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.
The 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.