Last month, PBS wrapped up a costume drama based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It was very well done, although I got impatient with some of the characters for the same reason I got impatient with them when I read the novel. Hugo wrote for a different time and different readers.
But the character of Inspector Javert remained one of the most intriguing. In part, this is because he was the first antagonist I ever encountered in screen, as opposed to a villain. I was probably 6 or 7 when I first saw Les Miserables. It was on TV, on a Saturday afternoon, when they ran Dumas and Hugo dramatizations. Javert’s actions didn’t make sense, and my poor parents had a lot of difficulty trying to explain them in language a child would understand. Later, after the musical came out and I read the entire novel, he made sense.
Javert is virtue turned to vice. Which makes him such a fascinating antagonist. He came up through the streets, having been born in prison, and eventually becoming a policeman, prison guard, and detective. He is a child of the French Revolution, rational, and determined to see to the needs of the state. At the time the novel was set, if someone was convicted of a crime (felony in US terms) and served his sentence, he still had to report to the police every time he went somewhere. All had to be informed that he was a convicted criminal. If he stopped doing this, it cancelled his parole and back to prison he’d go.
Javert knows the law inside and out, and has sworn to uphold it. No matter how good the former prisoner might become (Jean Valjean), Javert knows that the man is still a convict with broken parole. Once a criminal, always a criminal, and that’s that. In the musical Les Mis, Javert’s aria “Stars” neatly sums up his understanding of the world.
Javert is justice without mercy. Valjean is justice tempered with mercy, sometimes to the point of excess. Javert is relentless as a Fury for the good of the State. Valjean has doubts and wants to be left alone with the child he rescued and is raising as his own. If Javert were just an automaton, he wouldn’t be so sympathetic. But he really is sympathetic. As a reader, I can understand how he came to be the way he is, and why he is motivated to be pure justice as he understands it. Hugo did a magnificent job.
In the end, Javert breaks. He acts against his training and shows mercy. In so doing, he breaks himself mentally, and can no longer reconcile his understanding of the world with what he has done. Again, he is a sympathetic character, and you mourn for him. He was an antagonist, and made live miserable for Jean Valjean and others. He also lived as a good man as best he thought he should, and you feel a little sorry for him. Javert is complicated, as all really good, memorable characters are. He’s very human.
The contrast is Monsieur Thenardier. He’s low class and never rises above his roots, a swindler, thief, crook, philanderer, robber, murderer, and basically bad person. He and his wife (in the novel) are perfect foils for each other, and the reader gets the sense that its a good thing they are married to each other, because otherwise they’d be making even more people miserable. In the book there is nothing even vaguely amusing about them, unlike the musical. And in the book, he survives, prospers from the rebellion of 1830, and ends up becoming a slave trader. He’s more of the classic villain than is Javert.
How do we, as writers, create characters like these? Read a lot. Watch people. And think about virtues taken to extremes. Javert is justice unleavened by mercy. Mercy without justice becomes license and can lead to just as bad ends. Pride, wrath, gluttony, covetousness… the familiar seven “deadly sins” serve as starting places. Excess and false humility, passivity in the face of moral evils… Their inverses are also useful, and add depth to characters.