In Victor Hugo's novel, Javert serves both a dramatic and spiritually significant role as the bookend-opposite of Jean Valjean. This is the classic sacramental contrast between Light and Darkness. Both Valjean and Javert are true believers, but with widely different understandings of Truth; and it all begins with their different responses to the grace of forgiveness.
Valjean spends 19 years in the hell of prison for an original desperate act that was indeed a crime, but not a sin--stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family. Offered unconditional forgiveness and hope of redemption by Bishop Myriel, the ex-convict vows to change his life and use his new freedom and subsequent wealth to serve the desperate poor (les miserables).
With a single line in the movie--detailed more fully in the novel--Javert reveals that he was born in prison. As a young man he vowed never again to find himself on that side of the justice system. He has choosen as his life compass and guardian the letter of civil law, which in his worldview is the mirror image of divine law. His vocation in life is to demand similar obedience and to punish lawbreakers.
When the all-forgiving Jean Valjean spares Javert's life at the barricade, the Inspector's fragile universe cracks and soon shatters. Reconciliation and second chances have no place in this unfortunate man's theology. He expects to be done unto as he does to others. Offered the love of the former convict, Javert faces the same choice Valjean did at the bishop's feet. Accept grace and become a new man, or reject the gift. Unlike his nemesis, Javert sees no way forward, only confused and raging self-destruction.
Hugo's Javert is not an evil man. Nor is he a sadist. He is a true believer, who has bet everything on the wrong horse. In biblical terms (Deuteronomy 30:19), the author of Les Miserables offered both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert a choice between Life and Death. Valjean chose Life. Javert did not.
In Hooper's film version, Russell Crowe seems not to understand his character's soul--what makes him tick. The result weakens the story, obscuring the intended punch line: Choose life!
Choose love, or exit this world without leaving a ripple on the water.
Alfred J. Garrotto is the author of
(c) 2013 by Alfred J. Garrotto