By now it seems as though the entire world world has seen – or at least heard of- Les Miserables. The critics have written their reviews and we have gone to see either the stage play and / or the film. I have done both and thoroughly enjoyed both- and admit to wiping away several manly tears as the film came to an end. (I plan to see it at least once again , possibly more before it finishes here.) I was struck by many things about the film- the set design, the singing , the acting and the courage it portrays. In this blog, however, I want to look at the conflict between Valjean and Javert-and how this might be understood.
Javert stands for the Law. (And it helps him stand. No law, no Javert. It is his whole Being. Without it he has no life.) Valjean has a different view of Law. It is a servant, not a master. Or it should be in his thinking. It represents a pair of crutches to provide support. not a strait jacket to paralyse and restrict. In Arthur miller’s play, The Crucible, Javert is represented by the Rev. Hale who has come to investigate the happenings in Salem. His view of theology matches Javert’s view of the Law. “Theology,” Hale declares, “is a fortress. No crack in a fortress my be accounted small.” (As the many who die in Salem attest, Rev Hale keeps his fortress very well protected. Small matters like justice, mercy and compassion are kept outside his fortress. Javert does much the same with his fortress of Law.)
In a moving song Javert says this to Valjean
“You know nothing of Javert
I was born inside a jail
I was born with scum like you
I am from the gutter too.”
This is the heart of Javert. He is terrified of the gutter- which is much more a place within him than it is a physical place. His fear is that the gutter can claim him at anytime. Hardly surprising then, that he persecutes anyone who he thinks might threaten his brittle security. This, of course, takes us to homophobia, sexual abuse, racism, bullying, sexism and fundamentalism in all its outfits. They all have in common a fear of the other-and of the other within them. The homophobe is terrified by his own desire for another man. The fundamentalist is terrifed that their world view migh be wrong. They will kill to defend their view-and in the process kill anything new in themselves. (Perhaps “they” should read “we”. It is too easy to join Javert in our liberal condemnation of others’ illiberalism.)
The tragedy for Javert is that the gutter does kill him in the end. He cannot tolerate that Valjean has escaped- both physically and emotionally. Whilst Valjean is persecuted, it comes from without- in the form of Javert- not from within. In biblical terms these two men represent Law and Grace, respectively. And Law struggles to understand Grace as Javert struggles to understand Valjean. In another piece Javert says
“How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell.”
This is his dying soliloquy and his obituary as the song ends with him committing suicide. The cost of allowing Grace to help Javert leave the gutter is too high.
Writing this piece reminded me of a patient i saw for a few sessions. He came because he feared that he was the violent man his wife constantly accused him of being. It soon became apparent that the violence came from his alcoholic wife-violence that was both physical and emotional. He was very relieved when I pointed this out to him. He fundamentally loved her and hoped that she might change. I suggested that the course of the rest of any counselling might be about helping him to think about why he chose to stay with this abusive wife. He never returned so I don’t know the outcome. My fantasy is that the cost of change was too great for him. Javert like death was preferable to life.