24 October, 2004

A wonderful sentiment, but does he mean it?

I read the following line in Les Misérables this past week:

You speak now like a brave and honest man. Courage does not fear crime, and honesty does not fear authority.
It was the most insightful thought I'd read in the book, or so I imagined. I had pulled out paper and pencil to write it down when I realized: Hugo probably doesn't believe that. Why do I say this? Because he put it on the lips of Javert.

Maybe he does, though? I'm starting to think that perhaps Hugo doesn't mean his characters to be such broad caricatures as they first seem. In the first part of the book, I acquired the sense that I was supposed to dislike Javert, and that was my impression from the films and the musical as well: not only does Javert not "get it", but his legalistic mind is too small to comprehend anything apart from the letter of the law. Thus, despite his honesty and rectitude, Hugo sentences him to death.

Yet Javert is the most interesting character in the novel so far. Another enjoyable quote of his comes a few pages later; Marius (a sentimental fruitcake) has alerted some criminals to the presence of the police. This, after he had alerted the police to the criminals' plots; hence the above quote from Javert. (This contradiction makes complete sense in the contect of the novel, considering that Marius is, as I say, a sentimental fruitcake.)

Alerted by Marius, these criminals (led by Thénardier) are standing around arguing who should leave the window first:
"Well," said one of the bandits, "let us draw lots to see who shall go out first."

Thénardier exclaimed:

"Are you fools? are you cracked? You are a mess of jobards! Losing time, isn't it? drawing lots, isn't it? with a wet finger! for the short straw! write our names! put them in a cap!—"

"Would you like my hat?" cried a voice from the door.

They all turned round. It was Javert.

He had his hat in his hand, and was holding it out smiling.
So far, this has been the most entertaining passage in the novel. What makes it more entertaining is that the criminals are terrified of Javert (who apparently has quite a reputation) and give up nearly immediately. (Thénardier puts up a little fight, but it's useless.) It's never made very clear why the criminals are so afraid of Javert, but Hugo says more with what he doesn't write, than with what he writes.

Naturally, Hugo soon abandons this story for a romantic digression on the Revolution of 1830 and the bourgeouis who may, or may not, have betrayed it:
A chair is not a caste. But, by wishing to sit down, we may stop the progress even of the human race. That has often been the fault of the bourgeouis. The commission of a fault does not constitute a class. Egotism is not one of the divisions of the social order.
I'm not so sure about that, to tell the truth, but I'll bite my tongue before commenting ill of the American moneyed classes. Then there is this howler:
You will perish by violence, as Venice died, or by bankruptcy, as England will fall, and the world will let you die and fall, because the world lets everything fall and die which is nothing but selfishness, everything which does not represent a virtue or an idea for the human race.
Let the record show that, since Hugo's presumptuous prediction, England has never once fallen, be it by bankruptcy or otherwise, whereas France proceeded to fall not just once (yet another revolution which followed on the heels of the Franco-Prussian War), but twice (Vichy). Compared to France, England has been a relatively calm island in a sea of European instability.

As for Venice, La Serenissima hardly perished by violence. Hugo entertains Republican and/or Napoleonic delusions on that score: see for example the final chapters of Lord John J. Norwich's History of Venice. Not a shot of cannon was fired on her walls. Both Constantinople and the Kingdom of Naples passed into the shadows of history with more violence than Venice.

You might get the impression from this that I'm not enjoying Les Misérables very much. Quite the contrary! Rather, I see that the more enjoyable remarks in the novel emerge from Javert's lips, and I wonder what sort of monster I must be. Every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that Javert is Evil Incarnate.

I'll note in conclusion that, according to Wikipedia, Victor Hugo is worshiped as a saint in the Vietnamese Cao Dai religion.

Grumble grumble... I need to write about something more uplifting, and baseball doesn't count. I'll try to do that later today.


Anonymous said...

I think Hugo has more sympathy for Javert than he lets on... It's not that he's a bad man, he's just incomplete. He's justice without mercy.

Maybe if you combined Javert, cold reason incarnate, with Marius, a sentimental idiot, you'd get one balanced person!


Anonymous said...

Actually, Jack, all the Great Writers made most of their villains sympathetic, or at least ambiguous.

Of course, in our modern world in which Ideology is the only important virtue, ambiguous, and especially sympathetic, villains must be purged from our consciousness. So our literature professors go to great lengths to cleanse any hint of sympathy from Petruchio, or Magua, or Carton.


jack perry said...

My horror isn't that I find Javert sympathetic; it's that Javert is the only character I find sympathetic. My horror is not with Hugo, but with me. My situation is comparable to watching Star Wars and not finding any of the characters interesting except Darth Vader. Well, even that's not right, but I think it gives you an idea what I mean.

This would probably be more apparent if I'd remembered to give credit to Hugo for the conversation where Enjolras cuts down Marius' Napoleonic idolatry a notch or two. That was a surprise, and is one of the reasons I'm still reading the novel: I'm finally starting to see that Hugo is actually thinking in the novel, not merely preaching socialism mixed with romantic philosophy.

Likewise my earlier musing that nearly every reviewer of Dostoevsky's Demons feels compelled to comment on the fascinating Nikolai Stavrogin — if not him, then on Pyotr Stepanovich and his fater, Stepan Trofimovich. Those gentlemen were certainly fascinating, but to this point I seem to be unique in finding Ivan Shatov to be the most enchanting character — this Shatov who appears to be no more than a catalyst for Dostoevsky's intended protagonists. You can see some of my mutterings on that at

Anonymous said...

FYI, I was reading about The Brothers K on the weekend, and the critic claimed that Dostoyevsky is known to have admired Les Miserables, and that some critics believe he based Father Zossima on Bishop Bienvenue.