Les Miserables 23: Solution to Some Questions of the Municipal Police

So Fantine became a prostitute.

One night she was walking back and forth in front of the officers’ club in a low-cut dress.  It was a January night in 1823, a little less than a year after she made the decision to become a prostitute.  And it had just finished snowing.  Winter is a much more serious deal in northern France than it is here in Georgia.

Well, this gentleman named M. Bamatabois was standing out in front of the officers’ club, and he decided he was going to have a little fun with Fantine.

Now notice that Victor Hugo kicks off this chapter with a short essay on dandies, noting that this is precisely what Tholomyes would have been except for his time in Paris.  This is significant.  Because it was Tholomyes who, through his actions toward Fantine, began her moral degradation.  And it is this dandy Bamatabois, just like Tholomyes except for the fact of his never having been to Paris, who stood at the conclusion of Fantine’s moral degradation and who would start the process of her physical degradation.

He began by hurling insults at her whenever she walked directly past him.  But she ignored this and just kept on walking.  He couldn’t take this, so he snuck up behind her as she was turning and lobbed a snowball at her.  It hit her directly in the center of her back, right between the shoulderblades.

Being surprised at this, Fantine turned on M. Bamatabois and got into a hellaceous catfight with him.  Javert showed up and broke up the fight.  M. Bamatabois snuck away and Javert hauled Fantine off to the police station.  Here is what Victor Hugo has to say about what happened next:

By our laws these women are placed entirely under the discretion of the police, who can do what they want with them, punish them as they see fit, and confiscate at will those two sad things they call their industry and their liberty.  Javert was impassible; his grave face betrayed no emotion.  He was, however, seriously and earnestly preoccupied.  It was one of those moments in which he exercised without restraint, but with all the scruples of a strict conscience, his formidable discretionary power.  At this moment he felt that his policeman’s stool was a bench of justice.  He was conducting a trial.  He was trying and condemning.  He called up all the ideas of which his mind was capable for the great thing he was doing.  The more he examined the conduct of this girl, the more it revolted him.  Clearly he had seen a crime committed.  He had seen, there in the street, society, represented by a property-holding voter, insulted and attacked by a creature who was an outlaw and an outcast.  A prostitute had assaulted a citizen.  He, Javert, had seen that himself.  He wrote in silence.

Javert sentenced Fantine to six months in prison.  Fantine tried desperately to plead with him for mercy, but you ought to know enough about Javert to know that such a plea would not have any effect whatsoever.  And sure enough, it didn’t.

While Fantine was pleading with Javert, someone entered the police station unnoticed.  And when the soldiers moved to take Fantine away, he stepped out of the shadows.  It was Father Madeleine.

This extraordinary scene features three major characters and a lot of built-up tension.  We have Father Madeleine, the merciful mayor; Javert, the rigid and zealous police inspector who is the terror of prostitutes everywhere and who is increasingly suspicious and distrustful of Madeleine; and Fantine, who is afraid of Javert but very hateful toward Madeleine because she has seen him as responsible for all her suffering of the past two years since she was fired from the factory.  So I am pretty much going to stay out of the way and let Victor Hugo speak for himself through the course of this scene.

Upon recognizing Madeleine, Fantine spat in his face.  He took no notice of this, and instead ordered that Fantine be set free.  Notice how Javert reacts:

Javert felt as though he were about to lose his mind.  At that moment he experienced, blow after blow and almost simultaneously, the most violent emotions he had known in his life.  To see a prostitute spit in the face of a mayor was so monstrous that, in his wildest conjecture, even to imagine it would have been sacrilege.  On the other hand, in his innermost thoughts, he made a dim and hideous association between what this woman was and what this mayor might be, and then glimpsed with horror something indescribably simple in this prodigious assault.  But when he saw the mayor, this magistrate, wipe his face quietly and say, “Set this woman free,” he was stupefied; thought and speech alike failed him; the sum of possible astonishment had been surpassed.  He remained speechless.

Fantine was equally shocked by what had just happened.

You will recall that Fantine was sick with a slight cough when she was fired from the factory.  This sickness had grown progressively worse over the last two years, so much so that by the time she reached this point, it was affecting her mental functioning.  So she let go with a lengthy raving about how the mayor was responsible for all of her sufferings and it was Javert who had set her free.  Notice how Javert responds as she makes to leave:

The sound of the latch roused him.  He raised his head with an expression of sovereign authority, an expression always that much more frightening when power is vested in lower beings–ferocious in the wild beast, vicious in the undeveloped man.

More animal imagery here:  notice the connection between Javert and a wild beast or undeveloped man.  We saw this back when Javert was first introduced; be on the lookout for it as we move through the rest of the story.

“Sergeant,” he exclaimed, “don’t you see that this tramp is escaping?  Who told you to let her go?”

“I did,” said Madeleine.

…It was clear that Javert must have been thrown off balance, or he would not have allowed himself to address the sergeant as he did, after the mayor’s instructions to free Fantine.  Had he forgotten about the mayor’s presence?  Had he finally decided within himself that it was impossible for someone in authority to give such an order, and that quite simply the mayor must have said one thing when he meant another?  Or, in view of the enormities he had witnessed over the last two hours, was he saying to himself that he had to resort to extreme measures, that the lesser had to make itself greater, for the detective to turn into a magistrate, the policeman become a judge, and that in this shocking turnabout, order, law, morality, government, society itself, were personified in him, Javert?

However that may be, when M. Madeleine said, “I did,” Javert turned toward the mayor and–pale, cold, with blue lips, a frantic stare, his whole body rocked by an invisible tremor, and, an unheard-of thing–said to him, with a downcast look, but a firm voice, “Monsieur Mayor, that cannot be done.”

“Why?” said M. Madeleine.

“This wretched woman has insulted a citizen.”

Javert and Madeleine went back and forth, and finally Madeleine prevailed.  Javert left the police station.  But don’t think for a second that Javert will simply take this defeat lying down.  In the ensuing chapters, we will see what Javert does about it.

Meanwhile Fantine was standing there and watching Javert and Madeleine go back and forth; it was in the course of this struggle that her illusions about who was for her and who was against her were cleared up.  Victor Hugo describes her inner state during this time as follows:

She had just seen herself somehow disputed by two opposing powers.  Before her eyes she had seen a struggle between two men who held in their hands her liberty, her life, her soul, her child; one of these men was drawing her to the side of darkness, the other was leading her toward the light.  In this contest, seen through the magnifying distortion of fear, these two men had appeared to her like two giants; one spoke as her demon; the other as her guardian angel.  The angel had vanquished the demon and the thought made her shudder from head to toe:  This angel, this deliverer, was the very man whom she abhorred, this mayor whom she had so long considered the author of all her woes–this Madeleine!–and at the very moment when she had insulted him hideously, he had saved her!  Had she then been deceived?  Would she have to change all her beliefs?  She did not know; she trembled.  She listened with dismay, looked around with alarm, and at each word that M. Madeleine uttered, she felt the fearful darkness of her hatred melt within her and flow away, while an indescribable and ineffable warmth of joy, of love, and of confidence welled up in her heart.

A couple of things about this scene:  Notice that here Jean Valjean (aka Madeleine) is doing the same thing for Fantine that Monseigneur Bienvenu did for him–taking what he received from the bishop and paying it forward, if you will.  Many of the same elements from that scene are present in this one:  the police, the person under arrest, and the high-ranking city official (the bishop in that case, here the mayor) who extends pardon.  The pardon here is just as unthinkable as was the pardon that Monseigneur Bienvenu extended toward Jean Valjean.  And it has the same impact on Fantine as the bishop’s pardon had on Jean Valjean.

But there is one huge difference:  Javert was not present when the bishop extended his pardon to Valjean.  He was present this time.  No one opposed Monseigneur Bienvenu when he granted pardon to Valjean, but when Valjean (aka Madeleine) did the same for Fantine, Javert opposed it vigorously.  This was because Javert believed the law to be an absolute thing which allowed for no possible exceptions.  Even the highest-ranking officials in society were subject to the law, and in this instance Madeleine had failed in his duty to the law and Javert was required to step in and pick up the slack.

This is in stark contrast to the way in which Monseigneur Bienvenu, and ultimately Valjean/Madeleine perceived the law.  Both these men were willing to acknowledge the possibility of mercy because they believed that even the most binding of all moral absolutes are ultimately the creation of a God who is above them all, who is free to make exceptions when appropriate, and who often does for the sake of pursuing relationship with His creation.  Both these men believed that God had had mercy upon them and that they were therefore compelled to show mercy toward others (Matthew 18:21-35).

And finally, note the effect that this scene has upon Javert.  See what it did to him to see such unthinkable mercy bestowed upon someone else, namely Fantine.  And think what it will do to him if such unthinkable mercy is ever bestowed directly upon himself.  Those of you who are already familiar with the story know what happens to Javert.  As for the rest of you, I will not spoil it; you have to read the story and see it for yourselves when you get there.

But for now, note that all along Javert has been described with animal imagery and thus likened to an animal.  One of the defining characteristics of animals is roteness, routine, and rigidity.  They are set in their ways, and they generally do not take well to changes in their environment or routine.  In light of this, you should not expect Javert to learn anything or to change in any way as a result of this experience.

And as for when Javert does receive some unthinkable act of mercy–well, notice that both Valjean and Fantine had to radically change their beliefs as a result of receiving unexpected mercy.  Surely Javert would be required to change as well.  But being what he is, he is incapable of change.  What do you think will happen to him as a result?  I will let you think about this until we get to that part of the story.