of others, and through their own commitment and courage attain both worldly success and moral virtue.

But herein lies the irony.  If we Americans identify with Jean Valjean, why does our justice system, more than any other in the world, embody the spirit and philosophy of Javert?  In no other nation are people so routinely incarcerated for breaking the law, no matter how trivial the violation, or compelling the need behind it.  Moreover, in the very decades that we have been lining up to see Les Mis, we have enacted a legal system committed to  the inflexible imposition of harsh justice and the impossibility of reform.  Indeed our state and federal courts today are largely in the hands of Javert and his disciples.

Javert himself provides two interesting clues to why Americans both dislike and embrace the harsh version of justice he represents.

First, Javert repeatedly refers to Jean Valjean as “dangerous” and there is a hint that his tremendous physical strength, and strong emotions, contain some more general menace. Americans in the violent 1970s and 1980s seemed to accept that security requires us to ignore our intuitions about justice (a theme that continues in the current war on terror).

Second, Javert discloses that he himself is from an impoverished background, but has obtained success without breaking the law.  In Javert’s zeal to punish Jean Valjean is disguised a need to deny that they have anything in common.  Likewise American punitiveness is powered in part by a need to maintain a moral gulf between the goodness we imagine in ourselves, and the evil it must be defined against.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

Bookmark and Share
Comments to "‘Les Mis’: Why do we idealize Jean Valjean and act like Javert?":
    • Socially unacceptable

      fanf**kingtastic someone finally said something that I have been thinking about for a while. People who believe the goverment is justice need to wake up the goverment has done horrible things like Tuskegee Syphilis experiment that lasted until 1972 — wow and we thougt it was only the loopy 50′s.

      Anyone who thinks our justice system is too weak please please read REGINA KELLY. It is scary and the first thing that pops to mind, that thats the only injustice we know about how many other thousands of crimes committed by officials have happened and BEEN SILENCED! We only know about regina kelly because she was a terrier fighting with a mom fighting for justice too but how many people were threatened and silenced how many other regina kelly’s are there in prison or killed?

      Not only to mention police brutality (rodney King) the most recent I know of is two women who had their vaginas probed on the highway for flicking cigs out the car which made the police man “suspect” marijuana. Which to my knowledge was NEVER FOUND.

      Also lets talk about the people who did do crimes: first of all, our prisons are not structured to rehabilitate people to re-enter society. The guards sodomize prisoners as well as other prisoners. Secondly when they do get out they will always have a record no matter how minor or how young. So let’s see we release a person who has been debased to animal level with a record so he will not be able to get in the good graces of good society and we wonder why we have repeat criminals. Prison is only the “gateway drug” for lesser criminals to be graduated into bigger crimes and harder more selfish outlooks. (Read this piece on prison reform.)

      It has only gotten worse now the public are criminals body scans and required fingerprinting. Yes I was told if I wanted a job I had to have digital fingerprints made. Also we are terrorized by stories of people being fired over facebook accounts even if the innapropriate pics were of the friend of your friend but not directly linked to you. Justice has become creepier than a stalker boyfriend and it is become ACCEPTABLE in the name of SECURITY!

      Last thought: the death sentence should be outdated as if anyone of real importance ever gets caught hahaha. The real criminals are never caught the only ones that make it to the grinder are petty common criminals or the insane. The death sentence is pure revenge.

      [Report abuse]

    • Mozart

      I’m afraid your comment there, “smiley,” is a bit off. There are in fact many people who are in prison for very long sentences in America for very VERY minor crimes. The ACLU just released a report resulting from the analysis of terms of life imprisonment without parole. The crimes for which people have been sentenced to life without parole include stealing: small change from a parked car, a pair of socks, nine children’s videotapes, a pair of work gloves from a department store, a leaf blower, three golf clubs, chocolate chip cookies and a slice of pizza.

      The author of the article had it right. Javert is basically the embodiment of our justice system as it exists today.

      [Report abuse]

    • Mike

      There is one simple reason we cheer for Valjean, we *know* his intent. It is a fantasy that we can truly know the intent of another person, a fantasy that is fulfilled through fiction. I have not seen the film but am very familiar with the stage musical. I have never seen Javert as the villain. Javert understands justice, but not mercy. It’s a flaw, but it certainly doesn’t make him evil.

      When Valjean and Javert are in conflict, it is natural for us to want Valjean to prevail. We know of Javert’s flawed vision of the world *and* we know that by the time Valjean has taken upon himself the care of Fantine, he is no longer the criminal who would steal the silver from the home of his host.

      A rational person would want the redeemed Valjean to continue to care for those around him. In the real world, we lack the ability to so clearly see someone’s good intentions.

      [Report abuse]

    • smiley

      It seems to me that Javert and Jean Valjean are extreme caricatures, in the play, not the book. It’s an obvious, rather facile, dichotomy: justice and mercy.

      In the real criminal justice system, crimes like stealing a loaf of bread are not punished with such harsh punishment, but would be met with a probation sentence.

      The goal of the criminal justice system is to protect the public, and for the most part, works. I vote to keep the baby, lose the bathwater. I agree that there is some racism, but that’s just a reflection of society in general, not a dysfunctional or corrupt system.

      [Report abuse]

    • John G

      Call me a bit crazy, but I want to argue against the consensus based on opportunity provided to characters. The characters that are made the villains are portrayed as ugly and poor, and the characters that are the heroes, or benefit the most, are the rich and/or attractive.

      Think about it. Do we see any people go from poverty to riches in this series? Val Jean only became wealthy because he was given the candlesticks from the priest (which could somehow afford to build a factory???). Anyways, it sounds like Valjean only became wealthy through, well, luck/charity. Finally, before someone says some bullshit about how Jean Valjean gave the thernadiers a large some of money, they only got that opportunity because they created it by taking a hostage. It wasn’t a charity, it was a ransom.

      The priest was generous, sure, but it isn’t like he earned that money. He got that money by scamming the masses. It would be like if the government collected taxes, and were praised when they actually spent them on the people. It shouldn’t be thought of as generous, it should be expected.

      The thernadiers on the other hand, started off poor. They weren’t given opportunity, they created it. Did they rip people off in the process? Damn straight. But so would Jean Valjean would have done if he hadn’t been given charity so early after being released from prison.

      Marius was rich, and presumably handsome. Cossette was beautiful, and essentially rich due to her adoption by Valjean.

      Basically, if they HAD to be rich, or have gotten lucky, to be successful. Their ambitions had nothing to do with it. The only characters that got shit done were the thernadiers. And the priest was probably a child molester. BAM

      [Report abuse]

    • Lucy

      Regarding the Bishop “scamming the masses” and being “probably a child molester”: NO.

      The Bishop lives in absolute poverty, giving away 90% of his salary to the poor and only retaining a few touches of luxury to a) keep up appearances for visitors and b) please his sister. The only person he scams is HIS OWN CHURCH, when he wheedles a raise out of them…and promptly adds it to the donations list.

      [Report abuse]

    • Brysie

      The point that the priest is the person that we should admire is valid for me.

      Although I am a devout atheist – I am moved by the selfless acts that those who have faith can give to to others.

      However, I am moved still further that the churches have amassed such huge (obscene?) wealth and have hung on to it.

      They do not practice what they preach.

      Over the centuries they should have given this to the needy and not created a business and profit out of religion.

      Being worth billions of pounds, euros, dollars, yen etc etc is a disgraceful act of power and greed.

      I watched a great movie and I was moved to many tears. But the greatest tear was shed by me for what those that control all religions are not doing for their people.

      End of rant – can’t wait to see the new Star Trek movie!!

      [Report abuse]

    • Charles

      The original musical is actually French, although the movie is British (and the 20+ other languages it’s been shown in were a result of the English stage version, had that first leap not happened it may never have left France).

      I was intrigued by your assertion that there is “no problem” deciding where justice and morality lie. Admittedly, I’m only half way through the book and Javert may come to be less sympathetic as I progress, but the context has to be born in mind – France during the long nineteenth century was a deeply turbulent place, which saw endless changes in constitutions; between the Directory, the Convention, and a few empires, republics and kingdoms. Javert represents a conservatism and consistency, a set of moral absolutes which, be they right or wrong, surely contain an appeal given the upheaval of the time.

      There is no denying that Valjean was very badly treated, and Javert’s single-mindedness is entirely out of proportion, but key to bear in mind is that, in the film at least, we are given no hint as to his political views and persuasions; there were changes of governmental system during the long period the story covers, and Javert continues the rise of his career. The implication is that, like the Vicar of Bray, he serves not any given polity, but the forces of Order and Stability; the idea that blood should not be running through the streets.

      We are also given to understand this in the song “One More Day”, where he wants only to put down the rebellion. Not to punish them for their views, but to stop them from fighting in the capital. Had they won, he would likely have sought to serve them in the same capacity. This may make him odious and unprincipled, but it belies the larger principle he serves: peace within the French state. Considering the times in question, that is not intrinsically a personality flaw.

      [Report abuse]

    • Ben

      Why do we not wish to emulate the priest instead of either Valjean or Javert? I had not seen the stage version but saw the recent motion picture version. The most memorable actions to me were those of the priest! The actions of the priest were the marvelous instigation to more selfless loving actions by another. Valjean’s actions did not encourage more selfless loving actions by anyone as far as we know. And of course no actions of Javert were repeated by another. To me, the protagonist was not the hero; the priest was the real hero.

      [Report abuse]

    • Abbie Burch

      Ben-I was delighted to see someone else was so moved by the actions of the priest. He had the power to destroy Valjean; instead, he shows mercy and love. The priest was the real hero.

      [Report abuse]

    • A M

      I respectfully disagree with this article. Jean Valjean broke the law in order to serve a greater good (feeding his nephew). He was never “evil.” By comparison the former CFO of Crazy Eddie’s said they skimmed money because they could. They felt the money was theirs. They worked hard to earn it, so why should we report this income to the government and pay taxes on it.

      Jean Valjean was always a good man. But 19 years in harsh imprisonment hardened him. But the kindness of the Bishop of Digne reminded him how far he had fallen.

      I personally believe that all of the bullies who tormented me in high school (spoiled brat rich kids with a massive sense of self entitlement) – that none of them have learned their lesson. They are just as evil as they were 20+ years ago. Because they bullied because they could. They did it because they felt they had the right. It was darwinism. They were filled with hatred in their heart. It made them feel bigger.

      People like that don’t learn lessons. Knock them down and they will just come back with more friends or bigger weapons and push harder. That is the why Javert never learned to see the other side of the coin. When Jean Valjean spares his life, he can not cope and kills himself.

      The way America is like Les Miserables is that our Penal system is based on the idea of atonement for sins. Time spent thinking and regretting. Like a child locked in his/her room with a time out. The zoo like quality hardens people who don’t have a sense of morality, think much, and come from an environment without structure.

      Prison should be like boot camp. Immense structure and work. The penal system should be about rehabilitating the ones we can and keeping those who can’t be (ie: the criminally insane like James Holmes) away from society.

      [Report abuse]

    • Andy

      I would argue that both characters are designed to represent an extreme. Javert is the extreme side of uncaring justice, whereas Valjean is the extreme side of the reformed spirit. When we follow either extreme path, we will not be met with successful results.

      The extreme that one sees with Valjean may work in smaller groups of people. Here we have the luxury of judging individuals. Indeed, in many smaller states the justice system and law enforcement is more understanding of a person’s circumstances.

      Take, for example, a town near mine in New Hampshire. Local police there caught a guy for trespassing on property. Turns out he was homeless because he was unemployed. One of the local cops drove the man around to businesses so that he could fill out job applications. While admirable, such an approach is not practical in a place like Los Angeles or Oakland were the police are often inundated with calls.

      [Report abuse]

    • Kathy

      To understand the movie, you really have to understand the nature of the law, punishment, personal responsibility, forgiveness. In our current society we do have justice where people are treated with humanity (for the most part) and do have opportunities for reform and education. But most do not take it. Most are not victims of injustice. Most are not in jail because they steal a loaf of bread to eat, but because they CHOOSE criminal activity rather than legal activities like school or a trade skill. They want stuff, money, power … things they have not earned and are not willing to work for. We all have FREE WILL = a CHOICE… moment by moment, day by day. Without that, we are all just victims of ourselves and others.

      This country STILL does offer justice and amazing opportunities for those who are willing to take them no matter where you come from or what color your skin. Yet most are not grateful for those opportunities. We live in a time of rampant immorality and entitlement. So do we weaken the laws? Do we let off the law breaker lightly in the name of humanity? Is that really humane? Certainly not for those who have truly been victimized by criminals. Laws/morals are necessary. And our justice system is overall a pretty humane one.

      Freedom without responsibility amounts to chaos. To be more lenient on the criminal, to provide help to the criminal, even if you call it humanity, will not produce a law abiding citizen who wants to contribute to society. True change comes from a heart change. Until there is a heart change, the most just and humane thing to do is to keep that person from doing more harm to themselves or others.

      The key is for the person to recognize, to see themselves clearly, their value, what they have done wrong, and truly take responsibility for themselves and be grateful for the opportunities before them, before they can value any help or leniency they are given. Until that happens no amount of leniency/humanity does any good toward changing their heart. Anyone who has raised children, dealt with a loved one with substance dependency, or a criminal/sociopath personality will understand this very clearly. True change/transformation is possible but hard to come by as it is usually deep in us and our spiritual being and ways of thinking.

      Let me see if I can explain further. The movie is a wonderful story of redemption. Jean Valjean is freed from his hellish prison but obviously not free at all as the wounds of his depraved treatment in prison, and his lack of self worth/value motivate him to choose poorly… to reject himself/others, hate, behave foolishly. But then he is dramatically healed from his emotional/spiritual wounds when he sees his value, unconditional love and forgiveness, through the sacrifice of the Priest for him, and most certainly begins to understand where that love and forgiveness comes from.

      Why does the priest do that for Jean Valjean? Because he knows Christ… he knows and understands the sacrifice of Jesus where He gave everything for us, valued us, forgave us, even though we could not keep the law… could not be good enough, so that we could be free to follow God as his valued and beloved children. That is where the love and grace that the priest gives Jean Valjean comes from. With the knowledge of that Jean Valjean’s heart changes, and he CHOOSES to go forward in life with the belief that he is of value, good, worthy to live a good life and help others. He recognizes our God-given value and right to live fully as children of God and our desire to live out His love and grace by being compassionate toward others.

      Only God/Jesus can truly and deeply change a heart like that, but we have to CHOOSE to see the gift of that and receive it for the change of heart to take place and a person can see their true value. One has to let go of the ways of the world and adopt the ways of God. That is really what this story/movie is about. Redemption… the gift of our freedom and value was bought with a price if we are willing to CHOOSE to receive it and live accordingly.

      [Report abuse]

    • Richard

      I could not disagree with you more! First off, your assertion that crime is just being too lazy to get a real job is just nonsense. If your point wasn’t nonsense you would most likely get an even distribution of crime throughout the globe instead of having hotspots where there is a lack of job opportunities. However, you don’t get an even distribution you get high crime areas.

      You know I was going to do a well thought out point by point argument of why everything you just said was complete pigswill with a refreshing hint of vomit. However, if you don’t/can’t/won’t even see that crime (mostly) comes from deprivation then there clearly is no point for me to waste my time.

      [Report abuse]

    • Jay-jay Le

      It is true that our American system of law acts like Javert and it might be too strict, but there is nothing wrong being a little strict. I believe that if you don’t spank a child for stealing a toy then he/she will grow up to steal cars or even rob a house.

      People should be punished for the crimes they commit no matter how small the crime is. In the movie, 19 years of prison time for stealing bread is way too harsh, but I don’t believe our American justice system is anywhere nearly as harsh; in fact, our American justice system is too lenient on prison time for criminals. Some people get out of jail within 5 years for murder, rape, child molestation, and domestic violence…what the heck is that?

      I think our American justice system is way too lenient and we should be more like Javert.

      [Report abuse]

    • LM

      This is an interesting question, but it lacks sufficient examination of the book itself. For example: “Javert repeatedly refers to Jean Valjean as “dangerous” and there is a hint that his tremendous physical strength, and strong emotions, contain some more general menace.”

      This is how the musical and the movie present Valjean, true. But in the book, there is no “hint” about it: after prison, Valjean is a dangerous man. He’s referred to as more beast than human on multiple occasions. Javert is chasing him because the law requires it, but he also is truly trying to protect the people from a violent man. (Of course, when they meet on the occasions after Valjean has changed his identity, his encounters with Myriel, Geraint, and Cosette have changed him, but Javert doesn’t know this and has no reason to believe Valjean isn’t still the dangerous man who escaped from prison on multiple occasions.)

      [Report abuse]

    • Heather

      I’m glad someone is commenting on the moral implications of the story and not just reviewing the film-making! I hadn’t thought about it, but the author of this blog is right about the US justice system. Very sad.

      [Report abuse]

    • TJ

      Funny that everyone got in a tizzy about crediting the correct author, but the point question remains unanswered: Why Javert? It’s easy. We can identify with Valjean because he is white. It’s much harder for us to empathize or sympathize with people from another race, especially when we’re programmed from birth to view “Others” as predestined to crime. France (and thus Hugo’s story) is remarkably racially homogenous. I doubt the U.S. would ever adopt “brotherhood” or “equality” as rallying cries.

      I really enjoy your thoughts on the criminal justice system in general, professor, but until America can make accept its racist past and work diligently to overcome it, governing through crime will continue and will continue to exact a higher toll on racial minorities.

      [Report abuse]

    • Levi

      TJ, I appreciate your comment (the first of substance). I think there is a lot to be said (in fact I am betting part of my PhD on it) for your identification that mainstream whites are less likely to identify with other races regarding crime and punishment.

      That being said, I am confused by the “but” in the first sentence of your last paragraph, which seems to suggest that this is not a factor that the author has considered. To my memory, Prof. Simon has written a great deal suggesting that racial bias and America’s long history of racism and inequality are critical to the current state of law and criminal justice policy. Furthermore, would you say that the case of Javert/Valjean can still be useful to illustrate the strangeness of American punitiveness?

      Thank you for sharing!

      [Report abuse]

      • TJ

        The “but” Levi, was not to suggest that Prof. Simon hasn’t considered it (I think he, like you, is betting the farm on that proposition). I was simply suggesting that it’s not likely to change until we have a serious and difficult conversation about race and American history. Sadly, our fellow citizens seem willfully ignorant on both topics, so much so that I doubt it will ever happen.

        [Report abuse]

    • DT

      +1 on naming the elephant in the room.

      [Report abuse]

    • wade stanton

      Levi, Here, a comment on the blog:
      Johnathan says the story is french. I believe the story is without nationality and timeless. Enough about the blog. I loved the abridged version as a child. Passionate about the unabridged version as an adult. This story could make me into the meanest instrument of war bad guys ever saw.
      Wade

      [Report abuse]

    • Jo Powers

      Regarding the authorship of the play: What are you talking about??? Perhaps you haven’t read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables? The actual play has music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer. But I don’t think Zola had anything to do with the book or the musical. Let me just say, “J’Accuse” you of misinformation.

      [Report abuse]

    • Darryl

      Victor Hugo is the author of the novel Les Miserables, not Emile Zola.

      Apart from that, I did enjoy your comments. Javert is one of the most fascinating characters in literature/theater. and there is still much to learn from this story.

      [Report abuse]

    • Maroilles

      “The story, based on Emile Zola’s 1862 novel of the same name, tells the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant condemned to 19 years of slavery in prison for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving nephew.”

      While Emile Zola was a great French novelist, the credit for this one should go to Victor Hugo.

      [Report abuse]

Leave a comment

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


8 + = 15