Summary and Analysis Part 5: Jean Valjean: Book III, Chapters 10-12, Book IV



Night has fallen when the cab reaches its destination. The house is asleep. Javert knocks and has Marius' body, as he imagines it to be, transported upstairs. While M. Gillenormand's servants go for the doctor and prepare bandages, Javert leaves unobtrusively, accompanied by Valjean. In the cab, Valjean risks one more request. He asks for permission to see Cosette. This request, too, is quietly granted.

When they arrive at the Rue de l'Homme Armé, Javert dismisses the cab. The procedure is a little unusual, but Valjean assumes that he is to be taken on foot to the police station. Unusual too is Javert's discretion in allowing his prisoner to see Cosette alone. On the landing, Valjean, weakening at the prospect of a heart-wrenching tête-à-tête, stops for a minute and distractedly looks out of the window. The lamplight reveals a deserted street.

At M. Gillenormand's, a camp bed is set up for Marius at the doctor's orders. A careful examination reveals no fatal wound. Marius is not out of danger, however. His loss of blood has exhausted him, his collarbone is fractured, his head has been injured by sword cuts, and he may have a skull fracture. The doctor, feverishly working to stop the bleeding, looks pessimistic.

In spite of all efforts to keep the news from him, M. Gillenormand is awakened by the commotion and appears, ghost-like in his white nightgown. When he sees his grandson, apparently dead, he is overcome by an immense grief that quickly rises to a paroxysm of despair. In his hysteria, he accuses Marius of having got himself killed in revenge. Then he turns his wrath on the liberals and babbles reminiscences of Marius' golden childhood, followed by murmured laments on Marius' wasted life and his own lonely old age. At this moment, Marius slowly opens his eyes and M. Gillenormand faints.

Javert slowly walks away from Valjean's house. For the first time in his life, he is in the throes of indecision. As he meditates painfully, he reaches the Seine and leans on the parapet, absentmindedly contemplating its swirling waters. To arrest Jean Valjean is personal ingratitude, but to let him go is an inconceivable breach of duty. A more introspective man might be able to solve the dilemma, but Javert, a mental automaton governed by rigid principles, has always avoided thinking. Now, however, a new, unprecedented, unacceptable idea is forcing its way into his consciousness. There is a higher law than the judicial apparatus. A man can be an outlaw and still be virtuous. Valjean must be respected, not only for his latest act of generosity, but for all the good he did as M. Madeleine. Javert is entering a new moral universe; his narrow, uncomplicated world is crumbling. He is "an owl forced to gaze with the eye of an eagle."

But Javert's myopia is incurable. He cannot reject the values of a lifetime and survive. He cannot reconcile himself to his own act. For him, the freeing of Valjean is a clear violation of the law, hence inexcusable. Incapable of executing what he considers his duty, Javert must find some other way of making peace with his intransigent conscience. At last he sees a way. Firmly he enters a nearby police station, takes some writing material, and addresses to the prefect various recommendations for the improvement of the police administration. Then he returns to his previous position at the Seine parapet. The night is pitch black. The streets are deserted. The river is invisible and only betrays itself by the sound of its rushing whirlpools. Javert contemplates for an instant the precipice, takes off his hat, climbs the parapet, and disappears into the gaping obscurity.


Thénardier has given Valjean his physical freedom; Javert completes the task by giving him his legal freedom. Spiritually, Valjean has already freed himself and is now truly M. Leblanc: the "white" man, the man with no name, who belongs only to God. A single force has brought him out of the slough of ignorance and evil: the power of love. Love, first, for the bishop; then love of Cosette; and finally, as he shows on the barricades, love of mankind.

In contrast, Javert has always feared and mistrusted love. It twists things, changes things: it is not "in order." Lost, lonely bloodhound that he is, he feels safe only with what is tangible, organized, immutable; if he loves anything, it is the law that has always kept a warm place in a corner for him and told him exactly what to do next. Now, in a revelation like that on the road to Emmaus, he discovers that the law is not enough, that there is a more powerful force to which even the law must bow and which can make even him, Javert, go against his conscience. He sees the light of love, but it is too shattering for him to endure.

"Justice," of which Javert is a personification, says critic Georges Piroué, "cannot accept into its corpus the foreign body of contradiction;" only the divine justice based on charity can do this, and in fact constantly renews itself by so doing. The reign of justice must be destroyed before the reign of charity can begin, and Javert must die so that Jean Valjean may live. His death, however, is not so much a defeat as a transformation. By loving Javert, Valjean has destroyed him, but he has saved him too; and divine justice will reward Javert's crime against human justice.