Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

The Crimes of Jean Valjean

For the record: Jean Valjean did in fact commit breaking and entering, two burglaries (though one victim refused to press charges), at least four prison escapes, highway robbery (technically), parole violation, faking his own death, trespassing, and identity fraud.

Inspector Javert isn’t chasing an innocent man on false evidence.

But only one of those crimes is really on Jean Valjean: the original theft. And even that was an act of desperation brought on by outside circumstances. The rest of those crimes? The ones Javert wants to arrest him for? They all stem from the way the system punished him.

Jean Valjean’s role isn’t to show persecution of the innocent, but of the redeemable. It’s to show that the justice system is excessively harsh. His time in prison for a minor crime makes him a worse person, actively turns him into a danger to society. Worse: the system actively undermines his efforts to reform and redeem himself afterward.

In a humane justice system, he would have left prison years earlier, and been able to make his way again. He wouldn’t have tried to escape from a lighter sentence. He wouldn’t have been determined to get back at society if it had let him back in, or had a need to break parole or fake an identity just to live his life.

And of course in a more robust society, he wouldn’t even have committed the first crime, because there would have been some kind of safety net when work dried up for the sole provider to a large family.

Also worth noting: Javert isn’t trying to uncover Valjean’s crimes, or prove them. They’re well-established by the time he gets involved. Javert just wants to catch the guy so the system can grind him down again…because that’s what “law and order” means to Javert: punishing those who defy authority. And that’s how the system is set up.

On a related note, this tweet by @beesmygod provides a little perspective:

the central message of “les miserables” is that god wants you to commit crimes to save poor people and that rules

– gravelord bea-to (@beesmygod) June 11, 2018

Updated August 2022