Two Cheers for Javert

February 9, 2013

Interesting article from Jamie Smith:

According to our contemporary critical pantheon, I’m supposed to disdain Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Misérables (though Stanley Fish has me feeling a little better about it). But not since Moonrise Kingdom has the entire Smith family been so collectively taken with a film. My 16-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son both blast the soundtrack from their bedrooms, and they find the same when they get into my car. Where the ironist sees sentimental treacle, I see a sentimental education.

But I think I’ve fallen for the villain. Here, I will play the role of devil’s advocate and offer a few words in praise of Javert.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Javert is a prison guard and later an inspector or policeman, tasked with keeping the peace by maintaining law and order. He is the nemesis of the story’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, who has been imprisoned by the law that Javert upholds. And Javert has been pursuing him since his release and failure to obey the rules for his parole. In Hooper’s film version, the story is an ongoing dance between these two characters.

Let’s first resist the temptation to read this as an allegory of salvation, with personifications of Grace and Law in Valjean and Javert, respectively. When we do that, it seems clear that any Christian would of course side with Valjean, mourning the tragic fact that Javert has no room for grace or forgiveness in his worldview. But I don’t think the story is best read as an allegory, though it certainly invites us to consider the dynamics of grace and forgiveness in the life of Jean Valjean. If you insist on reading the film in this way, don’t treat it as an allegory of salvation; read it as hagiography—one of the “lives of the saints” which tracks the sanctification of Valjean.

But I want to look at the story through Cardus-coloured glasses, as it were, and consider the place and evaluation of law in the world that Hugo and Hooper have created. On this score, it seems to me that the story is in danger of demonizing law as such.

Granted, we feel the disproportionality between Valjean’s crime (stealing bread to feed a hungry nephew) and his punishment (nineteen years of hard labour). Javert’s dogged pursuit of a petty thief seems maniacal. And the fact that he can neither grant nor receive mercy has tragic consequences. Unfortunately he does all of this under the banner of “the law.” So in the end, Javert’s villainy is tied to the fact that he is an agent of the state.

My worry is that a number of people come away from the film with a negative reaction to law as such. That’s an easy sell in an age of libertarian self-expression, and it explains why there seems to be overwhelming sympathy for the revolutionaries as well. To side with Valjean is to side with “the people;” and to side with “the people” is to be forrevolution and opposed to Javert. And before you know it—and without thinking about it—you end up thinking negatively about law per se. I think Christians will be especially prone to this if we lack a robust theology of creation that should undergird a fundamentally positive account of law (and order).


Read the rest.

One response to Two Cheers for Javert

  1. Javert became an extreme of what he either aspired to be or hated. His character was best shown in his interaction with the child revolutionary who he related to so strongly. He was similar when a boy but became an extreme of what he either admired or hated or both as a man! The tragedy was the extreme without mercy. Jesus was both truth and mercy/grace. Truth without love is self-destruction!