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|Les Misérables character|
Javert – illustration from original publication of Les Misérables, after a painting by Gustave Brion (1824–1877)
|Created by||Victor Hugo|
Javert (French pronunciation: [ʒavɛʁ]) is a fictional character, the primary antagonist of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Misérables. He is a police inspector who becomes, over the course of the novel, obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of the escaped convict Jean Valjean.
Victor Hugo depicts Javert as a character who is not simply villainous, but rather tragic in his misguided and self-destructive pursuit of justice. "[Javert] was a compound," Hugo writes, "of two sentiments, simple and good in themselves, but he made them almost evil by his exaggeration of them: respect for authority and hatred of rebellion." He is "absolute," a "fanatic." This fanatical absolutism allows him to divine a "straight path through all that is most tortuous in the world."
Javert is moderately educated; Hugo observes: "In his leisure moments... although he hated books, he would read." Reflective thought is "an uncommon thing for him, and singularly painful;" this is due to the fact that thought inevitably contains "a certain amount of internal rebellion," which Javert dislikes.
He is without vices, but upon occasion will take a pinch of snuff. His life is one "of privations, isolation, self-denial, and chastity— never any amusement."
Having been born in a prison (his mother a fortune-teller and his father serving in the prison galley), Javert perceives himself to be excluded from a society that "irrevocably closes its doors on two classes of men, those who attack it and those who guard it." It is on the basis of "an irrepressible hatred for that bohemian race to which he belong[s]" and a personal foundation of "rectitude, order, and honesty" that he opts to become a law officer. So devoted is he to this choice that, Hugo writes, "[h]e would have arrested his own father if he escaped from prison and turned in his own mother for breaking parole. And he would have done it with that sort of interior satisfaction that springs from virtue."
Following his encounters with Jean Valjean during the June Rebellion, in which he is first spared by Valjean and, later, spares him arrest, Javert experiences a deep torment caused by the compromise of his previous worldview. Where previously he has "never in his life known anything but one straight line," the kind behavior of Valjean compels him to see two: "both equal straight," and "contradictory." The profound confusion caused by this— by the realization that the law is not infallible, that he himself is not irreproachable, and that there exists a superior force (identified by Hugo with God) to what he has known— plunges him into a despair in which he feels himself "demolished." It is to escape this "unnatural state" that he commits suicide.
The character of Javert is loosely based on Eugène François Vidocq, a criminal and adventurer who became a police official (though Vidocq wrote that he never arrested anyone who stole out of need). Hugo also drew on Vidocq's life for the character of Valjean. In the novel, Hugo describes Javert as "a marble informer, Brutus in Vidocq."
Javert in the novel
Part One: Fantine
Javert first becomes familiar with the convict Jean Valjean as an assistant guard in the Bagne of Toulon. Years later, in 1815, Valjean is living under the name Monsieur Madeleine and serving as the mayor of a small town identified only as Montreuil-sur-Mer, where he is a successful manufacturer. Javert arrives in 1820 to serve as an inspector with the local police. Javert suspects Madeleine's true identity becomes convinced of it when he watches Madeleine demonstrate extraordinary strength by lifting a loaded cart off of a man trapped beneath it. Madeleine also antagonizes Javert by dismissing his attempt to arrest Fantine, a prostitute detained for having a violent row with a street idler. Javert decides to denounce Valjean as an ex-convict, but learns from Parisian authorities that they have already arrested someone who calls himself Champmathieu whom they believe is really Valjean and whom several former convicts have already identified as Valjean.
Unsure, Javert goes to Arras to see Champmathieu and satisfies himself that this is the real Valjean. He returns and visits Madeleine and asks him to dismiss him from the police because he "has failed in respect, and in the gravest manner, towards a magistrate" by suspecting Madeleine. He tells Madeleine: "You will say that I might have handed in my resignation, but that does not suffice. Handing in one's resignation is honorable. I have failed in my duty; I ought to be punished; I must be turned out." He condemns himself at length— "if I were not severe towards myself, all the justice that I have done would become injustice"— and begs to be dismissed.
Madeleine/Valjean travels to the court in Arras, discloses his identity, and saves Champmathieu. He returns to Montreuil-sur-Mer, where Javert arrests him the next morning at Fantine's hospital bedside. Valjean asks for three days to bring Fantine's daughter Cosette to her, but Javert denies his request. Valjean escapes from the city jail, is later recaptured and returned to the galleys, and escapes a few months later, though the authorities think he has drowned.
Part Two: Cosette
Javert is recruited to be an inspector in the capital. Javert is informed of Valjean's presumed death (which the latter had feigned during his last escape) not long after it happens. Early in the year 1824, Javert hears of an alleged kidnapping: a foster child taken from the couple that kept her. When he hears that this is supposed to have taken place in Montfermeil (Valjean was captured just as he was trying to get there), he visits the Thénardiers. Thénardier, however, does not want to become involved with the police, and tells Javert that the girl was fetched by her grandfather, and that he saw the man's passport. In March of the same year, Javert hears of a man nicknamed "the beggar who gives alms." Curious, he tracks the man to the Gorbeau House tenement, and recognizes Jean Valjean. When Valjean attempts to escape with Cosette, Javert chases them into what seems to him a dead end. Valjean evades capture by climbing over the stone wall of a convent and pulling Cosette up over the wall on a rope.
Part Three: Marius
In 1832, Javert chances to meet Valjean once more while leading a squad of policemen in the capture of a gang which had been terrorizing Paris for years: Patron-Minette. The Thénardiers, who have lost their inn, now live at Gorbeau House and are associated with the gang. Unbeknownst to Javert, the venerable elderly gentleman whom the Thénardiers and Patron-Minette intend to extort is Jean Valjean. When Marius sees the gang capturing Valjean, he informs the police of the crime, and is introduced to inspector Javert, who gives him two pistols to fire a signal for when he and his team should enter the building. Javert does not have the opportunity to recognize Valjean upon saving him from the gang; however, Valjean recognizes Javert almost immediately and makes a quick escape out the window of the attic where the confrontation was taking place.
Part Four: St. Denis
During the 1832 June Rebellion, Javert, working undercover to gather information about the revolutionaries, joins a group of them at the barricade they have erected in the rue de la Chanvrerie. Gavroche, a street urchin, recognizes him as a policeman and denounces him. They found on him a little round card pasted between two pieces of glass, and bearing on one side the arms of France, engraved, and with this motto: Supervision and vigilance, and on the other this note: "JAVERT, inspector of police, aged fifty-two," and the signature of the Prefect of Police of that day, M. Gisquet. The revolutionaries imprison him.
Part Five: Jean Valjean
When Valjean appears at the barricade with the intent of finding Marius, the beloved of his adopted daughter, Javert and he recognize one another.
Valjean requests, as reward for protecting the barricade from Guardsmen, that he be allowed to execute Javert. Enjolras, the leader of the insurrection, acquiesces, and Valjean leads Javert away from the barricade and into a side street. There, instead of killing Javert, Valjean cuts his bonds and implores him to run and save himself. He also gives Javert his address, in the unlikely case that he survives the uprising. Valjean then fires a shot into the air and returns to the barricade, where he tells everyone that the policeman is dead.
As the army storms the barricade, Valjean manages to grab the badly wounded Marius and dives into a sewer, where he wanders with Marius on his shoulders, despairing of finding an exit. A stroke of luck brings him face to face with Thénardier. In the dark and muck of the sewer, neither party recognizes the other. Thénardier assumes that Valjean is a robber who had just killed a well-to-do young man, and he offers to let Valjean out of the sewer if Valjean splits the loot found on Marius' person in half. Valjean pays him, and Thénardier opens for him a sewer grate with a stolen government-issued key.
Valjean's joy at finally being out of the sewer does not last long. As he struggles to regain his bearings on the surface and ponders what to do about the bleeding, unconscious boy, he notices that he is observed by a tall figure, which is revealed to be Javert. Valjean repeats that he is ready to surrender, but he asks for Javert's help in delivering the wounded boy to his family first. Javert agrees.
After delivering Marius to his grandfather's house, Valjean asks Javert for an opportunity to say goodbye to Cosette. They travel to Valjean's house, and Javert says that he will wait for Valjean to come back downstairs. However, when Valjean looks out of the window, Javert is gone.
Javert wanders the streets in emotional turmoil: his mind simply cannot reconcile the image he had carried through the years of Valjean as a brutal ex-convict with his acts of kindness on the barricades. Now, Javert can be justified neither in letting Valjean go nor in arresting him. For the first time in his life, Javert is faced with the situation where he cannot act lawfully without acting immorally, and vice versa. Javert is unable to find a solution to this dilemma, and horrified at the sudden realization that Valjean was simultaneously a criminal and a good person—a conundrum which reveals deep flaws in his ethical system, and suggests to him the existence of a superior moral system. He feels that the only possible resolution for himself is in death, and— after leaving for the prefect of police a brief letter addressing lapses in the Conciergerie— he drowns himself in the river Seine.
Since the original publication of Les Misérables in 1862, the character of Javert has appeared in a large number of adaptations in numerous types of media based on the novel, including books, films, musicals, plays and games.
Characters Modeled on Javert
- Hugo, Victor. tr. Lee Fahnestock & Norman MacAfee. Les Misérables. Signet Classics, New York: 1987.
- E. F. Vidocq, "Mémoires"
- Robin Walz, "Vidocq, Rogue Cop", introduction to François Eugène Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime, AK Press, 1935, xv
- Les Miserables, vol. 1. Cricket House, p.135.
- Javert (Character) at the Internet Movie Database
- Behr, Edwar (1989). The Complete Book of Les Misérables. NY: Arcade. p. 165.
- The Fugitive (TV series)
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