Les Miserables 24: How Jean Can Become Champ

Fantine was admitted to the hospital.  Madeleine put her up there, he paid off all her debts, and he agreed to send for Cosette.  This would take some doing, because the Thenardiers were extremely loath to part with her.  Every time he attempted to send for her, the Thenardiers came up with new debts which had to be paid before they could release her and new excuses as to why she could not be allowed to make the journey.  Finally he got Fantine to sign her name to a note authorizing him to collect Cosette from the Thenardiers, and he made preparations to go to Montfermeil himself.

Now that we have left Fantine in a safe and happy place relative to where she was before, let us say a little bit about her before we move on.

First of all, Fantine was a character who represented the people at large.  Victor Hugo makes this clear when he first introduces her back in the second chapter of the section entitled “The Year 1817”:  “Fantine was one of those beings who are brought forth from the heart of the people, so to speak.  Sprung from the most unfathomable depths of social darkness, she bore on her brow the mark of the anonymous.”

Second, note that nothing which happened to Fantine was the result of her own bad choices, except to the extent that those choices were made in ignorance.  Thus her downfall was the result of society–the people–acting against her.  But since Fantine came from the heart of the people and could therefore be said to be representative of the people, you can therefore say that everything which the people did to Fantine, they did to themselves.  Specifically the people of MSM.

And because the people of MSM were willing to do all that they did to Fantine, and by extension to themselves, they were not in any way deserving of the good which Father Madeleine did for them during the course of his time as mayor.

Hold on to this thought, because it will lie at the heart of much of the subsequent action.

Last time I told you that Javert would not take his defeat at the hands of Father Madeleine and resulting humiliation before the officers of the guard lying down, and that this time we would see what he did about it.  Well, here is what he did about it:  He wrote a letter to the prefect of police in Paris.  Those at the post office who saw it go through and recognized his handwriting and the address thought it was his resignation.  But it was not.

One morning, about six weeks after the dustup at the police station, Father Madeleine was in his office attending to some pressing business, trying to get everything in order so that he could take off to Montfermeil and fetch Cosette.  Javert came into his office and asked to be dismissed from his position.  Why on earth?  asked Madeleine.  Because, said Javert, he had denounced Madeleine to the prefect of police right after the dustup at the police station (that is what his letter was all about).  As a former convict–Jean Valjean.  But he was unaware that the real Jean Valjean had already been found; a peasant named Champmathieu had been arrested for stealing a branch of apples and was in prison at Arras awaiting trial.  He had been identified by three of the prisoners on Valjean’s former work gang as Jean Valjean.  Javert had been down to see him and had identified him as Jean Valjean as well.  He was scheduled to testify the next day at Champmathieu’s trial.

Javert even told the story of how this person’s name had most likely gone from Jean Valjean to Champmathieu.  Jean Valjean’s middle name was Mathieu; this came from his mother’s side of the family.  So it seemed only natural that upon leaving prison Jean Valjean would change his name to Jean Mathieu, in the way of a disguise.  And as he moved into different parts of the country where the local accent and pronunciation were different, “Jean Mathieu” would become “Chap Mathieu”, and finally “Champmathieu”.

Javert asked to be dismissed from his position for denouncing Madeleine.  Read this excerpt from Javert’s speech to Madeleine; it will give you insight into Javert’s character and inner motives.

“…In my life I have often been severe toward others.  It was just, I was right.  Now if I were not severe toward myself, all I have justly done would become injustice.  Should I spare myself more than others?  No.  You see!  If I had been eager only to punish others and not myself, that would have been despicable!  Those who say ‘That scoundrel Javert’ would be right.  Monsieur Mayor, I do not wish you to treat me with kindness.  Your kindness, when it was for others, enraged me quite enough; I do not wish it for myself.  The kindness that consists of defending a woman of the streets against a citizen, a police agent against the mayor, the inferior against the superior, that is what I call ill-begotten kindness.  Such kindness disorganizes society.  Good God, it is easy to be kind, the difficulty is to be just.  If you had been what I thought, I would not have been kind to you; not I.  You would have seen, Monsieur Mayor.  I ought to treat myself as I would treat anybody else.  When I arrested malefactors, when I dealt severely with offenders, I often said to myself, ‘If you ever trip up, if ever I catch you doing wrong, watch out!’  I have tripped, I have caught myself doing wrong.  So much the worse!  I must be sent away, broken, dismissed–that is just.  I have hands, I can till the ground.  It doesn’t matter to me.  Monsieur Mayor, the good of the service demands an example.  I simply ask the dismissal of Inspector Javert.”

Of course, Madeleine will not hear of it.

What we see here is that Javert is excruciatingly committed to his idea of cold hard justice–so committed to it that he is willing to apply it to himself, to his own detriment.  Call him consistent–at least you can say that much about him.

We also see that Javert is excruciatingly committed to his own conception of how society ought to work; he has made an idol out of his conception of society and does not want to let anything stand which might disrupt it.  Javert says that the sort of kindness which Madeleine showed to Fantine disorganizes society; he is right about this.  He believes that justice consists of preserving the status quo in society, where everyone has a place determined by their social class standing, which in turn is determined by their birth.  Now if certain people are inherently superior or inferior to others, then this arrangement is just and so is all of what Javert has done to serve it and preserve it.  But if all people have inherent worth and this worth is derived from the fact that all people are created by God, then this arrangement is unjust and needs to be disrupted and subverted.

We also see that Javert is adamantly opposed to the idea of kindness and mercy, whether it is for himself or someone else.  We saw how he responded when Madeleine showed kindness to Fantine; how do you think he will respond when Madeleine shows kindness directly to him?  We get an idea here in this scene.  Now imagine what it would be like for him in a situation where the stakes are higher and the act of kindness is much more than this.  Those of you who are familiar with the story know what I am talking about; the rest of you will have to wait until we get there.

Well, I’ve already spilled the beans that Father Madeleine is in fact Jean Valjean.  And when Javert drops it on him that someone else has been found who is the real Jean Valjean, this sets off a crazy tempest in his world.  We will look at this and see what happens next time.