esteliel: (Les Mis)
[personal profile] esteliel posting in [community profile] les_miserables
So I took a lot of notes on my Kindle while reading the Brick and apparently a lot of my Valjean and Javert feels are wrapped up with Hugo's symbolism, which I guess is no surprise because Hugo is not exactly subtle there. Umm. I feel like this has probably all been said a billion times already because Hugo is just that unsubtle, but as I am late to the party and Tumblr must just be the worst place possible to find old meta, feel free to point out if I'm wondering about stuff that has been rehashed a hundred times already.

Reading the Brick for the first time, one of the things that really jumped out at me was Hugo’s use of religious imagery and symbolism. It is of course impossible to overlook, but if you take a closer look at how he uses it to contrast Valjean and Javert, their struggle and how Valjean reaches transcendence through debasement whereas Javert can accept neither debasement nor redemption, I think it really says a lot about their character arcs and to how they mirror and contrast each other.

An image that really, really stuck with me and is such a perfect illustration of Javert’s relationship with Valjean is the image of Javert as Jacob who wrestles in the dark with God in the form of Valjean:

He did not proceed according to his custom, he did not enter into the matter, he exhibited no warrant of arrest. In his eyes, Jean Valjean was a sort of mysterious combatant, who was not to be laid hands upon, a wrestler in the dark whom he had had in his grasp for the last five years, without being able to throw him.

It is so fascinating to me that this central matter of their relationship is illustrated so clearly so early in the book, in Montreuil. Javert as Jacob who wrestles in the dark with God/Valjean is such a powerful image to me because here he is an exact mirror of Valjean. Wrestling with God is basically what Valjean does all his life. Though he is a martyr/saint figure, he is no simplistic “good” character. His goodness is something Valjean pays a high price for and he questions himself and his actions again and again. So often he often does not want to do the right thing, but he does it regardless despite the pain it brings and the sacrifices it means, because he knows that it is the right thing to do. And that is how Valjean lives his life, wrestling and questioning with every choice he has to make, where for Javert the very act of questioning is an abhorrence. I love how this image of Jacob wrestling with the angel is used for the Javert/Valjean relationship so early in the book, and it makes it so heartbreaking to compare their character arcs and see that Javert not only makes the wrong choices every time compared to Valjean’s right choices, but that he thinks that choice itself does not exist when through Valjean, the chance to question himself was given to him this early, already in Montreuil.

And then later, we see Javert on the cross at the barricade:

In the tap-room there remained only Mabeuf under his black cloth and Javert bound to his post.
"This is the hall of the dead," said Enjolras.
In the interior of this hall, barely lighted by a candle at one end, the mortuary table being behind the post like a horizontal bar, a sort of vast, vague cross resulted from Javert erect and Mabeuf lying prone.

We see Javert crucified, and contrasted so explicitly to Mabeuf here, when Javert is very much not a martyr. While the night bound to the post is probably physical suffering for him, there is no redemption, for while the students die a martyr’s death, he does not. I am not quite certain what to make of that image of the cross. I think it signifies yet again choice, especially in that contrast of Mabeuf vs. Javert and the deaths they chose, because Hugo is quite clear about how Mabeuf’s suicide on the barricade is transcendence as well in Combeferre’s words:
Suicides like that which is on the brink of accomplishment here are sublime; but suicide is narrow, and does not admit of extension; and as soon as it touches your neighbours, suicide is murder.

Mabeuf’s death is suicide and yet it is “sublime” and a martyr’s death, because whereas Javert’s suicide was resignation, Mabeuf’s death is given meaning by Hugo as the symbol of the social transformation they are fighting for. So if Javert’s captivity at the barricade is his Passion, then it is nevertheless a Passion that does not end in salvation or atonement because in the end Javert chooses resignation. Nevertheless, I do think the time at the barricade affects him, even before Valjean sets him free and thus leads Javert on the path of questioning for the first time. There is that moment when Javert sees Eponine dead in the street, and he is very clearly affected by that view, and Hugo once again paints her, too, as a martyr by the way her corpse is described:

Among the heap they could distinguish a livid face, streaming hair, a pierced hand and the half nude breast of a woman. It was Eponine.

It’s really the image of crucifixion all over again, complete with stigmata this time, and Javert clearly has an emotional reaction to it:

Javert gazed askance at this body, and, profoundly calm, said in a low tone: “It strikes me that I know that girl.”

So he recognizes suffering, and the transcendence reached through it, enough to be affected by it – she is resting in a heap of corpses and he could just have walked past, the way he walked past Fantine’s suffering. But by singling her out like this, by recognizing her for who she is, she seems to have gained humanity in his eyes, to have become something more than just another member of that class that he sees it as his duty to oppress and force to keep their place.

In this way, his own suffering (and more importantly, Valjean releasing him) leads to questioning, and he reaches at last the place once more where he wrestles with Valjean/God in the dark. But more importantly I think that the image of Javert crucified is just foreshadowing of the Passion that is to come, because this wrestling with Valjean/God, this fight with his conscience is described as him “undergoing horrible suffering” - he never leaves that cross even though Valjean frees him from captivity because the very act of freeing him is what torments him the most, and Javert cannot accept the debasement that is the natural result of questioning the code of authority that defined his life.

And that leads to another theme I find so striking, abasement/debasement leading to transcendence, which is of course the theme of Valjean. Of course, like any human, Valjean does not want to suffer, but nevertheless he suffers and accepts debasement again and again because he cannot make another choice and still remain good. The image of the sewer illustrates this concept so well: Valjean carries Marius through the water in the darkness and at last comes to a fontis where he sinks so deep that only his mouth remains above the water, and only at that point, where he has willingly walked so deep into the filth, accepted that debasement until there is no way back because there is no other way to save Marius’ life even if it means he walks into his own death, is he saved and reaches firm ground again:

He still held Marius on high, and with an unheard-of expenditure of force, he advanced still; but he was sinking. He had only his head above the water now and his two arms holding up Marius. In the old paintings of the deluge there is a mother holding her child thus.
He sank still deeper, he turned his face to the rear, to escape the water, and in order that he might be able to breathe; anyone who had seen him in that gloom would have thought that what he beheld was a mask floating on the shadows; he caught a faint glimpse above him of the drooping head and livid face of Marius; he made a desperate effort and launched his foot forward; his foot struck something solid; a point of support. It was high time.

And in turn, debasement of this sort is rejected by Javert, who sees himself as outside society on one hand but still always above those who do not follow the law, and who cannot accept the possibility of being “on a level with a fugitive from justice” because it would mean a debasement he cannot accept:

[…]the man of authority fell lower than the man of the galleys, in the second, a convict rose above the law, and set his foot upon it. In both cases, dishonor for him, Javert. There was disgrace in any resolution at which he might arrive.

The words he chooses to illustrate just why it is so impossible for him to deal with knowing Valjean to be good are extremely poignant: it would be disgrace, dishonor for Javert, when at the same time the galleys were exactly that for Valjean, when going to Arras meant choosing disgrace and dishonor for Valjean, when he walked into that fontis in the sewers to choose abasement rather than looking for another way out which might have meant death for Marius. Once again the way they are contrasted here shows that they are mirror images, and it is heartbreaking to see Valjean achieve transcendence through suffering and debasement whereas Javert cannot willingly choose disgrace despite knowing it is the right thing to do, and by walking that path of abasement rise above it and rise above himself:

Was it not a fearful thing that Javert and Jean Valjean, the man made to proceed with vigor, the man made to submit,—that these two men who were both the things of the law, should have come to such a pass, that both of them had set themselves above the law?

And yet as Valjean shows it is possible to be above the word of the law. Javert even recognizes him for what he is, saint/angel despite the fact that he set himself above the law, and yet despite the realization that such a thing is possible he cannot see the path Valjean walked as a path for himself to follow.

When Javert actually thinks about turning Valjean in during the carriage ride, once more the crucifixion theme is continued:

[…]and every time that his arm had been raised convulsively towards Jean Valjean’s collar, his hand had fallen back again, as beneath an enormous weight, and in the depths of his thought he had heard a voice, a strange voice crying to him:—“It is well. Deliver up your savior. Then have the basin of Pontius Pilate brought and wash your claws.”
Then his reflections reverted to himself and beside Jean Valjean glorified he beheld himself, Javert, degraded.

And again, he knows that Valjean is above the code of the law, that he has transcended mortal law and that his goodness is far above it. He sees Valjean as Christ, so that returning him to jail would make Javert Pilate, but yet again when he realizes that, he also sees what the acceptance of this truth makes him. It is a degradation of himself in his own eyes and in the eyes of that greater authority, God, and he still cannot willingly choose degradation, even though he now knows this to be the truth. Javert is still suffering on the cross, just as Valjean has, as Valjean still is suffering, and Javert cannot accept suffering and debasement for himself. He cannot question himself and see himself as someone on a level lower than a convict in the eyes of an authority higher than the law:

He found that he was a coward. He conceived a horror of himself.

And where Valjean reaches that same horror of himself after Petit Gervais, he always, always makes the hard choice in order not to become that “miserable man” again he knows himself to be. Javert on the other hand cannot accept this view of himself in order to work past it and so is “less the man transfigured than the victim of this prodigy,” which really is to me the true tragedy of his character arc: he has the same chances and options as Valjean, he wrestles with God through Valjean from Montreuil on, and he always chooses not to see that higher good until the very end when he sees it to be true, and chooses death rather than the degradation of knowing himself to be a “miserable man” like Valjean was and trying to find redemption through accepting that degradation and doing good in the future even if it means abasement.

So, yes, I clearly have Thoughts about Javert and Valjean’s character arcs and Hugo’s symbolism. /o\ There is probably tons of meta about this already as Hugo really hits you over the head with his symbolism like with a, well, brick, but I couldn’t resist the temptation of trying to put my notes into order. I’m still intrigued by that crucifixion image of Javert and Mabeuf and not quite sure if there isn’t more to it than my interpretation. And well, with Tumblr the way it is, there's really little way of finding things, so feel free to point out things I'm Wrong about!

Date: 2014-04-21 03:30 pm (UTC)
fizzygingr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fizzygingr
Oh my gosh, thank you for this post. Here I was thinking, like you, that there wasn't much more to be said on Valjean and Javert, and you give us this. I never made the Jacob-wrestling-with-God connection, but you're totally onto something there. Valjean wrestles because he finds the problems worth wrestling with. Javert only wants to throw him, end the match, and pretend it never happened. Because to wrestle with God is to acknowledge that God not only exists, but might disagree with him. And that's a terrifying thought.

It also never occurred to me that turning Valjean in would be a degradation in the same way that letting him go would be. Because you're right, to turn him in would be to make himself Pilate, to imprison a righteous and undeserving man, to go against justice. He sees that the only way for a man not to be degraded is to lower himself, to submit to higher moral authority and to suffering. Vajean, when he'd reached his absolute lowest point, when he was neck-deep in human excrement, that's when God placed the rock below his feet and allowed him to step up out of the pits. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

The crucifixion imagery is another really interesting thing going on here. Especially since it's not Javert alone forming the cross, but Javert and Mabeuf together. I just read it as sort of background imagery, of death and martyrdom looming over the barricade. But the fact that it is Javert who makes it...yeah, I'm not entirely sure what to make of that.

Date: 2014-04-21 09:38 pm (UTC)
other_paths: (Default)
From: [personal profile] other_paths
I've been thinking about that crucifixion image myself. This is a bit way out, but what I thought of is that Javert is only half of the image, it is only complete through the presence of Mabeuf. Javert it seems does not symbolise the Crucifixion on his own. That makes me recall that in the Gospels Christ is not the only man crucified, there are also the two thieves who gain symbolism and resonance through juxtaposition. Perhaps then Javert is not Christ but one of the thieves? Javert as the impenitent thief, refusing revelation even when it is right in front of him? I'm not sure, Hugo tends to be a bit more obvious with his comparisons. But I thought I'd throw it out

Date: 2014-04-22 10:09 pm (UTC)
other_paths: (Default)
From: [personal profile] other_paths
Yes, I thought of Mabeuf as possibly the penitent thief too, not that Mabeuf was ever a thief or harmful to others, but he did harm himself through his lack of connection to the rest of humanity, and he did seem to experience a kind of revelation in his last moments, though I'm still not clear on what it was in his case. The juxtaposition is significant I'm sure

Date: 2014-04-22 02:08 pm (UTC)
bobbiewickham: Kalinda Sharma of The Good Wife (Default)
From: [personal profile] bobbiewickham
Oohh, interesting! All of this makes me think of Javert's attitude earlier in the novel, right before the Champmathieu affair, when he thinks he was wrong about Madeleine being Valjean. At that point, he does seek out degradation. He abases himself. He asks to be fired, dishonorably, rather than honorably resigning, because he thinks he deserves that humiliation.

And why does he do this? Well, he outright tells us: it's because otherwise he'll be rendered wrong. He's always gone out of his way to punish anyone who disrespected authority and hierarchy. Now he's disrespected authority, so he has to seek out his own punishment. He has to be degraded by losing his job or else he'll face the worse fate of having been wrong about the necessity of total submission to authority.

More generally, he's willing to self-abnegate (his behavior to Madeleine is very deferential) provided that it's in the service of being unimpeachable, which to him means upholding authority. So it's this weird contradiction where he's very servile a lot of the time, but that servility is tied to a specific kind of pride, a pride in being correct. And he can't face what he sees as the dishonor of being incorrect. He'd rather be incorrect and kill himself to get out of dealing with it than try to correct himself (let alone toss out the idea of 'correctness' as a goal to strive for).

I've rambled pretty far afield, but thanks for posting this!


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Let's all be miserable together!

May 2014


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