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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 5, Book 4 : Jean Valjean (Javert off the Track) | Summary



For the first time in his life, Inspector Javert is not sure what to do. He owes his life to Jean Valjean and has paid the debt with a good turn; as a result he has shirked his duty to society. He finds himself betraying society to be true to his own conscience, and he cannot reconcile the two. He has no guilt about letting Marius go, since he assumes he will die anyway, and only Jean Valjean is weighing on his mind. He feels respect and admiration for him, against his will. How could there exist such a being as "a compassionate convict" or a "beneficent malefactor"? He is obliged to admit "there can be an error in the dogma ... the law may be deceived." He cannot help but see "a flaw in the immense blue crystal of the firmament!" Unable to endure the challenge to his worldview, Javert writes some final notes to his superiors and then jumps into the Seine and drowns himself.


Javert's decision to let Jean Valjean go is more than quid pro quo; rather his conscience demands he give a second chance to a man who is clearly good and even willing to risk his life and freedom for the good of others. Here is an outlaw who does only what is righteous; here is a creature who does not fit any paradigm with which Javert is familiar. Once again the reader sees how sometimes the meaning of a person's life is more precious to him than his body or physical existence. Because Javert is such a rigid personality, inexorably wedded to his belief system, he cannot live with the fact that his belief system has been proven to be incorrect. To wit, the law is not always the same as justice; a convict can be a righteous man. His conscience demands he break the law, and he cannot live with that. Therefore, instead of learning to transcend his narrow belief system, he takes the easy way out, which is to kill himself.

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