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BOOK FOURTH: Javert off the Track
After leaving Valjean, Javert heads for a dangerous point of rapid water along the Seine River. For the first time in his career, he is without answers, unsure of what he should do. He is amazed at having been set free by Valjean and frightened that he himself let Valjean go in return. He feels that he owed a debt to the convict, but that to have paid it puts personal sentiment before the law and sets the convict above the law.
To Javert, the existence of the law and duty to it is how he has defined himself. Now he is forced to reconcile the contradictions of convict and benefactor, to remember the shadowy presence of Mayor Madeleine, to acknowledge the stories of kindnesses on the part of Valjean which he, Javert, had managed to ignore and deny for years. He feels obligated to go back and retake Valjean, but cannot bring himself to do so. He has always been able to see things with one-sided vision; the answer of the law was sufficient for every expediency, but it is no longer so. Javert, in acting as his own judge and jury, finds himself guilty of one of two crimes no matter what choice he makes-the crime of arresting a good man versus the crime of letting a criminal escape.
Once a single weakness in the law is revealed, several others- which actually amount to abuse in police practice-come to his mind. Javert goes to a nearby precinct, writes a careful letter in which he lists a series of police faults, then returns to the river and throws himself in.
Javert is a one-dimensional character with an unusual twist. He has just enough depth to know that he is faced with two choices but not enough to enable him to make either choice. Valjean confounds and infuriates him. All of his regulations and axioms fall apart before this man. “Other acts which he remembered...returned to him now as realities. M. Madeleine reappeared behind Jean Valjean and the two figures overlaid each other so as to make but one, which was venerable. Javert felt that something horrible was penetrating his soul, admiration for a convict.” The very idea that he is forced to respect a galley slave is intolerable to Javert, but is nonetheless a truth he cannot escape. His inability to make a decision regarding Valjean becomes the loss of all certainty.
The following quote encapsulates his predicament: “An entire new world appeared to his soul; favour accepted and returned, devotion, compassion, indulgence, no more final condemnation, no more damnation, the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, a mysterious justice according to God going counter to justice according to men. He perceived in the darkness the fearful rising of an unknown moral sun; he was horrified and blinded by it. An owl compelled to an eagle’s gaze.”
Javert has failed himself. His one goal in life was to attend to duty and to be judged irreproachable. In committing an act of kindness he has failed himself in his ultimate goal. However, being forced to admit that the law does not have an answer in every case also gives him the latitude to question other police practices that he had always known were either wrong or unnecessary, but that he had never before allowed himself to question. The law, after all, was the law and unimpeachable.
Javert’s predicament is important because he is a type representative of the harsh administration of the laws of the time. There were no grey areas or justifiable excuses. A violation of the law, no matter how slight, was a crime and therefore punishable. Part of human progress is the mellowing of such law.