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.