We anticipate the presence of antagonist Inspector Javert long before he is first alluded to, over a hundred and fifty pages into the novel. Initially, he is an observer, watching the protagonist Jean Valjean “until he was out of sight.” He appears to possess the conventional attributes of a villain, with a “rare and terrible” laugh, “a dark gaze” and “an intensity about him that was almost a threat.” However, despite his villainous aura, Javert is a man with “no vices”, pursuing a life of “chastity” and “rigorous authority.” Hugo explains this apparent juxtaposition by describing the inspector’s most fundamental nature – he is a man of severe extremes. Whilst his principles of “respect for authority and hatred of revolt against it” are “admirable in themselves”, Javert obeys them to a degree that is “almost evil.” As the extremity of his principles is further emphasised, we become aware that such a violent moral rigidity is not a natural – nor convincing – quality of a human being. Instead, therefore, Javert is established as a metaphor for the law itself, rather than a mere agent enacting its doctrines. He “possessed the conscience appropriate to his function”, punishing all his criminals, just as the law decreed, with an equal and unforgiving cruelty.
Once this is recognised, Javert’s apparent omnipresence (“His whole life was contained in two words, wakefulness and watchfulness”) seems all the more appropriate. To truly represent the nineteenth century French Justice system, Javert has to be a perpetual oppression on the lives of the working classes. Hugo does not specify the “distasteful but necessary duties” that Javert has performed as the police inspector of Montreuil-sur-Mur, but we are informed that “his judgements were absolute, admitting no exceptions.” Just as the law allowed for minimal consideration of the nature and degree of crimes committed, Javert’s perception of morality is inflexible and ruthless.
Imagery is central to the portrayal of Javert’s outlook on humanity and ethics. Hugo’s statue motif, for example, accentuates the immovability of the inspector’s moral perception. This persists from Javert’s entrance into the plot, “the spy carved in marble”, to moments before his inevitable suicide, as he sits with Valjean and the wounded Marius in a fiacre: “the three tragic figures were thrown into relief – the seeming corpse, the spectre, and the statue.” Whilst the statue motif demonstrates Javert’s rigid ethical outlook, meanwhile, animalistic imagery is often ascribed to him to emphasise the primitive nature of his moral absolutism. Javert is likened to a range of creatures, from a “bulldog” to “a beast of prey”, but perhaps most powerful of all is Hugo’s allusion to “the Asturian peasants”, who believed “that in every wolf-litter there is a dog-whelp which the mother kills, because otherwise when it grows larger it will devour the rest of her young. Endow this dog with a human face, and you have Javert.”
The potency of this metaphor derives from its ability to expose a variety of Javert’s central attributes. On one level, it is a fervent demonstration of the inspector’s brutality. On another, it parallels the viciousness of his upbringing, as Javert was born in prison, the son of a fortune teller and a galley-slave. And finally, it highlights the truth that will only be realised by Javert at the end of the novel, and will come to kill him: his victims are his equals. Just as the “dog-whelp” murders its siblings, a large proportions of the ‘criminals’ Javert punishes do not harbour an immorality that differentiates them from the good, dutiful men such as himself, but are driven to crime by a desperation that would, under the same circumstances, affect us all.
Despite the absolute clarity of his moral perception, Javert’s character is one of deep complexity and confliction. Indeed, his whole existence is a paradox – he is a police officer, but he was born in prison. This origin encouraged Javert “to believe that he was outside society with no prospect of entering it.” However, “he noted that there were two classes of men whom society keeps inexorably at arm’s length – those who prey upon it, and those who protect it.” Javert is arguably admirable, therefore, for refusing to embark upon a life of crime, and instead turning to the law. However, he feels constantly plagued by his beginning, and experiences a “consuming hatred for the vagabond order to which he himself belonged.” The confliction this creates within the inspector is emphasised by further juxtaposing characteristics, such as his being “both humble and arrogant”, or the fact that “in his spare moments he read books, although he hated reading.”
This confliction is most evident, however, in Javert’s behaviour, as it is his deep internal sense of honour and duty - a respectable quality - that drives him to enforce the brutality of the law. He is not sadistic, and thus attains no pleasure from enforcing punishment. And yet we cannot attribute a traditional taciturnity or callousness to him either, as we become progressively aware that Javert is fundamentally self-deceived. The cruelty he enacts does not really escape his notice – it erodes him inside – pushing him further to his inevitable end.
Although this delusion is suggested from the very beginning of Javert’s interference in the plot (“His life was one of rigorous austerity, isolation, self-denial and chastity without distractions.”), the reality of this denial is only made truly clear once Javert has committed suicide. This reveals the fact that he has enforced the sanctity of the law on himself as much as the criminals he has pursued, refusing to relent to any doubts as to whether the law is truly as scrupulous as he was forced to believe, driving himself to live a life of self-deceit.
Delusion is even implied by Javert’s physical portrayal. He is described as hiding behind his inspector’s uniform: “Normally, one could never see his forehead, hidden by his hat, his eyes buried beneath his eyebrows, his chin sunk in his cravat, his hands drawn up within his sleeves…” This could be perceived to simply demonstrate Javert’s cunning and concealment, which are typical villainous attributes and necessary for his profession. However, this description of Javert’s concealed figure could also be seen to represent the fact that he is hiding behind the office of Police Inspector, whilst, in reality – although he refuses to acknowledge it – an oppressed part of himself recognises the flaws and failings of the law.
Nonetheless, Javert is successful in suppressing his doubts about the law, until Valjean’s compassion exposes them. Valjean, a criminal, shows kindness not only to the prostitute Fantine, her illegitimate daughter Cossette and the wounded rebel Marius, but also to Javert - he liberates him from his captivity at the hands of the revolutionaries. This confuses and pains the inspector – the merging of Valjean’s evident benevolence with his criminal identity is “torture” for him. By sparing him, Valjean introduced Javert to the principle of redemption – which, ironically, is destined to lead to his death.
Javert’s suicide is perhaps the most poignant and powerful scene of the whole didactic novel. The narrative enters his head, asking a surplus of rhetorical questions to amplify the instability and anarchic confusion of the moment: “What was it? Could there be other things in life besides trials and sentences, authority and the police? Javert was in dismay.” His thoughts are described as growing “blacker and blacker” as Javert uproots his most integral beliefs and begins to perceive of a more obscure, relativistic moral framework, in which it is his actions that are at fault – “what he had done made him shudder.” For Javert, this realisation of a new world of circumstantial morals is “a monstrosity”, proving that it is not evil that frightens him, but the ambiguity of evil.
Although Javert is forced to “shudder” at the cruelty he had enforced in the name of the law, he is equally horrified by the realisation of empathy within him: “To feel emotion was terrible. To be carved in stone, the very figure of chastisement, and to discover suddenly under the granite of our face something contradictory that is almost a heart.” The existence of empathy is yet another disruption to Javert’s unyielding perception of morality, creating further confusion and chaos. It blinds him from himself, a reality that is emphasised by the narrative’s repetition of the phrase “he, Javert,” as if he is attempting to remind himself of who he is and what it was he used to stand for. The inspector fails in achieving this, and thus it is “a ghost” that “leaned forward and dropped into the darkness” of the Seine.
Naturally, being such a deeply allegorical character, Javert’s suicide can be widely interpreted. If we maintain that he is an embodiment of nineteenth century French law, as he was at the outset, then his death is a final, emphatic criticism of its minimalism. The unyielding principles of the law were so one-dimensional that, when faced with a man, such as Valjean, who committed theft yet saved and bettered lives, it effectively breaks. It was not created to cope with such cases, and thus Javert must cease to exist to demonstrate its lack of value.
However, perhaps the scene is most powerful when it is removed from its lofty, metaphorical perch. In this case, Javert’s death serves as the poignant climax of the tragic story of a man born in sin, who serves his life attempting to remedy this only to learn that his actions have facilitated further suffering. Javert’s stream of consciousness before his death is melancholic because it is universal – we understand the confusion of a world constructed upon ambiguous, subjective moral laws, and desire one of clarity and absolutism. Ultimately, it is this central reality that makes Javert an insightful and brilliant villain – he is both a fantastic metaphor and a realistic human being. The evil he commits is generated by blindness. He is not motivated by an inexplicable, intrinsic evil, but a warped sense of ‘right’ – and it is this that is the primary cause of suffering in the real world. And finally, the fact that we can relate, and humanity can share in the inspector’s craving for moral absolutism, is Javert’s final, brilliantly villainous feature: he exposes us all.