Meditation on Two Virtues

My wife and I went and saw the new Les Miserables movie last weekend, and for the most part thought it an excellent film and adaptation of the Broadway musical. The director did make the bizarre choice to have the actors sing virtually every line of dialogue between the main musical numbers, however, which didn’t always work well. And despite its near-three-hour length, the narrative of the film felt absurdly rushed. Still, it was an excellent work overall, with some stand-out performances by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried (and others, but those two especially).

Anyhow, I was contemplating the nature of the central conflict, between the rigid Inspector Javert and the righteous Jean Valjean, and at some point I began examining both men through the lens of the Eight Virtues. And it occurred to me that something which has always bothered me about the conflict between them could be expressed in terms of two virtues: Justice, and the presence or absence of Compassion.

At several points during the movie, I all but wanted to scream at both men: “You are on the same side! You desire the same ends!” Because in plain point of fact, both Javert and Valjean are men who strive after what is just. What separates the two men is that only one of them, Valjean, also strives after compassion, and thus seeks outcomes that maximize both.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the differing approaches both men take to the prostitute Fantine after she is attacked (and strikes back at) a local official who is aggressive toward her. Javert, seeing the bloodied cheek of the official, wants to arrest and jain Fantine. His rigid desire to mete out justice — to uphold the law — is fully on display, but so is his inability to empathize. His view is that once one is a criminal/morally flawed person, one is always and ever only thus, unable to ever change. Thus, because Fantine is a prostitute and a local official is…well…a local official, he can only really think of the official as being the more trustworthy and Fantine as being fundamentally untrustworthy. Were it the other way around, she would not be selling her body for money, after all. That she has been forced into the life of a prostitute by being unjustly fired from her job thanks to the machinations of an unscrupulous, lecherous manager and her vindictive co-workers is not a consideration he would consciously entertain.

Not, again, because he is evil for its own sake, but because his desire to execute and uphold the law — and through it, what he regards as justice — is absolute and unwavering, and also untempered by empathy or compassion.

Valjean, of course, reacts somewhat differently, and upon recogizing that he — through his inattention and fear of arrest by Javert — contributed through inaction to Fantine’s circumstance, insists instead that she be taken to a hospital. Indeed, he hoists her in his own arms and carries her forth, ignoring Javert’s protestations. In so doing, he executes a much higher form of justice, one which is more than merely a function of laws and ordinances. It is justice tempered by empathy, by compassion…not merely punitive, but instead focused on the genuine betterment of all involved (for even the lusty city official would not be able to fully elude the significance of Valjean’s example, having witnessed it).

And this same tension defines the interactions between the two men throughout the narrative. Javert sees Valjean as beyond redemption, forever a thief, a violator of parole, and a dangerous offender who cannot be anything else than that. Valjean, meanwhile, sees Javert as a dutiful public servant, perhaps pitiable in his narrow-mindedness, but nevertheless one who desires to maintain order and uphold the duly enacted laws of the land, regardless of the cost to even himself. And Valjean even tries, in small ways, to draw Javert out of this way of thinking…ultimately in vain, of course. At the same time, Valjean is not a squish; he is firm when required (e.g. in his dealings with the morally cretinous innkeepers, the guardians of the child Cosette), courageous (e.g. when joining the revolutionaries in order to save first Cosette’s beloved, and then Javert as well), and even ackonwledges his own debt to Javert as one who has, indeed, broken the laws of the land. He does not beg Javert to ignore his crimes; he asks only for a little more time to carry out the tasks that he must to ensure that grave injustice is not inflicted upon others.


And it occurs to me that this is very much the tension that Richard Garriott set up in the Eight Virtues, which plays out in some of the Ultima games. Justice untempered by Compassion is harsh and cold. Justice and Compassion working in concert, however, are uplifting. The great tragedy of Inspector Javert is that he cannot reconcile these matters in his heart, which failing ultimately destroys him. The great triumph of Valjean, meanwhile, is seen in the last moments of the film, in which the prostitute Fantine leads him to his eternal reward, and the kindly Bishop whose example first inspired Valjean greets him at the gates of Heaven.

6 Responses

  1. Micro Magic says:

    Interesting, I haven’t seen the movie or know much about it, but isnt jail a punishment for breaking the moral code of the land? To punish the person not for the mere enjoyment of punishing but in order to reform the individual. In defense of Javert, how is he supposed to know if the prostitute is lying or not?

    • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

      I try not to fault him overmuch for it. His error is, as I try to note above, ultimately a lack of empathy, of compassion…and, in a certain sense, of his absolutist view of the law. To him, a prostitute is always and only prostitute, a thief always and only a thief…any disreputable person is and only ever shall be disreputable. Javert makes no accommodation for the possibility that things may not be quite what they seem, or that a person can choose to change.

      Consequently, he only looks at issues on the surface. The prostitute is cringing, but the city official is bleeding. Javert assumes she attacked him, and the official claims as much (because he wouldn’t dare admit to soliciting or assaulting a prostitute to Javert). That he has been abusive to Fantine is not something Javert would consider, by virtue of his worldview.

      • Micro Magic says:

        I see what you mean, again, I’m not familiar with the work. But maybe her cringing is an act. I mean, lets take bums on the street. I may feel bad they are bums. Some may be circumstantially homeless. But if I offered them work, would they take it?

        Perhaps I’m uncompassionate or too skeptical. I used to do weekly hiring in a small sales organization. Some people would be so brazen, they would literally tell me they were only there so they could tell unemployment they were looking for a job; if they call can you tell them I was looking? Or, ask me if I would sign off on their child support papers saying they’re looking for a job without wanting to fill out an application.

        How can one tell who’s really in need or just faking it?

      • WtF Dragon WtF Dragon says:

        Well, the context of the scene makes it very abundantly clear that the official did indeed physically attack Fantine.

        Though I don’t fault you for your skepticism; I share it in some respects.

  2. Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

    Two good men inadvertently working against each other amidst a backdrop of trying, changing times. I listened to the original cast recording multiple times and watched it live once but haven’t seen the movie. Characters aside, it has some good songs and is well scored. Miss Saigon has a couple of good numbers, but Mis is better.