Ethical issues of Les Miserables (1998)
A Film Review
Prof. Michael Haliprin
William Paterson University
The law must be obeyed under all circumstance without any exception. Therefore Criminals should not get away with crime they must be brought to justice. This is the underlying issue and moral dilemma of the absolutist character Javert in Victor Hugos classic work.
Jean Valjean, released on parole after 19 years on the chain gang, finds that people reject him due to his criminal record. Only the saintly Bishop of Digne treats him kindly and Valjean, embittered by years of hardship, repays him by stealing some silver. Valjean is caught and brought back by the police, and is astonished when Bishop lies to the police to save him, also giving him two precious candlesticks. Valjean decides to start his life anew. He decides to redeem himself.
Eight years have passed and Valjean, having broken his parole and changed his name has risen to become both a factory owner and Mayor. One of his workers, Fantine, has a secret illegitimate child. When the other woman discover this, they demand her dismissal. The foreman, whose advances she has rejected, throws her out.
Desperate for money to pay for medicines for her daughter, Fantine sells her locket, her hair, and then joins a group of whores in selling herself. Utterly degraded by her new trade she gets into a fight with a prospective customer and is about to be taken to prison by Javert when "The Mayor" arrives and demands she be taken to a hospital instead.
The Mayor then rescues a man pinned down by a runaway cart. Javert is reminded of the abnormal strength of convict 24601 Jean Valjean, a parole breaker whom he has been tracking for years, but who, he says, has just been captured. Valjean, unable to see an innocent man go to prison in his place, confesses to the court that he is prisoner 24601.
Valjean promises the dying Fantine to find and look after her daughter Cosette. Javert arrives to arrest him, but Valjean escapes. He pays the retainers of Cosette to let him take her away and takes her to Paris. They move into a convent aided by one of his former workers that owes Valjean a favor. But Javert is still on his trail...
Nine years later, there is great unrest in the city we find Valjean helping the poor one day of the week. Cosette meets one of the poor revolutionary, Marius, and fall in love.
At a political meeting in a small café, a group of idealistic students prepare for the revolution they are sure will erupt on the death of General Lamarque. When the news of the Generals death, the students, stream out into the streets to whip up popular support. Only Marius is distracted by thoughts of the mysterious Cosette.
Cosette is consumed by thoughts of Marius, with whom she has fallen in love. Valjean realizes that his "daughter" is changing very quickly. Valjean, convinced it was Javert who was lurking outside his house, tells Cosette they must prepare to once more. On the eve of revolution the students and Javert see the situation from their different viewpoints; Cosette and Marius part in despair of ever meeting again; and Valjean looks forward to the security of exile.
The barricade is built and the revolutionaries defy an army warning that they must give up or die. Javert is exposed as a police spy. Valjean arrives at the barricades in search of Marius. He is given the chance to kill Javert, but instead lets him go.
The students settle down for a night on the barricade and, in the quiet of the night, Valjean prays to save Marius from the onslaught, which is to come. The next day, with ammunition running low the rebels are killed, including their leader.
Valjean escapes into the sewers with the unconscious Marius. He emerges into the light only to meet Javert once more. He pleads for time- and promises to return to Javert to be arrested- to deliver the young man to a hospital. Javert decides to let him go and, his unbending principles of justice having been shattered by Valjeans own mercy, he kills himself by throwing himself into the swollen River Seine.
The movie ends with the love affair resolved and the happy couple gets the blessing and money from Valjean. When he finds out what happened to Javert he is truly free now. He can not believe the turn of events in his favor. He runs through the streets with joy.
Javert is following a deontological position in that his duty is to the law. Laws are to be obeyed under any circumstance. Criminals are to be brought to justice. Criminals can never be redeemed. Javert is the perfect lawman he does his duty and is not corrupt in anyway. However he can not resolve the conflict within himself.
Here we have a criminal who must be brought to justice. However this criminal does not act like a criminal. He was an honest Mayor and a very kind factory owner. He was good in all regards. How can he send him to back to jail? The law can not be wrong. He can not break any law. He has never broken any law. He was not about to start now. The fault must then lie with him. He decides to end his life by throwing himself in the Seine.
I was not happy with the ending but could not see anyway out for Javert due to his strict dogmatic position. Had he believed that the law is not an absolute he would have found a suitable resolution to his dilemma. Valjean, a practical man trying to survive he, is finally reconciled and has redeemed himself. He knows of the unfairness of the law and exists beyond it.
Valjean finally makes a commitment to Javert that he will submit himself to the law for there was no use to keep running. Before he had a reason to stay out of prison, namely to care for Cosette. Now that she is grown up and to be married gives her all his money and he can finally stop running away. The way that the movie ended was that fate worked in his favor. He would have been happy to go to jail and save Javert, but I think Javert would not be able to live with it. It would haunt him all his life. So he ended his life.
I also believe that Javert is a coward for taking the easy way out. He should have faced the consequences of his action. He should either follow what is right in his heart, or follow the law. Valjean, has shown Javert that he is truthful, kind, generous, a man of honor, further he save his life. All this would only serve to create a moral dilemma for Javert, he should have solved it another way.