In Les Misérables, the Pharisaical Inspector Javert, adherent to the letter of the law, is captured by French revolutionaries and awaits execution. By a trick of fate, Valjean, a fugitive Javert’s been pursuing for years, is appointed his executioner. But the altruistic Valjean, transformed 14 years earlier by the grace shown to him by a Catholic bishop, in turn shows Javert mercy and lets him go.
Thus arises a conflict in Javert, mirroring the central conflict of the narrative: What is justice? Javert’s conscience tells him he cannot continue to pursue Valjean after he spared his life. On the other hand, his absolute fealty to the law demands he continue the pursuit.
Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase
I am the law and the law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!
How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life
He gave me freedom
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live, but live in hell
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!
The death in life Javert decries is the death of his former self. “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Peter 2:24). Valjean, the Christ figure, essentially baptizes Javert at the moment of reckoning, as the bishop essentially baptized Valjean, refusing to press charges against him for stealing the church’s silverware.
Remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God
Javert, looking at his dead self from the other side of his baptismal experience, and convinced of his errors and his distortions of justice, ends his life. He admits the fundamental truth of God’s grace, but unlike Valjean he cannot accept it—not for himself, not for anyone.
Still thinking like a Pharisee, Javert judges himself harshly against the new standard and marks his soul as irredeemably condemned. Overwhelmed by his sin, he says among his last words, “There is nowhere I can turn.” That’s not true. He can turn to a life of championing real justice. He can turn to a life of serving others. Valjean can be his model. Jesus can be his model. His suicide is unnecessary and tragic.
Further reading: “Why did Javert kill himself?” by Bruce Kokko.