I looked around me, startled; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I looked at my wife; she seemed just as bewildered as I was.
“Boooo!” some of the audience members drew out their calls of displeasure into a protracted hiss.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure what was actually happening—were these sarcastic boos? Was that a thing? Maybe the actors knew all about it and were in on a joke? I checked their faces, the long line of them standing on the stage, holding hands, taking bows. One singular, tall man stood in front of the rest, bowing to boos. Their faces didn’t radiate being “in” on some audience-actor joke. Instead, they looked to their costar with faces of sympathy as if to say, “Don’t worry, we got your back. You were awesome, as usual.”
And he was. I guess the boos were a testament to that.
Do you hear the people sing?
We had just watched the concluding scene of Les Misérables at a theater in Albuquerque. I loved the music—had loved it for a long time. The show was on tour, and we had purchased tickets at a reasonable price in the 10th row (or something, I really don’t remember, just that they were good seats). I had finished reading the book recently as well (the unabridged—in French—although I skipped some of the chapters, I’ll be honest) and I was really excited to watch the musical. I loved it. I teared up a couple of times—the scene where Fantine invites Valjean into the afterlife gets me every time. Hugo is one of my favorite authors, and perhaps my propensity toward quotes from his works makes that evident.
Back to the booing, though. They were booing Javert. Javert! I know, right? And it wasn’t Russell Crowe, so don’t start that. Javert is possibly the most misunderstood character from that novel, I suppose. A lot of people dislike him, mostly I believe because we have been raised on “Good Guy-Bad Guy” entertainment since birth. When an author like Victor Hugo approaches his pen and paper, he’s not writing a future script for the Avengers, he’s writing about the real world. So Javert is not a villain—he’s a person, a person with weaknesses and strengths, loves and hates, likes and dislikes, notions and opinions (some of which might not agree with yours! Gasp!). Does he try to put Jean Valjean in prison? Yes (note: he’s a policeman, and Valjean is an escaped convict). Does he try to thwart the student revolution in the streets of Paris and spy on their actions during an uprising? Yes (note: see previous—the students were acting illegally). Now I’m not saying Javert was right—but he thought he was, and the law supported him. So was he wrong just because he wasn’t right?
I’ll say this about Javert, he was locked into a mindset and was, by his own acknowledgement, unyielding on that. That’s a weakness—and he’s hardly alone—but it’s also a strength. I would go so far as to say the majority of people posting about politics on Facebook far exceed Javert’s unyielding mindset, to a fault in that such unyielding becomes unbearable. Javert represents a type of mindset from Hugo’s day that was set on the fact that a person’s character was set from birth to death—no chance of altering it. The musical says it this way: “once a thief, forever a thief.” It’s hardly a foreign belief, though, even today.
Who am I?
So why do I claim Javert was right and wrong? Because Javert was wrong morally, from our perspective as all-knowing readers that have seen into the heart of Valjean. We know Jean Valjean was a good man, and had changed, and sought to do good with his second chance. We know what Javert does not know—what the Bishop of Digne saw within Valjean’s heart—that a person is not always stuck where they are right now. We all have potential to be better. Javert was blind to that, and admittedly did not attempt to see it. But Javert was right, too. He was right because there were laws broken that needed to be enforced—and he had committed to doing that as a profession and as a person. Perhaps he over-pursued that commission, but he was certainly honorable about it.
I can only suppose the booers at my showing of the musical were doing so because Javert had filled his role too well. They were so conditioned to view someone that opposed their beloved hero in his mission and quest as the “bad guy,” and they were so ill-versed in theater etiquette, and they were so rude, that they felt the need to boo. Fine. I’m embarrassed to have been in that audience, but I’ll get over it (it’s been more than 10 years, though, so maybe I’m kidding myself. You know what? I’m not going to get over it. That’s my problem, though.).
And now a final thought on Javert’s character: he was not so stoic and immovable as I have made it seem. At the end, he lets Valjean go. He recognizes—against his will, which is harder than it sounds—that Valjean actually has changed, that he is different. He realizes that his lifetime of opinion has been turned upside down. Unfortunately, he finds his only reconciliation with this to be his own demise, which hurts me every time I think of it. I would hope no one else takes Javert’s course and ends their life just because they found out one of their deeply-held beliefs was incorrect. But let us take the lesson from Javert: he changed who he was, too. Even the most opinioned can be softened eventually with truth.
On My Own…
Javert, in my opinion, is a hero of Les Misérables—one of many. He stands there with Jean Valjean in my book. He is one of us—a person—and we owe him some understanding and sympathy. I will quote one of my favorite people at this point, a person that said something better than I could ever say it, not because of the words she used, but because of where she was when she said them and what she had lived through:
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
-Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
I believe that. In spite of everything, people really are good at heart. What we see people do comes from somewhere. We don’t know the whys and wherefores of someone else’s life. We don’t know what has brought that person to that point. I don’t think that justifies ill behavior, violence, or other rudeness. But it does mean we shouldn’t be so quick to judge and write someone off. I stand with Javert in the fact that rules and laws ought to be enforced. And I stand with the Bishop of Digne, and with Anne Frank, and with my own conviction, in saying that within everyone, there is good, if we give it a chance.