Valjean and Javert - a comparison




Valjean and Javert - a comparison



A video presentation of these notes is available here


Welcome to my page of notes comparing Valjean and Javert. Most of the points made below are contained in various places in my other pages, but I thought it worthwhile gathering them together.



Valjean and Javert may seem stark opposites, but a closer examination reveals almost parallel lives with considerable similarities in background, and in circumstances and choices open to them at various points.

Differences in character and outlook govern choices they make, and an examination of these choices will hopefully help to clarify their positions and the conflicting approaches to life, love and morality they represent.


Both have spent a considerable length of time in the "bagne" (penal colony) - Valjean as a prisoner, and Javert as a warder. However, more needs to be made of this in Javert's case for he was born in prison as his parents were both "criminals". He has grown up ashamed of his background and wishing to rise above it. He appears not to have thought about what led to their "fall", and instead accepts society's judgement, 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 decides 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.

Valjean ends up in prison as a result of the questionable system of justice in operation at the time. He committed a relatively minor infringement of the law in trying to help his starving family, and paid the same price as one accused of a major crime. This situation, combined with a number of extensions to his original sentence as the result of a number of failed escape attempts, leads Valjean to question the fairness and validity of the system of justice, and leads to his determination to help others who might face the same situation, or indeed any difficulty.

An essential difference, then, from the start as Valjean and Javert display markedly different reactions to vaguely similar backgrounds. Valjean learns the importance of tolerance and understanding through his own experiences, while Javert determines to uphold the values of society without recourse to thought and consideration.

Apart from the "bagne", Valjean and Javert share experiences in Montreuil-sur-Mer and Paris (in a number of areas and on a number of occasions).

In Montreuil, Valjean sets about helping the townsfolk through employment at his factory (where he insists on a reasonable standard of wage), but also in the building of a school and hospital. Javert also tries to help in his own way, through the strict application of the law and in trying to protect members of society from criminal elements. It is as the result of this fundamental difference in stance that there arises conflict between the two.

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 his factory). 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 difference in attitude between them brings them into conflict, yet both are doing what they consider "right" and just. Valjean recognises his responsibility towards her and wants to act to alleviate her suffering, while Javert is interested in protecting society from what he sees as an irredeemable criminal.

This highlights another aspect of Javert's character - his unwillingness to change or recognise another way of looking at things. He has total faith in the system of rules he represents, and by extension, total faith in himself. This is, of course, in direct contrast with Valjean who doubts and questions himself at virtually every turn. His strength of will is derived from the fact that he feels he has seen his own black side - he knows what he is capable of, given the right circumstances, and because he has seen an alternative, he is determined to avoid any repetition of this "black side".

Valjean discovers the importance and value of love through his meeting with the Bishop and his relationship with Cosette (though 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, on the other hand, has little room in his life for love and tolerance - he lives by society's rules and principles. Indeed to show tolerance and understanding might even be considered a weakness when applying the law.

After his meeting with the Bishop, Valjean realises he must face his past. He recognises what he has become and accepts he did wrong, and also that he was done wrong to, but he must move on and cannot carry with him the bitterness of the past - not if he is to survive. He accepts that others will do what they feel they have to do, but he has seen a way forward based on helping others rather than selfishness, and it is this way that he must follow if he is to live with self-respect. Because he has suffered and questioned the validity of the justice system, he has learned the importance of consideration towards others - anyone might suffer the same fate, and he wishes to help ensure others do not have to suffer similar pain.

Javert faces a similar situation when Valjean releases him at the barricades, and he is forced to call into question his own judgement (and that of the whole of society). 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 judgement of Valjean, but because his philosophy is based on application of rules rather than thought and consideration, he sees no way forward for himself - for him it is a choice between believing in what is "right", or believing in nothing. Doubt may lead to clarification, but Javert sees no alternative to his principles which he has just seen overturned. 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.

Javert is frequently viewed as Valjean's evil adversary, but this is a quite erroneous interpretation. He is a highly principled and well-intentioned officer of the law, but he is dogmatic and rigid in his thinking. He may well represent the Ancien Régime and its divisive and authoritarian approach to government, based on the principle of the superiority of the ruling class who believed they had divine 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.

Victor Hugo is generally regarded as a champion of the Romantics, a literary movement which promoted freedom from traditional forms and rules of writing, and laid greater emphasis on psychological depth and understanding of characters. Clearly, with its constant emphasis on such elements, "Les Misérables" is the embodiment of this move towards an age of reason and compassion, and a step away from a time of tradition and dogma.



My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some help. A fuller discussion of "Les Misérables" can be found here. I would, of course, be delighted to here from anyone wishing to discuss these notes further. I can be contacted at:

Stuart Fernie

Victor Hugo would be proud of the work done by this organisation named after and inspired by Valjean and his efforts to show compassion, understanding and tolerance.


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Paralleles et oppositions entre Jean Valjean et Javert dans Les Miserables

An excellent and detailed essay on similarities and differences between Valjean and Javert, written by a Czech student (in French).



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