Les Miserables: Javert and the End of Legalism

 In Film & TV

Les Mis - Javert PosterVengeance was his and he gave me back my life!
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase
I am the law and the law is not mocked.
— Javert, “Javert’s Soliloquy,” Les Miserables

Les Miserables is the newest theatrical version of the 1980 musical based on the 1862 novel. That alone should hint at how powerful the narrative is. Les Mis endures precisely because it so powerfully showcases basic human themes like grace, mercy and the crushing, relentless despair of law.

Javert, the policeman, represents the system of law, and by extension everyone who orders their lives according to Law. You don’t have to be a judge or a policeman to be a Javert. He is anyone who prioritizes right and wrong, justice, right living as the highest virtue in life. In fact, most of these people end up in churches.

Like Javert, Legalists believe they are following God’s will, that their ceaseless efforts to uphold Right give them special standing in God’s eyes.

Les Mis - ValjeanThis is the Javert we meet at the beginning of Les Mis. He has no mercy on the prisoners, no mercy on Jean Valjean whose only crime (in the film) is stealing a loaf of bread. For Javert, there are never extenuating circumstances. Never exceptions to be made. There is only Right and Wrong. Right is rewarded and Wrong is punished.

We witness Jean Valjean’s transformation, but Javert cannot imagine that Valjean could change. In his mind, Valjean is only and always a lawbreaker. Even when Valjean repeatedly begs for mercy, Javert will not bend. He can’t.

The Javerts of the world must punish lawbreakers. Their entire system of beliefs demands it.

Les Mis - Javert and ValjeanThe first cracks in Javert’s Legalist system appear as Valjean spares his life. Javert finally understands that Valjean has become a different person. This should be impossible in Javert’s worldview, but he’s saved from dealing with the implications because Valjean must still be punished for his crimes.

Javert returns to arrest Valjean, and finds him emerging from a sewer carrying the dying Marius. Valjean once again pleads for mercy but Javert will not – cannot – yield. No matter how good he is, no matter that he spared Javert’s life, Valjean is a lawbreaker and must be punished. Javert warns Valjean that if he continues on with Marius, Javert will kill him.

Without hesitating, Valjean marches on, offering up his own life for the sake of Marius. In the face of this act of self-sacrificial mercy ,  Javert’s code of Legalism crumbles.

Law cannot survive acts of mercy.

Law doesn’t understand mercy. Law cannot understand nuance or context or forgiveness. In his final soliloquy, Javert cries out

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all those years?
My heart is stone, and still it trembles.
The world I have known is lost in shadow.

Les Mis - JavertBecause Javert’s system of law has no room for grace, mercy or forgiveness, Javert cannot imagine a world where the wicked are not punished. The impossibility of Valjean’s Christ-imitating self-sacrificial love leave Javert broken.

The true tragedy in Javert’s story is that he responds to hope with depsair. By killing himself, he responds to the possibilities Valjean’s self-sacrifice represent by fleeing into the shadow of Death.

This is the fundamental failure of Legalism: each of us is at some point a lawbreaker. We all need mercy or we face death. If we build our lives on Law, instead of Mercy, then we – like Javert – can only despair. Javert is a tragedy. He’s a good person who learns his own goodness isn’t enough to bring him life. He learns what Paul warns us: The Law comes and kills us.

We are saved not by Law but by Mercy. We must extend that same Mercy to the world around us.

YOUR TURN: Do you tend towards Mercy or Law? How has Legalism hurt you or someone you know?

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  • Carey Corp

    I’ve always loved Victor Hugo’s contrast of old testament law and new testament grace I the characters of Javert and Jean Val Jean. The law cannot comprehend nor be satisfied by grace, thus Jean Val Jean’s mercy destroys Javert’s world. I was saddened by the extra scene in which Javert pins his medal on Gavroche. It is against the nature of the character. A redeptive act by a man who cannot comprehend repemption. The law does not show compassion, nor mercy-and under the law we are condemned. Unless we, like. Jean Val Jean, accept the grace we have not earn, nor are worthy of.

  • tmavenger

    I agree. That medal was out of character for Javert. It was Hollywood corn ball. Nevertheless this movie was so transcendently great that I’m not going to quibble. BTW, the medal was the Legion of Honor. If I remember correctly, Marius’ father was created into the LOH at Waterloo, but I don’t believe Javert had it.

  • KT

    I think Javert pins the medal on the boy because he is a worthy opponent. It is not redemption or compassion.

  • I don’t think we should see in b&w any more than the early Javert of the story does.

    Javert makes his plea to the stars for constancy and for the straight and narrow, hoping for no grays. As he encounters the grays, in Valjean and even in himself (the medal), he can’t deal with it, as his entire value system is upended. He’s left unable to act because he does see an opposing option that he himself took (letting Valjean go).

    So, the medal pinning makes sense to me, as does his suicide when he can’t reconcile the dueling value systems, most of all now in himself too (when he chose not to turn Valjean in).

    JR – enjoyed your thoughts on this.

  • I should explain that I was responding to comments, rather than to the excellent post.

  • Thans Andrys! And thanks for your thoughts. I totally get what you’re driving at with Valjean’s transformation.

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