The Underworld

Javert: Enough Vidocq for Two Lives?


The System

Famous Crime





"The peasants of the Asturias believe that in every litter of wolves there is one dog, which is killed by the mother, lest on growing up it should devour the other little ones. Give a human face to this dog son of a wolf, and you will have Javert."
(Hugo, 148)

"He would have arrested his father if escaping from the
galleys, and denounced his mother for violating her ticket of leave. And he would have done it with that sort of interior satisfaction that springs from virtue.... a fierce honesty, a marble-hearted informer, Brutus united with Vidocq."

(Hugo, 149)

(Illustration from Les Miserables)


Javert is the ever-diligent arch-nemesis of Hugo's Jean Valjean. Time and again in Les Miserables, Javert jeopardizes the new peace and joy that Jean Valjean finds with each new identity he assumes. Beyond portraying a nasty guy who does more harm than good, Javert seems to embody the quintessential notorious crimesolver. Many people believe that it was Vidocq who inspired this limelight detective; there are some clues that point to similar lives:

1. Early associations with a life of crime: Before Vidocq was a man of the law, he spent years in and out of prisons, and committed various minor crimes. Javert, according to the text, was "born in a prison," (Hugo,148) son of a fortune-teller and a galley-slave.

2. Notorious reputation among criminals: Vidocq was incredibly successful at infiltrating criminal plots and turning over their perpetrators. In spite of having himself arrested several times and put in prison (to prove he was not a police spy, presumably), his success was widely celebrated and publicized. Was Javert notorious?:

"It will be easily understood that Javert was the terror of all that class which the annual statistics of the Minister of Justice include under the heading: People without a fixed abode. To speak the name of Javert would put all such to flight; the face of Javert petrified them."

(Hugo, 149)

With the popularity of true crime in 18th and early 19th century Europe, writer's had many real figures in crime and law to draw inspiration from. A character like Javert would be both familiar and exciting to a Parisian, and his exploits would be viewed from various perspectives:

•On the one hand, the upper classes would be glued to Javert's dashing entrances and formidible appearance. Yet Hugo shows both his own sympathy for criminal classes and presses the fears of "threatened" upper classes by letting Javert fail repeatedly and even fall briefly at the underclass' mercy.

•On the other hand, the lower classes would both be scared and thrilled by Javert's resemblance to figures of authority in their own lives, and would revel in his many misfortunes and near-misses.