1935: Pat Griffin and Elmer Brewer 1862: William B. Mumford, flag desecrator

1832: Not Javert, spared by Jean Valjean

June 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this, the second day of the abortive 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, police inspector Javert is faux-executed — and mercifully released — by his longtime quarry Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables.


Javert depicted in an theatrical poster, from the Les Miserables Gallery. The site identifies this as an 1899 poster, which may be mistaken since the actor billed for Javert died in January 1898.

Hugo’s monumental novel is structured by the implacable policeman’s pursuit of Jean Valjean, an absconded ex-con with a heart of gold.

Fate brings them together accidentally at the barricade of the (historical, but now forgotten) student uprising — Javert to spy on the student revolutionaries, who unmask him, and Jean Valjean to keep an eye on his adoptive daughter’s idealistic lover.

Jean Valjean’s timely contribution to the hopelessly outgunned revolutionaries gives him the pull to ask the favor of being the one to execute the spy.* Since Valjean has been hunted relentlessly by the lawman since breaking parole nearly two decades before, the hero has ample motivation to turn executioner.

Instead…

When Jean Valjean was left alone with Javert, he untied the rope which fastened the prisoner across the middle of the body, and the knot of which was under the table. After this he made him a sign to rise.

Javert obeyed with that indefinable smile in which the supremacy of enchained authority is condensed.

Jean Valjean took Javert by the martingale, as one would take a beast of burden by the breast-band, and, dragging the latter after him, emerged from the wine-shop slowly, because Javert, with his impeded limbs, could take only very short steps.

Jean Valjean had the pistol in his hand.

In this manner they crossed the inner trapezium of the barricade. The insurgents, all intent on the attack, which was imminent, had their backs turned to these two.

Marius alone, stationed on one side, at the extreme left of the barricade, saw them pass. This group of victim and executioner was illuminated by the sepulchral light which he bore in his own soul.

Jean Valjean with some difficulty, but without relaxing his hold for a single instant, made Javert, pinioned as he was, scale the little entrenchment in the Mondetour lane.

When they had crossed this barrier, they found themselves alone in the lane. No one saw them.

Jean Valjean thrust the pistol under his arm and fixed on Javert a look which it required no words to interpret: “Javert, it is I.”

Javert replied:

“Take your revenge.”

Jean Valjean drew from his pocket a knife, and opened it.

“A clasp-knife!” exclaimed Javert, “you are right. That suits you better.”

Jean Valjean cut the martingale which Javert had about his neck, then he cut the cords on his wrists, then, stooping down, he cut the cord on his feet; and, straightening himself up, he said to him:

“You are free.”

Javert was not easily astonished. Still, master of himself though he was, he could not repress a start. He remained open-mouthed and motionless.

Jean Valjean continued:

“I do not think that I shall escape from this place. But if, by chance, I do, I live, under the name of Fauchelevent, in the Rue de l’Homme Arme, No. 7.”

Javert snarled like a tiger, which made him half open one corner of his mouth, and he muttered between his teeth:

“Have a care.”

“Go,” said Jean Valjean.

Javert began again:

“Thou saidst Fauchelevent, Rue de l’Homme Arme?”

“Number 7.”

Javert repeated in a low voice: — “Number 7.”

He buttoned up his coat once more, resumed the military stiffness between his shoulders, made a half turn, folded his arms and, supporting his chin on one of his hands, he set out in the direction of the Halles. Jean Valjean followed him with his eyes:

A few minutes later, Javert turned round and shouted to Jean Valjean:

“You annoy me. Kill me, rather.”

Javert himself did not notice that he no longer addressed Jean Valjean as “thou.”

“Be off with you,” said Jean Valjean.

Javert retreated slowly. A moment later he turned the corner of the Rue des Precheurs.

When Javert had disappeared, Jean Valjean fired his pistol in the air.

Then he returned to the barricade and said:

“It is done.”

Or, has played in the modern hit musical adaptation:

In saving his own soul, Jean Valjean (conveniently!) manages to kill his pursuer just the same: the cognitive dissonance for such a hard, emotionless man being on the receiving end of this bit of redemptive mercy leads Javert to break character so far as to allow his man to escape. The inspector then commits suicide.

Les Miserables is available free several places online, including Gutenberg.org and The Literature Network.

* While the recent musical production of Les Miserables soft-pedals what was planned for Javert, Hugo leaves no room for doubt: as the students prepare for the fatal onslaught, their leader Enjolras decrees that “[t]he last man to leave this room will smash the skull of this spy.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Escapes,Espionage,Execution,Fictional,France,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,Shot,Spies,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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