If you are one of the 2.3 people on the planet who doesn’t know the plot of Les Miserables and still hopes to enjoy either the book or movie or a stage production of the musical…don’t read this post.
Les Mis has been in my mind the past few weeks, and if you don’t know why, then this post will probably not be of much interest to you. It’s a story that’s resonated with me for a long time, but what I’ve cared about has changed significantly over the years. The first time I heard the musical I was in seventh grade, and I loved it. I went out and bought a copy of the book…which I failed to read until a friend loaned me an abridged version that got me through the basic plot and gave me a renewed interest in reading the book as a whole, which I last read sometime in high school. What I loved about the story back then was the love story between Marius and Cosette.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to see my high school’s production of the musical (which was amazingly well done) some years after I had graduated and realized that the love story I had cherished as a middle schooler was actually pretty insipid. The relationship between Marius and Cosette is, in the musical (and possibly the book, though I have to reread it before I would assert this with confidence) is the flattest and most ridiculously stupid relationship in the entire book and it feels like an authorial cop out that they get a happy ending when all the people with moral depth die.
Spoiler: Everybody dies.
I think I’ve finally gotten old enough and well-versed enough in storytelling to truly appreciate the central relationship of the story: that of Valjean and Javert. The reformed convict and the convicted reformer, one the spirit and the other the letter of justice. And in this round of ponderings, my mind has been wrestling the the suicide of Javert.
Oh, yeah. Spoiler: Javert kills himself.
Javert’s suicide has always bothered me a bit. He spends half his life pursuing Valjean for skipping parole. On a few occasions, they meet. At one point, Valjean definitively has the upper hand and has the chance to kill Javert, but he chooses instead to set his pursuer free. When next they meet, Valjean is trying to save the life of the boy his adopted daughter has fallen in love with, carrying his badly wounded body through the sewers to safety. Javert confronts Valjean with the intent of capturing him again, but instead chooses to let him go. This act of mercy on his own part is so contrary to everything he has lived and believed that he kills himself.
I have always thought, from a modern and human perspective, that Javert’s death was unnecessary and even cowardly, though the more I grasp just how difficult change can be, the more I think that his death, particularly in a world with entirely different mores from my own, is not entirely realistic. But even if it would be a waste of human life in reality, thinking about it in terms of literature and what the role literature plays, his death in the context of the story seems crucial. The death of Javert as a private individual isn’t the issue: what Hugo is killing off the the representation of a bad and broken Law. More importantly, he’s having the Law off itself because the Law holds the power and the friends of the ABC are on the wrong side of the power to impact change.
I’m sure that looking at Javert as a representation of an idea is no novel interpretation of the text, but it has got me thinking, as a writer, about this difference between what would be right for an action of a private individual in real life and what is right for the embodiment of a concept in a fictional life. Thoughts?