Chapter 1 Javert walks down Valjean’s street, his head drooping. He takes the shortest way to the Seine, stopping at the angle of the Notre-Dame bridge. For the past several hours, Javert has been in excruciating inner turmoil. For the first time in his life, his conscience is divided. He shudders at what he has just done—gone against all regulations and social organization in releasing Valjean. Though he ought to have imprisoned him, he felt he could not. He cannot wrap his head around the fact that, now, both he and Valjean have put themselves above the law.
We re-catch up with Javert immediately after he’s left Valjean’s house, giving up the opportunity to finally arrest Valjean. Already, allowing Valjean a few moments of liberty at Marius’s home and at his own home went against everything Javert believed about the sanctity and severity of the law. Now he continues to cling to that system of justice even while knowing that he’s flouted it.
Javert cannot understand Valjean through the values that have guided his life. Javert recalls Madeleine, and begins, against his will, to admire the convict. That the man is a convict but is gentle, merciful rather than full of hatred, willing to save the man who had condemned him—all this proves unexplainable to Javert. Javert is anguished because he’s no longer certain. A whole new world of facts and possibilities, characterized by respect, kindness, lack of condemnation, and a different kind of justice, is opening to him. He has to acknowledge that the convict is good, and that he himself is a coward. He asks what there might be beyond duty, but is too afraid at this line of thinking to go further.
Throughout the book, several systems of justice have coexisted, but none of the characters (with the exception of Valjean in his early conversion through the Bishop of D---) have really questioned or challenged their own adherence to these systems. Now, Javert begins to recognize the multiplicity of ways of thinking about justice. He feels so overwhelmed because by transforming his sense of justice, he would have to modify his entire worldview and way of living.
Javert feels that he now has a new superior other than the police chief—God—but he doesn’t know how to act in front of this new authority, or how to hand in his resignation to God for having committed great infractions against this new law. His soul is being derailed, and he feels that God is creating a state of anarchy. He sees only two ways of escaping his despair. One is to recapture Valjean and send him back to the galleys.
Hugo, whose two major totems of belief are God and social justice, has Javert’s transformation take place in both realms, the earthly and the divine. For Javert, to accept a new system of justice means to submit his own authority to a new authority—a path that Javert continues to find horrifying.
But Javert takes the other path instead. He goes to the Place du Chatelet and sits down inside a police station-house. He writes a series of recommendations for the police force based on his experience: that prisoners should be able to have a chair, that they shouldn’t have to pay two sous to the “barker” who calls them to the parlor, and that gendarmes should never repeat what they hear in the interrogation room, for instance. He leaves the letter on the table, addressed to the administration, and returns to the quay, leaning over the rapids of the Seine.
All of these recommendations sound like they’re coming out of Victor Hugo’s mouth rather than Javert’s. They are suggestions based on a system of mercy rather than condemnation, proposing that a system of true legal justice would give the opportunity to those condemned by society to rehabilitate themselves, or at least to be treated as true human beings.
Javert gazes into the black foamy water. All at once, he takes off his hat, places it on the quay’s edge, stands up over the parapet, and jumps into the water.
In the end, Javert cannot reconcile his new worldview with the identity he’s always held, and so the only answer he finds is annihilating this identity altogether.