Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
In a great twist of irony, one of the most sublime and illuminating pieces of moral literature takes place near the closing of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, in a dark filthy sewer.
The barricades have collapsed and the young idealists have nearly all been hunted down and executed. In the midst of this massacre, Jean Valjean, who has come to the barricade having intercepted a message from Marius to his daughter, Cosette, now escapes with the wounded Marius down through the sewer system of Paris. Marius is too injured to walk, and so is carried on the shoulders and back of Valjean. This great act of mercy has a further dimension that is lost in the musical adaptation of the novel. The musical has Valjean sing the song, “Bring Him Home” in honour of Marius, at a slightly earlier juncture; but this emotional bond is far from the reality of Hugo’s text. In the novel Valjean hates Marius, and Marius’ feelings for Valjean are the same at this point of the novel. They hate one another as they both seek to emotionally possess Cosette. For Valjean, Marius is a threat, a threat to the idyll he has been living – a doting daughter, who gives him so much joy. For Marius, Valjean is that man who stands between him and the object of his desire. Valjean has deliberately stood in the way of any liaison that Marius has sought to orchestrate. There is no “Bring Him Home” soliloquy in the novel, there cannot be – because two men are vying for the affection of one woman: the father and a would be lover. This being said – Valjean has come to the barricade not for Marius’ sake, but for Cosette. He loves his daughter too much, to let her be saddened by the death of the young man she loves. As such, as Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the myriad of sewers that run vein like below the hustle and bustle of Paris, Valjean is carrying a veritable cross – he holds on his back that man who can rob him of his happiness, but if he does not carry Marius and bring him to safety, the tears and the broken heart of Cosette, will rend him in two. Hugo thus portrays a Via Dolorosa scene, Christ walking to His Crucifixion, stumbling and falling; but instead of under the blazing light of Jerusalem – Valjean is covered from head to toe in human waste. Just as Valjean reaches the exit of one of the sewers and sees the light of day; weakened by this ardour, he cannot budge the grating – the door to salvation will not open. But there in the sewer, hidden from Valjean’s sight is another figure; a man on the run, having newly escaped from gaol – that man, Monsieur Thénardier. Thénardier has the key for the grating, but he also knows that Javert, the wily police officer, knows of his approximate whereabouts. Thénardier fails to recognize Valjean because of the mask of grime over his face, nor can he distinguish that the man that Valjean is carrying is in fact Marius, his young neighbour at the apartment block. Thénardier realizes that he has a chance to make some bargain with a desperate man, and does so. Thénardier loses nothing in offering Valjean a way out; he gains monetarily, but also uses Valjean as bait so as to see whether standing outside the exit of the sewer is Javert. The grating opens, and as Valjean crawls through and places the unconscious Marius on the ground outside – who is there to meet him – Javert. Thénardier quickly heads back to the sewer with his fellow escapees and cronies.
Between that moment at the barricade when Valjean had spared Javert his life, by enacting a mock execution so that the revolutionaries at the barricade would think that Valjean had ridded the world of Javert, and the scene at the grating; Javert had been deep in critical soul-searching. A lengthy quote from the novel now follows, but it is important not to miss Hugo’s meaning: “For some hours Javert had ceased to be natural. He was troubled; this brain, so limpid in its blindness, had lost its transparency; there was a cloud in this crystal. Javert felt that duty was growing weaker in his conscience, and he could not hide it from himself. When he had so unexpectedly met Jean Valjean upon the beach of the Seine, there had been in him something of the wolf, which seizes his prey again, and of the dog, which again finds his master. He saw before him two roads, both equally straight; but he saw two; and that terrified him—him, who had never in his life known but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory. One of these two straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one? His condition was inexpressible. To owe life to a malefactor, to accept that debt and to pay it, to be, in spite of himself, on a level with a fugitive from justice, and to pay him for one service with another service; to allow him to say: “Go away,” and to say to him in turn: “Be free;” to sacrifice duty, that general obligation, to personal motives, and to feel in these personal motives something general also, and perhaps superior; to betray society in order to be true to his own conscience; that all these absurdities should be realised and that they should be accumulated upon himself, this it was by which he was prostrated.” (Hugo, 1862, Wilbour Trans., p. 1138).
We see captured in Javert, the crux of the theme of Hugo’s novel – the tension between the individual living according to the letter of the Law, and those living out the spirit of the Law. Javert is in the midst of a great metanoia – a battle for his heart, mind and soul. He indeed is on a Road to Damascus journey. Thus as Valjean comes from out of the sewer, Javert has no desire now to hunt him down or incarcerate him, although Valjean is completely unaware of this. Instead Valjean asks Javert’s help, to use the police carriage to take Marius to his grandfather, there to get medical help. Javert agrees to this and both Valjean and Javert carry Marius up the stairs. Valjean then asks Javert to take him back to see Cosette, and wait with the carriage outside, so that after he has said words of farewell to his daughter, he may then be taken to the gaol with Javert. Javert takes Valjean home – but after Cosette is farewelled, when Valjean leaves to meet Javert – there is no carriage. Javert has gone. Hugo writes more on Javert’s thoughts: “His supreme anguish was the loss of all certainty. He felt that he was uprooted. The code was now but a stump in his hand. He had to do with scruples of an unknown species. There was in him a revelation of feeling entirely distinct from the declarations of the law, his only standard hitherto. To retain his old virtue, that no longer sufficed. An entire order of unexpected facts arose and subjugated him. An entire new world appeared to his soul; favour accepted and returned, devotion, compassion, indulgence, acts of violence committed by pity upon austerity, respect of persons, no more final condemnation, no more damnation, the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, a mysterious justice according to God going counter to justice according to men. He perceived in the darkness the fearful rising of an unknown moral sun; he was horrified and blinded by it. An owl compelled to an eagle’s gaze.” (Hugo, 1862, Wilbour trans., p. 1141).
Javert’s subsequent suicide arises out of a complex battle within his soul. Javert has realized what Truth is – and how he has acted to persecute the Truth by way of an unmerciful legalism. Javert takes his life, because in living out the letter of the Law, he has played judge and executioner against so many Truth-tellers, and Truth-livers. It is remorse that condemns him to death – and by so doing, Javert forgets that the Christian message is one of forgiveness and mercy – the same error that Judas Iscariot himself made. For God does not want anyone to be lost – but both Javert and Judas could not comprehend a God so merciful, that they could be found.
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