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Les Mis and Philosophy

For my philosophy paper, I have decided to study the philosophy of Les Miserables (Mainly the book, but I might reference the musical and movies).

I am focusing on the differences in the philosophy of Valjean vs. Javert.

What do you think are the essential points to each man's philosophy?

I think you need to define what you mean by "philosophy".

So far, what I am dealing with is the way they view right and wrong. Ethical philosphy.

For example, Javert believes that the law is what is right regardless of consequences. He believes in absolute right and wrong.
Orestes Fasting

mezzo_soprano wrote:
So far, what I am dealing with is the way they view right and wrong. Ethical philosphy.

For example, Javert believes that the law is what is right regardless of consequences. He believes in absolute right and wrong.

I would say he views the world more in terms of authority and rebellion against authority, and the infallibility of the law is just a consequence of that. In fact, I get the impression that authority is what he considers himself supremely answerable to, where other people would consider themselves bound by a personal sense of right and wrong; if asked, of course he would answer that authority is always in the right and rebellion is always in the wrong, but his ultimate sense of loyalty and duty is to authority, not to right. In the end, being faced with a system of right and wrong that conflicts with the system of authority and rebellion, and being forced to choose between the two, is what prompts his suicide.

That is a very interesting idea. . . I might be able to use that in my elaboration.

I have my intro done, but don't want to post it in case my teacher googles my paper. Would anyone like to critique it via PM?

Not that, but if you need secondary literature for quotes and references, I can only recommend Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Temptation of the Impossible - Victor Hugo and Les Mis�rables". I got it three years ago (time flies...) for an essay on Les Mis book/musical I wrote in year 12, and it's awesome. It really depicts how Hugo uses the characters and what the motivation behind that is, and it's got lots of usable passages for any essay question, I believe.

I always focus on how differently they deal with being wrong and facing their mistakes. While one is very adaptable and humble in the way that he can accept that he is only human and therefore prone to mistakes, allowing him the room and motivation to change, the other is quite unable to do so and comes to the conclusion that there is no way back. Jean Valjean vowed to turn his life around and change the flawed ways he was so obviously attached to BECAUSE he was granted forgiveness from the bishop despite taking full advantage of his kindness. He was then able to do the same for Javert later even though their issues were so deep rooted and personal. Javert was so stubbornly married to his ways- falling and doing wrong is unforgivable-that when he was in turn forgiven himself, and by the same man whom he was so personally merciless to no less, those ideals were shattered and he still could not concieve to even forgive or redeem himself. Javert could not turn his life around and change the flawed ways he was obviously attached to and found only hopelessness BECAUSE he was granted forgiveness.

I've compared the lyrics to "What Have I Done?" and "Javerts Suicide" many times in study of this. Very contradictive and that is the point. I think that it was very appropriate that the songs had exactly the same melody. It is simply the lyrics that contrast. Check it out if you can. There is a lesson to be learned or at least examined with these two very complicated characters.

The Dichotomy of the Virtuous:
�I am reaching, but I fall. . .�

One is a man of medium height and stout build, who is known for his phenomenal strength. The other is a tall, wolf-like man, known for his air of authority. Jean Valjean is an ex-convict who ultimately became the major of a small city after being imprisoned nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert is the police inspector who relentlessly persued Valjean across France for breaking parole. Valjean believes in redemption and second chances, while Javert believes in absolute right and wrong. The conflicting philosophies of these two men are a major part of Les Mis�rables, by Victor Hugo. They are both men who are driven by their morals, even when those morals are in question.
Jean Valjean, for the most part, follows the ideas of Mill. First, Valjean believes in relative morality. His idea of what is right and wrong, while founded in his belief in God, is based on consequences and reason. His world view allows for shades of grey. Valjean is also a strong believer in redemption. A man can change himself for the better, if he chooses. Also in line with the ideas of Mill, Valjean does not believe in authentic altruism. People can perform good deeds for many reasons: to please God, as a duty, or to make up for past mistakes, but there is a reason for the deeds that will be performed.
Inspector Javert, on the other hand, follows the ideas of Immanuel Kant. First, he believes in absolute right and wrong. To inspector Javert, something either follows the law and is therefore right, or breaks the law and is therefore wrong. His idea is that right and wrong have nothing to do with consequences. Javert�s world is black and white. Inspector Javert also does not believe in redemption. He believes that men can rise above the circumstances of their birth, but once a law breaker always a law breaker. People do not change. To continue Kant�s ideas, Inspector Javert believes in authentic altruism. People do good things just because they are good people. They do not answer to anyone or anything, they are simply good.
One of the scenes that most illustrates the difference in Valjean and Javert�s philosophies is Fantine�s arrest. The prostitute Fantine, desperate and sick, has snow thrown down her back by a rich ideal man. She snaps and attacks him. Valjean and Javert have very different perspectives on this scene. Valjean sees a woman who has been driven to prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter. Society condemns her for all she does. Valjean sees someone who needs help and who has been taken advantage of by a so called respectable man. Javert, on the other hand, sees a prostitute, the lowest of the low, attack a respectable citizen. She then has the gall to plead the case of her child that was born out of wedlock in the hopes of receiving mercy from him because of it. He sentences her to six months in prison, despite her screams and sobs of protest, saying her daughter will die if she goes to jail. Valjean, however, overturns this sentence, and tells her he will send for her daughter and provide for them both. He then has her taken to the hospital. Javert protests at this, but Valjean does not back down.
Another way that Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert�s philosophies can be compared is to compare what they do when confronted with the fact that their beliefs may be wrong. Toward the beginning of the story, Valjean�s beliefs are still relative in nature, but his views are based in hatred and vengeance toward the world for what it has done to him. However, after the bishop shows him love and mercy, Valjean has to reexamine everything he has believed in for nineteen years. Because his beliefs are relative, Valjean is able to adjust his beliefs to his new situation and his new belief in God. On the other hand, when Javert�s life is spared at the barricades by Valjean, Javert has to deal with doubt for the first time in his life. For once doing what the law says is right would be morally wrong. He cannot arrest Valjean after he spares his life, yet he cannot reconcile his belief that the law is always right no matter what the consequences. This indecision leads Javert to a bridge high above the river. Unable to cope with the raging doubts he now has, Javert throws himself into the Seine.
Les Mis�rables, by Victor Hugo, is cited as one of the most influential novels in the world. It has spawned countless movies and a mega-hit musical that has run in London for over twenty-five years. Two of the most iconic characters in literature come from this novel: Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Part of these two characters appeal is the conflicting morals they follow. In fact, this is what makes the novel hold particular significance to students of philosophy. In fact Victor Hugo even said, �Philosophy is the microscope of thought.�
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