Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

It’s Not Just Javert. It’s the System.

A lot of Les Misérables adaptations tend to put extra focus on Javert’s role as Jean Valjean’s persecutor, making it personal. It makes for good drama, but it misses Victor Hugo’s point that the system is unjust.

It’s not just that Inspector Javert is an overly zealous and strict cop, or that he’s offended by M. Madeleine’s (to his mind) fraudulent upending of the social order, or that he’s the only police officer in France who believes Jean Valjean is still alive and resents the fact that he got away all those years ago.

It wasn’t Javert who arrested Jean Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Or sentenced him to five years imprisonment and hard labor in a harsh, inhumane prison system. Or extended his sentence to nineteen years because he tried to escape. Or paid him less than his labor was worth after he was finally released. Or insisted that he show papers identifying him as an ex-convict and “a dangerous man” every time he arrived in a new town. Or refused to allow him to buy food or stay at an inn. Or sentenced him to death (commuted to life in prison) for recidivism when he was recaptured, despite nearly a decade of honest living that built up a region’s prosperity.

It wasn’t Javert who railroaded Champmathieu, either. He helped, of course, but it was already in motion before he got involved. The system had a Jean-Valjean–shaped hole it needed to fill. It found someone who was close enough, and gathered witnesses who agreed that he fit.

Inspector Javert weaves in and out of the tale of everyone else’s misery, dealing out more when he sees fit. He suspects and denounces M. Madeleine, arrests Valjean for breaking parole and testifies against him at his trial, and pursues him to Paris. He arrests Fantine for defending herself (because her attacker was more respectable) and treats her cruelly on her deathbed. He’s set against the rebels in the June Rebellion.

But Javert, like everyone in the novel, is a symbol of some aspect of society: In this case, a justice system that cares more about preserving order and hierarchy than actual people. He puts a face on it, but he’s not an outlier, or a bad apple. He’s an exemplary cop, in fact – in several senses of the word.

The point isn’t that Javert hurts people with the justice system’s backing. The point is that the justice system hurts people unjustly, and Javert shows us how it does.

Les Misérables is more than an inverted detective story. It’s about showing how society is broken, and how that breakage causes human suffering, in the hopes of inspiring people to fix it.