The Evil of the Good

I have a friend in real life who is an engineer, is extremely Catholic, and is proud (to the point of occasional smugness) of being “a rule-follower”. For example, if the light on the crosswalk is red, he waits, even if there is no traffic in sight and he could safely cross even if he were crawling.

We recently got to talking about the current film of the musical of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which is a bit interesting because neither of us have seen it, and I myself am not particularly conversant with the musical. We have both, however, read the book. Unabridged. (He at least once, myself four times straight through, not counting partial re-reads.)

The reason we were discussing it was that a friend of his had seen it, and was disappointed by Russel Crowe’s performance, and we got to talking about Javert because of that. This lady’s favorite character is Javert, because of his ruthless integrity — my characterization — and she thought Crowe gave far too many sad-puppy-eyed looks in the film.

This got us onto the nature of Javert and what drives him as a character. My friend, being both an engineer and Catholic, and thus prone to putting quite disturbing amounts of study into building chains of rationalization (or reasoning, take your pick) to support his strong preference for Catholic doctrine and dogma, held that Javert’s flaw was that he upheld Justice over more important things.

Which is wrong, but I know better than to disagree with a master rationalist who’s quicker on his mental and linguistic feet than I am. Also, I’m a lousy persuader in general.

He didn’t go into it further, as we tangented onto a different topic from there, but knowing his general positions on things, I feel safe in saying that he felt Javert put Justice over Mercy, where Justice is an artificial (that is, man-made) concept, but Mercy is divine. And, again, I find this to be wrong, and a product of trying to fit everything into his particular Catholic worldview.

In the novel, Hugo describes Javert’s character thus:

Javert, though frightful, had nothing ignoble about him.

Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice,—error. The honest, pitiless joy of a fanatic in the full flood of his atrocity preserves a certain lugubriously venerable radiance. Without himself suspecting the fact, Javert in his formidable happiness was to be pitied, as is every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as this face, wherein was displayed all that may be designated as the evil of the good.

(Emphasis mine. Quote from the Hapgood translation, but quite the same as my memory of the description in the Wilbour, which I do not have at hand just now.)

Javert is a stickler for rules and laws. They are the only things that matter to him. At all. He is the quintessential rule-follower, and more: his entire purpose in life is to punish every single violation of The Rules that he comes across, without regard for context, because context does not matter, the only things that matter are The Rules. This is why he is so unaffected by the fact that Valjean has served nineteen years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Nothing matters to Javert except that Valjean stole, and then dared try to escape. There is nothing else to him except those violations.

Javert has no sense of Justice. He cannot weigh a small wrong against a greater right — Valjean was stealing (and committed vandalism as well, breaking the window) to save lives. Innocent lives. But that does not matter to Javert. Only the fact that Valjean broke The Rules. And he has no sense of proportion, either. Violating The Rules merits the greatest possible punishment, restricted only by The Rules, but with no regard for context, no sense of proportion. Valjean gets the same treatment as a pickpocket or a highway robber or a murderer. They are all one to Javert.

And the idea that The Rules may be wrong, or evil, would simply never occur to him. If someone suggested it, Javert would not — could not — view it as anything other than a declaration of that person’s inherent evil.