Javert and the loaf of bread

EDIT 1/24/13: After seeing the movie, I now agree with Rory’s interpretation in the comments (that Javert’s obsession doesn’t start until after the confrontation). This post left up for posterity.

In response to the long twitter thread started by this tweet, I wanted to explain why Javert’s obsession with Valjean (in the musical) strikes me as a bit strange.

From the musical, what Javert knows about Valjean is that he “stole a loaf of bread”, “broke a window pane”, “tried to run”, and then failed to report for his parole (from having read the beginning of the book, I know that “tried to run” means “tried to break out of prison”, but that’s not in the show). The show does an amazingly compelling job of showing why Javert despises Valjean: Those who falter and those who fall must pay the price, men like you can never change. Those central precepts guide Javert’s path through the show, and the contradiction between them and Valjean’s choice to save his life at the barricades ultimately invalidates his entire conception of the world (rooted, ultimately, in his desire to separate himself from the gutter from which he came by crushing it under his feet). This is beautifully and powerfully presented in the show, and easily overcomes the flaw in the story to make Javert and his theme of justice one of my favorite aspects of the show.

But there’s that damn little flaw. Javert’s obsession with justice makes sense. Javert’s hatred of Valjean makes sense. But Javert’s obsession with Valjean doesn’t. Why is Valjean special to Javert? Surely there are worse criminals, others who have broken their parole? Javert hates Valjean, sure, but the Javert presented in the show would hate any criminal, especially any criminal that escapes (nay, mocks) the law. Given all of the criminals he must have come into contact with, why spend so much energy on Valjean? A few people in the original thread compared Valjean to Ahab in Moby Dick, but while Valjean may share Ahab’s obsessiveness he doesn’t have Ahab’s excuse that Valjean was the only whale to take his leg.

Ultimately, I find it easy to look past this and really enjoy the show (and look forward to seeing the movie next week). But I think it would have been fairly easy to fix the problem, so I think it’s a shame that the show is as it is. Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons why Javert might be obsessed with Valjean, and corresponding ways to show them:

  1. Valjean’s transgression was exceptional relative to Javert’s sense of justice. Perhaps he escaped more times than anyone else, or his crime was a brutal murder of a nobleman (you could still make Valjean sympathetic, say the man raped his sister or some such) or something. All it takes to show that is to replace “stole a loaf of bread” with whatever he did.
  2. Valjean’s transgression was personal in some way to Javert. Perhaps Valjean was his first arrest, or his first escaped parolee. Perhaps Valjean stole the bread from Javert’s brother (though I think this would add an undesirable extra dimension to Javert’s hatred). Maybe Valjean’s strength somehow particularly reminds Javert of the scum he was born with. Showing this would just take some backstory, maybe during a monologue or the Confrontation, and depending on how it’s done wouldn’t even need to play any further role in the story.
  3. In addition to Javert being singularly devoted to his Platonic ideal of justice, he is also concrete-bound and his obsession with Valjean is meant to be irrational. This is the view that most on the other side of the twitter discussion took, but I don’t think the show supports it. If Javert had had other obsessions that were completely senseless, that’d make a strong case that he is arbitrarily obsessive in general, but his obsession with The Law makes sense in his context. If the irrational nature of his particular obsession had had consequences, like his career floundering or him failing to catch an important criminal due to his fixation, then the irrationality would have been an important aspect of Javert’s character. Instead, after the initial exchange between Valjean and Javert at Valjean’s release we see a story that is exactly the same as it would have been if Javert’s obsession had been less arbitrary. We see consequences to Javert’s general view on justice and evil, but none to his supposed concrete-bound obsessiveness. If Javert was meant to be a character who has fundamentally irrational fixations, then why doesn’t that play a role in the show outside of the one moment where that explanation is needed?

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  • Rory

    Far be it from me to defend Andrew Lloyd Webber as a perfect producer of stage productions, but I think you might be missing the point of Valjean’s cumulative interest to Javert. At first Valjean is another prisoner who Javert is warning of his proscribed freedom. Although even here we see some contrast between them that might create further tension: the way Valjean stands so boldly and innocently, refusing to accept Javert’s law as just.

    Then when Javert is hunting him later it might be a tiny bit obsessive – “I’ve hunted you across the years” – but there’s no indication it’s been his sole pursuit. It is just another criminal he’s chased down (don’t forget he’s a police officer now, rather than a mere prison guard, so he must be doing pretty well at catching criminals). But then he doesn’t just find Valjean: he’s publicly embarrassed in front of a crowd by trialling the wrong man, and was forced to apologise to Valjean early in the guise of the mayor. This the spurns on his fury, making him doubly resolved to capture Valjean – especially in this whole issue of Valjean trying to change himself and make himself better — and succeeding! The best Javert can do is cavort with the underworld still, as a policeman. But here stands Javert who has become a respected mayor. How dare he rise so high – it should not be done. Men like Javert and Valjean are meant for the lower side of society.

    Even later, Javert is promoted further, and engaged in other cases. It’s been a while since I saw the production, and the book is stronger in my mind, but doesn’t it include him going to the Thernadier’s house in Paris, trying to arrest them? He’s engaged in other police work, and yes, probably catching other crooks. Although bear in mind: it’s generally not the remit of a constable to chase down every lost crook. Javert’s role now is to solve crimes such as they are right now. It’s odd for him to go just hunt down crooks – unless he has a personal, embarrassing history with the , especially one comics fed by the way Valjean’s character mirrors Javert’s own.

  • Rory

    That said…. I caught the tail end of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ last night. In all these kinds of stories (see also: Hannibal, The Fugitive, etc) there’s some government agent obsessed with a particular criminal. We’re to assume that they have other cases as well, though we don’t see them. One thing they do well though is to illustrate the connection between the cat and mouse. Or perhaps not illustrate, but put things out there for the audience to interpret as they will. There might be something they could have learned from that, in producing Les Mis, to better illustrate the connection between Valjean and Javertt.

  • http://www.shealevy.com Shea Colton Levy

    Hmm, that’s a really good point actually, about the obsession not really starting until after the embarrassment and confrontation. I’ll have to see if it plays out that way in the movie and if/when I see the show again.