A Characterization Case Study: Jean Valjean and Javert from “Les Misérables”

The Bishop of D-'s candlesticks change Jean Valjean's life in ways he never could have expected.

The Bishop of D-‘s candlesticks change Jean Valjean’s life in ways he never could have expected.

Character development in fiction isn’t easy, and it isn’t one-sided.

Yesterday, I talked about how important it is not to shelter your characters. How a writer should really consider who their characters are and how they would truly respond–whether that be positively or negatively–to the obstacles and the suffering they have to confront.

To that end, I’d love to take a case study from Victor Hugo’s novel (and the musical) “Les Misérables.” I am so, so fascinated by the protagonist and antagonist of Hugo’s masterpiece: Valjean and Javert, respectively.

One of my favorite aspects of the musical has always been the parallels it draws between Valjean and Javert’s moments of existential crisis. Each faces a different–incredibly different–moment of mercy in his life. After their respective encounters with forgiveness, neither is capable of continuing on as he did before.

The musical shows this by having Valjean and Javert sing soliloquies after said encounters with lyrics set to the same music. And that was a stroke of GENIUS on the composer’s part.

SPOILER ALERT: the continuation of this post will delve into plot matters.

VALJEAN

 The story opens with Valjean released from prison after nineteen years served for theft and attempted escape. He’s put on parole, but as a former convict, no one will trust him enough to give him work or a place to stay.

No one but the Bishop of Digne. He gives Valjean a bed, and the convict, full of hatred for mankind, repays his host by stealing his silver and running off. He is arrested and claims the bishop gave him the silver. The cops take him back, and the bishop–amazingly–supports Valjean’s story, but tells him that he left a pair of silver candlesticks he had also given him. The gendarmes release Valjean and leave, at which point the bishop tells him that he is buying his soul for God with his gift and his mercy, and Valjean is to use the silver to become an honest man.

Valjean, obviously, is taken aback. And feels quite ashamed. He completely changes his life and devotes himself to honesty and the selfless service of others.

YOUTUBE: Valjean’s Soliloquy, from the 10th Anniversary Concert of “Les Miserables.” All rights to Schonberg-Beubil.

JAVERT

Valjean changes his life in response to the bishop’s mercy, but he nonetheless breaks his parole. Which means that for years, the policehound Javert is on his tail.

Javert has a staunch philosophy of NO MERCY. He believes that once you mess up, you pay the consequences, and that people more or less are incapable of change. You’re either good or bad, saved or damned, and that’s that. When he believes he’s made a mistake in identifying Valjean as the mayor of a small town, he treats himself with as little mercy as he would anyone else, and tries to resign.

Years down the road, there is an uprising in Paris, and Javert infiltrates the rebel movement as a spy. He is found out, and they try to kill him, but Valjean is among them and asks for the honor of disposing of the rat. He takes Javert out back and–rather than shoot him–lets him go. He says Javert was only doing his duty all these years hunting him, and that he grudges the man nothing.

Javert, obviously, cannot understand this mercy. It completely disproves his philosophy of existence. Distraught and horrified, he is not strong enough to respond to mercy in the way Valjean did, and commits suicide.

YOUTUBE: Javert’s suicide, from the 10th Anniversary Concert. All rights to Schonberg-Boubil. Start the video 1:30 in to avoid an unneeded introduction.

CHARACTERIZATION????

I just adore stories of faith and redemption, like that of Valjean. And I think it was pure genius on Hugo’s part to differentiate his hero and his “villain” by showing how they respond so utterly differently to the gift of divine and human mercy, to a call from God to change their lives and their view of what humanity is and deserves.

Though the circumstances are truly different, Valjean and Javert face the same horrifying moment of recognizing their flaws and faults. They realize all at once that they have been living a lie for years. What sets each apart is how different they are as men, fundamentally. Thus, they react in ways that are unthinkable for the other.

Valjean recognizes how wrong he was to turn bitter and to curse God and the very idea of his fellow man. He changes course, because though hardened, he has always been waiting for someone to reach out to him and tell him he was wrong. He just never, ever believed it could ever actually happen. He has the humility to accept the second chance the bishop gives him and to make the most of it. That is who he is. And it reads so, so beautifully!!!

Javert is the opposite. Javert has no view of a merciful God. His God is a vengeful God, and he accepts that. He is at peace with that. When Valjean’s mercy shatters everything for him, he cannot cope with the idea that an upright man such as he is perhaps less holy than a thief.

Javert is truly pitiless. He is staunch and strong, devout and unmovable. His heart might tremble, but still it is stone, and always will be stone.

And that is how characterization works. You have to delve into the hearts and souls of your characters to determine what their response to adversity, pain, and unexpected occurrences would conceivably be. It’s the only way to write a believable, beautiful story.

NOTE: I’m out of town for a wedding until the end of the weekend. Please feel free to comment if you’d like to! I’ll respond when I can. 🙂

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6 responses to “A Characterization Case Study: Jean Valjean and Javert from “Les Misérables”

  1. THis is EXACTLY why I love Les Miserables as well. THank you for putting it so precisely!

  2. Hi. Les Miserables is the greatest book written in all time. To intellectualize is sort of lame; yes you are correct in your analysis but I don’t think it possible to ever imitate hugo’s way of writing. not that this blog is about that. but I just think this sort of analysis “flattens” his work. for instance, a new upcoming writer can try and follow this method of writing and still fall one million miles underneath the work of hugo. of course this is why you said, “it wasn’t easy”. but I think you should have started with “don’t try this at home”. haha

    • Hugo’s work is exceptionally deep. And as you noted, I’m definitely not saying anyone should try to write ‘like Hugo.’ We should try to write like ourselves 🙂 Happy to meet another Hugo fan, though!

  3. Pingback: What it truly means to be a “dynamic” character | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  4. Javert is what psychologists would call a level one–or, linear–thinker. He’s also a therapist’s delight, because his obsession with pursuing wrongdoers at all cost can be interpreted as an attempt to attone for the sins of his parents (and the sin into which he was born).

    There is within Javert a virtue, however misguided are his values: as you pointed out, he spares no mercy on himself when he thinks he wrongly suspected the disguised Valjean.

    He is arguably the most psychologically complex character in this novel, and in my opinion there is more of the Dark Knight than Darth Vader in him. For the musical, I would have chosen a more virtuous end for him than plunging into the Seine: perhaps making a suicidal charge at soldiers who are trailing Valjean and Marius, clutching Marius’ red and black sash as he is cut down in a hail of bullets.

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