Les Misérables

by: Victor Hugo

Important Quotations Explained

To owe life to a malefactor . . . to be, in spite of himself, on a level with a fugitive from justice . . . to betray society in order to be true to his own conscience; that all these absurdities . . . should accumulate on himself—this is what prostrated him.

This passage from Book Four of “Jean Valjean” describes Javert’s state of mind before he commits suicide. We see the extent to which Valjean’s mercy and compassion shatter Javert’s way of life. Torn between his inflexible enforcement of the letter of the law and his personal debt to Valjean, Javert becomes profoundly confused. While Javert’s response is not particularly emotional, Valjean’s unconditional love for his fellow human completely disarms the stern Javert and makes it impossible for him to continue his duty with honor. Javert struggles to understand how a straightforward, literal interpretation of the law can be at odds with the spirit of the law. Seeing no alternative, he resolves his inner crisis by committing suicide.

It is important to note that Javert does not kill himself out of guilt or remorse, but because to be true to his conscience would be “to betray society“—an option that is equally unacceptable to Javert. Hugo’s presentation of Javert’s quandary exemplifies his tendency to blend the narrator’s voice with the tone of the characters that he describes. The omniscient observer is always privy to the thoughts and motivations of the novel’s characters, but here the narrator gets inside Javert’s head and mimics his thought process. The close connection between Hugo’s narrative voice and the minds of his characters is accomplished by Hugo’s use of run-on sentences in this passage, which are written as if Javert’s thoughts were unfolding in front of us.