The epic duel of Valjean and Javert
(Concluded from last Friday)
Our imaginings are what most resemble us —Victor Hugo
CANBERRA—In “Les Misérables,” Victor Hugo depicts Jean Valjean as an honest man who steals a loaf of bread to save his family from hunger. In the exhibition on Hugo’s works in the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, he portrays “not only the struggles of a condemned man facing his sentence, but also the convict’s life after he is released back into society.” At the heart of the novel is “the hero’s struggle to transform himself from a miserable into a loved and respectable man.” At the end of the novel, Hugo wrote: “The book … is, from one end to the other … a step from bad to good, from unjust to just, from false to true, from night to day, from appetite to awareness, from rottenness to life, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God…”
Valjean’s redemption is challenged by his nemesis, the law-enforcing Inspector Javert. The symbolic duel between these protagonists is provocative, in that the convict is portrayed as a spiritual man in contrast with Javert who is depicted as “the blind executor of the law.” In the novel, according to the exhibits, “the law of the state reveals its imperfections and is placed in dialectic with the law of God.”
From a larger frame, “Les Misérables” is regarded as “a radical and provocative novel” that also narrates the period that “encompasses the political antagonism of nineteenth-century France in its transition from monarchy to empire,” to “democratic monarchy,” to the republic during which Hugo’s political tendencies shifted with the volatile turn of events. Convicts like Valjean, and poor orphans like Cosette, were “voiceless shadows in French society.” Drawing them as characters with the ability to love, redeem themselves, and have spiritual lives “was bound to cause a conflict between the conservative establishment and the French people, who embraced ‘Les Misérables’ on its publication in 1862,” according to the catalogue published by the exhibition.
Hugo escaped prison due to his immunity as peer of France after his election to the Academie Francaise. The regime in power asked him to temporarily step away from public activity after he was elected as deputy of the National Assembly, and he entered a period of absolute isolation during which he began writing “Les Misérables.” The writing of his masterpiece was interrupted by political turmoil—the revolution of 1848 and the election of Prince Louis-Napoleon (later Napoleon III) as president of the Second Republic, which coincided with Hugo’s first mandate in the assembly.
Although he was elected as a member of the conservative party, Hugo’s public addresses (such as the “speech against misery” in 1849), were deemed radical and his allegiances shifted toward the Left-wing opposition. In December 1851, he allied with the republicans in an attempt to overthrow Napoleon. The regime prevailed, marking the beginning of the Second Empire, and Hugo was forced to flee France to avoid imprisonment, initially taking asylum in Belgium.
In 1852, Hugo prepared a scathing criticism, “Napoleon le Petit (the Little),” of Napoleon’s reign. Following the publication of the critique, the regime asked Hugo to leave Belgium, fearing that further asylum would strain diplomatic relations with France. Hugo and his family relocated to the Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey. In 1859, Napoleon granted amnesty to political exiles. Hugo decided to remain in exile, explaining that “in the current state of France, absolute protest, inflexible, eternal, is my duty. Faithful to the commitment I have made with my conscience, I will live until the end of this exile of freedom. When freedom comes back, I will come back.”
While in exile, he resumed completing “Les Misérables,” which he began 15 years earlier.
“Les Misérables” is considered Hugo’s most personal book, completed in 17 years and written through two revolutions (in 1848 and 1851). Throughout his life, he “took radical measures in the congress and through the printing press to defend the poor and the outcasts of society, and to plead for the universal abolition of the death penalty.” His writings were “nourished with autobiographical and social experiences, embodying the struggles of the people and giving voice to the unheard.”
It was noted by the Melbourne exhibition catalogue that, going against the majority opinion at the time, Hugo’s novel depicted poverty “not as a fact of individuality, but as the result of a social system: It is the poverty of his family that makes Valjean steal bread and become a convict. Cosette’s poverty is caused by Fantine’s degradation, which comes from her being dismissed from Monsieur Madelein’s factory.” Finally, Javert, representing the law, has the responsibility of “keeping people in their place—the poor are and will always be criminals, whether convicts or prostitutes.”
The obsessive policeman, Javert comes off in the novel as pursuing Valjean relentlessly for nearly 20 years, refusing to recognize the latter’s genuine metamorphosis from desperate thief to moral man. States the exhibition’s catalogue: “There is saint and sinner in each of them and their fates are inextricably entwined, suggesting two halves of one nature. Javert, though uncompromising, is not evil, rather, he embodies the moral failure of the state when laws are indiscriminate and without mercy.
“Unfortunately, when confronted by the moral gulf between the legal system he has upheld and Valjean’s Christ-like behaviour, Javert’s own rigid ethical code compels him to commit suicide, the most desperate act of all.”
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