Western Philosophy

Mr.Cornet, period 1

15 May 2004

Les Miserables



Les Miserables is a story that lends itself to philosophical analysis of diverse characters caught in a web of the times in which they lived, the time of one of the French revolutions.  The political background and governmental structures of that society can be illuminated by political philosophers Rousseau, Hobbes, Weber, Machiavelli and John Stuart Mills, while the ethical positions articulated by philosophers Plato, Sartre, Maimonides, Bentham and Camus may be used to examine the two main characters, convict Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.


A brief review is necessary before addressing philosopher’s views.  As the story unfolds, Valjean is sent to prison for stealing bread.  The prison watch, Javert, is a hard man who believes all criminals are irredeemable “warts on the face of society”, and that it is his job to keep them in line.  Valjean is released but learned that few people are willing to give a convict a chance.  A bishop shows mercy and helps him out.  Valjean changes his name and manages to establish a respectable life for himself.  Years later, Javert happens to move to the same town as Valjean.  At first Javert does not recognize Valjean, but once he does he’s determined to put Valjean back behind bars for violating his parole.  Valjean, then the mayor, end sup breaking the law in order to rescue a little girls of a dying employee, Fantine.  Valjean assumes responsibility for the child, Cosette, and raises her while on the run from Javert, a pursuit which stretched a dozen years.


Jean Jacque Rousseau’s “Noble Savages” asserts that man is by nature good; society is the cause of corruption and vice. In the film Les Miserables, the character Javert supports Rousseau’s theory, because Javert had the chance to be a good person, but was influenced by society’s definitions of what is good or bad, and also by his role as an authority figure and the power that entails.  This sociological component is significant.  In Rousseau’s view, political power is a corrupting aspect of society.  In Javert’s case, born in prison as his parents were both “criminals”, he grew up ashamed of his background and wishing to rise above it.  He appears not to have thought about what let to their fall, and instead accepts society’s judgment, and more importantly, its authority, with regard to his parents and sets about proving himself worthy of society’s appreciation rather than its condemnation.  Essentially, he decided to pursue this ambition through a rigid application of society’s rules – he is determined to do what is regarded as “right” in order to prove himself worthy and perhaps to compensate for what he sees as his parents wrong doings.  According to Rousseau “a just society replaced the individual natural freedom of will with the general will; such a society is based on a social contract by which each individual alienates all of his or her natural rights to a new corporate person, the sovereign, the repository of general will.”


Jean Valjean is also the product of the society he lived in, both in terms of the suffering which led to him stealing a loaf of bread, and the excessive sentence he received as punishment for his crime.  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes proposes that “human actions arise out of desire for self-preservation and the laws of nature permit any action reasonably intended for that purpose.”  This would be in contrast to the laws of society which sent Valjean to prison.  He went to prison a devoted brother and uncle who had tried to keep his family alive, and left nineteen years later filled with despair, hopelessness, bitterness and anger at the injustice of his treatment.


Plato’s metaphysic beliefs in reincarnation and his conviction that man is involved in a continual process of spiritual refinement in which he may move on to a further stage of development, or be regressed if he has not achieved a sufficient standard of spiritual development, shows that “we have the basis for morality and religion in the modern, civilized world.” Les Miserables shows this idealism through Valjean when he turned his life around after being given a second chance y the Bishop.  In reflexive acts of desperation, Valjean steals from the Bishop and the young chimney sweep.  These acts, in direct contrast to the kindness shown to him by the Bishop, cause him to focus on what he has become – the very thing he was accused of bring all these years before, and which he has resented for so long.


Jean Paul Sartre explains that for human begins “existence precedes essence: we are defined by our choices and actions and not by a fixed ‘human nature’.”  This realization that any many can suffer what Valjean has endured, as the result of social injustice, inspires him to treat other people with tolerance and understanding.  His choices – not any abstract concept like human nature – have defined him as an ethical being.  He has seen what can become of men as a result of their circumstances and experiences, and this is determined to help others by providing a reasonable standard of living for the workers in his factory and creating a caring community.  He redefined his life in order to become a better person.


Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said that “the purpose of life is to convert the potentiality of perfection into the actuality of it.”  Valjean exemplifies this philosophy as he lives an ever more ethical life as the film progresses.  There are numerous examples of his heroism and his selfless desire to help others, all tingled with, and accentuated by, tragedy as he is driven by a growing self-respect and a sense of responsibility toward those whose live she has touched.   Inspiration accumulates as Valjean commits acts of heroism, both physically and morally, in helping Fantine, caring for Cosette, saving Fauchelevent and Marius, protecting Javert at the barricades, and offering to pay Fantine’s debt to Thenardier.  The tragedy is that Valjean does not appear to recognize the merit of his own actions, or at least that they more than compensate for what he nearly became due to prison.  He is driven by the guilt he felt on stealing form the Bishop and the chimney sweep.  He is ashamed, not so much of the nineteen years he spent in prison, but rather that on his release he was willing to prey upon those who were weaker than himself in order to survive.  He works endlessly to compensate for his misdeeds (in his view) and shows himself little of the sympathy and understanding he is willing to bestow on others.


French Philosopher Albert Camus explains that “absurdity” (his word) arises from the confrontation between human needs and the “unreasonable silence of the world.”  For Jean Valjean, the world was certainly silence in a literal sense in response to his needs.  Javert, on the other hand, never perceives that silence.  His world is defined by external values.  He is frequently viewed as Valjean’s evil adversary, but this is quite an erroneous interpretation.   He is a highly principled and well-intentioned officer of the law, but he is dogmatic and rigid in his thinking.  In Machiavellian fashion Javert pursues his fugitive to satisfy the laws of the state.  Machiavelli argued that to run a conquered state efficiently one must be practical rather than moral or ethical.  Javert’s character shows an unwillingness to change or recognize another way of looking at things.  He has total faith in the system or rules he represents, and by extension, total faith in himself.  Javert does not worry about the absurdity of life. 


When Valjean releases Javert at the barricades, Javert is forced to call into question his own judgment, and that of the whole of society.  This presents an example to illustrate the philosophical strata of Max Weber’s Iron Cage analogy, wherein “our [society/culture] own presumed success of progress can ironically and tragically trap us.”  Javert, however, doesn’t have the tolerance or forgiveness to accept his own mistakes and move on.  He sees that he may have been mistaken in his judgment of Valjean, but because his philosophy is based on application of rules rather than true justice, he sees no further way forward for himself; for him, it is a choice between believing in what is right, or believing in nothing.


Valjean discovers the importance and value of love through his meeting with the Bishop and his relationship with Cosette (through it could be argued it was through love that he was imprisoned in the first place).  Love, and by extension, respect and tolerance, have become Valjean’s watchwords, the principles which govern his life.  Javert, by contrast, has little room in his life for love or tolerance; he lives by society’s rule and principles.  Indeed, to show tolerance and understanding might even be considered a weakness when applying the law.


Because of his lack of faith in humanity, Javert cannot subscribe to any ‘live and let live’ philosophy.  John Stuart Mills states that the only justification in interfering with the liberty of action of any individual is self-protection.  Clearly Javert can find many more reasons than this.  He may well represent the ancient regime and its divisive and authoritarian approach to government, based on the principles of the superiority of the ruling class who believed they had Devine authority to govern.  Valjean, on the other hand, represents the Enlightenment movement which invited people to question the very existence of God, morality, and, therefore, the authority of those in power.  It offered an alternative to traditional philosophical thought in the form of reason, and promoted compassion.


Fantine is known to both Valjean and Javert; Valjean feels responsible for her situation and is determined to help her as he feels he has contributed to her fall from grace (by allowing her to be fired from the factory he owns), while Javert has also played a part in her degradation, by arresting her on flimsy grounds and insisting on imprisoning her for six months.  Once again the fundamental differences in the attitude between these two men bring them into conflict, yet both are doing what they consider to be the right and just thing.  Valjean recognized his responsibility toward her and wants to act to alleviate her suffering, while Javert is interested in protecting society from what he sees as an irredeemable criminal.


According to English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “justice requires equality, but is subordinate to utility.”  Javert cannot operate on a basis of equality.  He depends on his position and his rigid principles.  The laws provide him with utilitarian guidelines.  Javert sees no alternative to his principles which he has just seen overturned by Valjean’s ethically-entrenched behaviors.  He has, in effect, lost faith in his own ideals and cannot accept an alternative based on nothing more than respect for fellow human beings.


Toward the climax of the film, Javert finally captures Valjean, but instead of imprisoning him, he frees his captive and commits suicide.  Camus suggests that what gives life its value is the “consciousness of the absurd, together with the revolt which consists of defiant heroism which resists injustice.”  Javert could not understand the revolt, but did finally recognize the injustice to Valjean.  Had he been able to appreciate the absurdity of his finally futile pursuit, and hence his futile life, he might.  Like Sisyphus, have found a way to go on.[2]  Bound by his own rigidity, however, he has no way out.  Valjean, by contract, “by rebelling against the absurd conditions that waste life, whether social, political or personal, shows solidarity with other persons and encourages the struggle for a more humane world.”[3]  Based on how the film concludes, one may only assume and hope that Valjean continues the struggle.








[1] ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Lauren graduated from Phoenix High School (Phoenix, Oregon USA) in June 2004.  She attended Portland State University (Portland, Oregon USA) and earned a Masters degree in psychology.


[2] Sisyphus is from ancient Greek mythology.  In 1942, Albert Camus wrote about him to illustrate his theory of the absurd.

[3] Camus