Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables was published in 1862. The title is French for “The Miserable Ones.” It stands, alongside his earlier work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as the crowning achievement of his literary career. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for stealing some bread. The prison system breaks his spirit to desperation; eventually his determination breaks through and he, for a time, escapes the clutches of the law. But at the same time, he does not change from his thieving ways. That is, until, a bishop saves him from a predicament.
The law believes they have captured a potential thief. They find Valjean with some silver that he stole from a bishop’s house. When the bishop discovers Jean at the hands of the law, he tells the police that he lent Jean the silver. Though this is a lie in strictly moral terms, it saves Jean from being sent back to prison. The bishop solemnly admonishes the peasant: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I’m buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts, and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” By giving Valjean another chance at life, he charges him to live a holier life, one dedicated to love. And from that moment on, that is exactly how Valjean lives his life.
After becoming a mayor in a French town, Jean lives a morally upright and self-sacrificing life. He puts himself in the way of the gun when another is accused of being Valjean the escaped convict. Though he goes back to prison for a while, he eventually becomes the tracked hound once more. He promises a prostitute, Fantine, that he will take care of her only daughter, Cosette. A decent portion of the 1,463 page work is about his loving and painful relationship with his adopted daughter. Valjean goes through great lengths to care for her. The bishop’s pardon has paved the way for the rest of his life; his dying words at the end of the story are that we should all love one another, for there is hardly anything in the world greater than that.
However, another character in the book reacts to charity in a much different way: the police chief, Javert. Javert spends most of the book tracking down Valjean, wanting to send the convict back to prison. Javert believes in his position as an officer with all zeal. Justice, that criminals be punished for their crimes, is the most important aspect of his life. He gets into a desperate situation though, when a rebellion happens in the streets of Paris and he is held hostage by a group of political rebels. Jean Valjean rescues Javert from sudden death, as well as Cosette’s lover, Marius. When he brings Marius to safety, Javert ends up facing his rival once more.
Then, something unexpected, stunning, and anticlimactic happens: Javert lets Valjean go free and never chases him again. Valjean’s kindness to him has deeply affected his personal psyche and values. Maybe, just maybe, punishment by the law is not the only force for good in the world. His mind reeling, Javert goes through a desperate moral dilemna, one that drives him to a negative insanity. He views Valjean’s love as an evil that derails his mind from what he appreciates in the world: “How could it be? The chink in society’s armor could be found by a magnanimous wretch! An honest servant of the law could find himself suddenly caught between two crimes, the crime of letting a man escape, and the crime of arresting him! Everything was not certain in the order given by the state to the official! There might be blind alleys in duty!” (Hugo 1327). The officer’s sense of justice is shaken by the convict’s compassion to where he is no longer sure of what he believes in anymore. So unlike Valjean, Javert is affected for the worst, for his soul cannot agree with his newfounded, sympathetic impulse of letting a prisoner go. He cannot go live a new life founded on love and not law. for the law has been too great a part of his life.
The question that Hugo’s book brings, as other books brought up in the nineteenth century, is the role of mercy and law. Is law sufficient enough to bring peace to a society, or are there laws that simply do not address the deeper needs of humanity? As slavery and poverty are addressed at the time, people cry out for moral reforms based on a more charitable sense of duty, one not obsessively affected my laws, like Javert. But Javert’s viewpoint has its points, making it a strong debate against quick impulses of kindness that might not go as far as we think. Is love ultimately enough? Or, rather, equaling intriguing, are love and law more compatible than we think? It is a question that still informs society’s mandates to this day.
Hugo, Victor. Les Misèrables. New York: New American Library, 1987. Print