Note: this comes from the characters as presented in the musical of Les Miserables, not the book. The book made me want to do horrible things to humanity as punishment for my being forced through it. The musical I adore.
Over the course of a few weeks, while I was cleaning my room and doing edits and various other things that ultimately proved to be more important than I thought they’d be, I had a few things running on repeat on the TV, things I knew so well I could keep the screen covered with a blanket, enjoy the sounds, and not be tempted to sit down and watch (it mostly worked). One of these was the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast of Les Miserables.
I fell in love with Les Mis back in Middle School; the folks who absconded with me into the drama program introduced me to the show. I could sing the entire thing, every part- even the parts that blended over each other in songs- and pick it up from any point in the show. When my dad was stationed in London for a year, we went for a visit and he took us to see this show. I bawled at least seven separate times because holy hell, it was SO GOOD. So as I’m listening to it as a backdrop to other tasks, most of my thoughts were much the same as they’d ever been.
-I feel really bad for Eponine, because God her life is one giant ball of suck.
-I wish the Thenardiers getting filthy rich at the end wasn’t so easy to believe, because I really hate it when horrible people do well for themselves.
-Marius’ survivor’s guilt is going to make him unbearable in a few years, given his generally obsessive personality.
-I feel really bad for Javert, for being so unbending he has nothing else but to break.
And then I took a break to stretch and get something to drink, and I listened (and paid attention) to the scene where Valjean and Javert are arguing after Fantine’s death. And some thoughts started prickling. And prickling a little more. And sinking claws in. So I hit rewind (it’s actually a VHS tape, which makes me giggle every time, I don’t why) and started over, and this time I listened to all of their interactions, listened to their solos. Basically paid close attention to the dynamic between these two men.
And I was fascinated.
On their own, these two characters are interesting enough, but when paired, they’re so much more.
For anyone not familiar with the musical (or the book, to which the musical bears some similarity), these two men are actually the ones we start with. Jean Valjean is a convict, Javert a police inspector. After nineteen years in prison- five for stealing a piece of bread, fourteen for trying to escape- Valjean is finally being released on parole, and Javert promises he’ll be close behind should Valjean decide to go back to his thieving ways. But parole at this time was an ugly thing- a parolee had no rights under the law, there were few jobs they could get, and most folk treated them like the scum of the earth. Being on parole was a short track to starvation and a return to a life of crime. While staying with a bishop, Valjean steals some of his silver and gets caught by two policemen, but the bishop tells them he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift to start fresh. Once the policemen are gone, he tells Valjean that he has bought his soul for God, that he must use this as a way to become a man of God and faith and uprightness. Valjean breaks his parole, leaves his name behind, and starts over, with Javert searching for the convict who broke his parole.
Over the next fifteen to twenty years, the two men occasionally cross paths. Sometimes Javert recognizes Valjean, sometimes he doesn’t, but always his search is constant for Convict 24601. It’s more than obsession; it’s his purpose, an unbending, unyielding, fanatic devotion to the law. Every time they come together, recognition or not, they clash against what is right and what is law.
That’s where the fascination begins.
For Javert, the law is what it is. It does not matter what is fair, it does not matter what the circumstances may be, the law is the law (for a YA reference, think “The law is hard, but it is the law”). Does he enjoy his work? Yes. He’s a judgmental bastard who delights in proving his moral superiority over the scum of the earth. He takes both pride and pleasure in locking people away, and he doesn’t much care if they’re innocent or not. For him, it is enough to know that the courts have declared them guilty. This detestation of the lower forms is intrinsic, a lifelong obsession stemming from his birth inside one of those jails. He overcame all the calamities of his birth to become a foundation of the law, and that kind of rigid discipline doesn’t allow for anything else. He’s a religious man, but his faith is built on an Old Testament God of flames and swords.
For Valjean, the law fails to protect those who most needs its protection. In the musical, it never says why he stole a piece of bread (in the book, I believe he was stealing it for a starving sister, or maybe her children- the book was a long time ago and I tried really, really hard to forget most of that experience), but that’s all he stole at first. Until he breaks his parole, the rest of his life is determined by that measly piece of bread. For a time, that does exactly what we would expect it to do- makes him hateful and vindictive, disillusioned with the world and all the people in it. Until the bishop. He takes the bishop’s offer of redemption seriously, and in his new life he becomes a successful industrialist, the mayor of his town, a fine and respected man who uses his wealth responsibly. When he makes a mistake- as in not investigating the argument among his factory workers involving Fantine- he does his absolute best to remedy it. He takes his promises seriously, and will put his own life and welfare on the line in the name of doing what is right. Also a religious man, he’s a child rescued by the New Testament God of forgiveness and love.
In the name of what is right or what is law, both men can be unyielding. In that aspect, they’re very similar. They will go to the ends of the earth in pursuit of that purpose. To that end, they actually understand one another very well. They can’t agree with it, they can’t go along with it, but they understand it.
That innate similarity, compounded by the many differences in execution, are what makes them so fascinating as a driving pair of characters. Because with understanding, with common groundwork, comes a point where one has to yield to the other- and neither can take any pleasure in it.
Valjean has broken before. He broke in prison, he broke under his parole. He broke under the bishop’s mercy and reformed himself into something new. He broke under the weight of a promise to the dying Fantine, broke again to rescue an innocent man from the fate reserved for him (Valjean). He breaks under the strength of Cosette’s love for Marius, the knowledge that he can’t shelter her from the world forever. But. Each time he breaks, he puts himself together as something stronger, something better.
Javert can only break once, because when he breaks, he shatters. It goes against everything in his nature to bend or break, and once such a thing occurs, everything about him is in irreparable pieces. For a man of flames and swords and retribution, mercy is a shattering force.
Valjean never does anything to Javert except argue with him, evade him, and once even save his life. He never attacks the man, and while he calls him naive- as any man who sees only in shades of black and white can be argued to be- he never insults him either. He promises Javert his sense of justice, once his (Valjean’s) promises have been fulfilled. Once Marius is safe for Cosette’s sake, he’ll surrender himself to the law. Compare that to Javert, constantly reinforcing Valjeans’ histroy as 24601, constantly calling him the scum of the gutter. Compare Valjean’s mercy- reassuring the dying Fantine, rescuing Cosette, rescuing Marius, giving Javert his life instead of taking it- with Javert’s glee at the prospect off slaughtered revolutionary schoolboys.
But we would never get the depth of these characters in isolation. Even against other characters, we only ever see certain aspects. It’s only when set against each other that we understand these characters completely- they’re dependent upon each other in order to be fully realized. Javert is not, on his own, a sympathetic character, but his relationship with Valjean allows him to become one in our eyes, leading to one of the richest, most emotionally taut moments of the entire show.
Not every story can support characters so fully intertwined, but those that can are amazing if they can get even half of the depth and bonds of the connections between Jean Valjean and Javert.
Can you recommend any?
Until next time~