My first survey of characters will be from Les Misérables. I have read the book in French and in English (and have run into some truly terrible translations – but that’s a note for another time), have seen the musical umpteen times and watched one movie based on it. No, it wasn’t the one that came out in 2012. I heard Russell Crowe’s singing and decided to pass.
Les Misérables is a sweeping story covering about thirty years, starting in Toulon prison in southern France, and ending in Paris in 1832. It tells the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean as he makes his way through his life, pursued by the relentless Inspector Javert, who first encountered him in the prison.
Let’s look at them all:
|Missing the Villains
Jean Valjean – the book might as well be named for him. I am surprised that it was not. A convict who served nearly twenty years at hard labor at the prison of Toulon, one of the big installations for the French Navy on the Mediterranean, second only to Marseille. Toulon was originally the base for the naval galleys, and they needed rowers. Hence Valjean. By the time the story opens, galleys are more or less passé. His original ‘crime’ was to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. Continuing attempts to escape added to his sentence. He has learned that the justice system is anything but, and having paid his debt to society, he is nevertheless still treated like a criminal. He rebels. The book chronicles his change of heart, his change of fate, and his dealings with those who had persecuted him.
Javert – born in Toulon prison of a Gypsy prostitute and a galley convict, he was raised in the prison. For him, the only way to escape the prison was to join the police. He serves the Law. It is not for him to show pity; his concern is that the law is upheld. He met Valjean when the man was a convict. He has a long memory.
Thenardier, Monsieur and Madame – husband and wife team. They are swindlers, robbers, abusers. At the start of the book they are in a smaller town. By the middle of the book they are in Paris running a ring of hardened criminals involved in all sorts of crime. Their daughters are prostitutes (pimped by their father, apparently) and their brothers were thrown out on the streets.
Fantine –a young woman, seduced by a wealthy student and abandoned when she was pregnant. She entrusted her daughter to the Thenardiers to house and feed and love in exchange for a monthly payment while she worked in a city. They used the child like a slave. Fantine loses her position and everything else when her ‘shameful’ past catches up with her and she descends into poverty, prostitution and, ultimately, illness and death.
Marius – a wealthy student and lawyer, involved with some friends who have revolutionary notions, which he has embraced wholeheartedly. He tries to do what is best. He also falls in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter.
So, where do they fall? Here is my take:
Protagonist: Can you guess? Jean Valjean. The book follows his progress and the obstacles he encounters.
Hero: Jean Valjean again, no surprises. In addition to being the protagonist and main character, he is a very good man, the epitome of a ‘hero’. His wholehearted turnaround to embrace his own reclamation is the watershed moment of the book. Everything after that serves to challenge him and illuminate the way of goodness and heroism for him: This song, where he hesitates between speaking the truth and returning to prison or keeping silent and allowing another to suffer: Who Am IHe is true to form right up to the moment that he frees the formidable obstacle that stands between himself and a happy old age, and that is his …
Antagonist: Javert. He serves the law, and he is as unbending toward his own infractions as he is toward anyone else’s. His focus on the letter of the law makes him determined to bring Valjean to justice. In the play he seems to have a touch of religion and poetry (which gives us the splendid song Stars, which hooked me for life).
Javert is one of literature’s most famous suicides, and the cause of his self-destruction, after his rescue by Valjean, who had every reason to wish him dead, has been argued up and down for years. I have my own theory…
Javert is the antagonist. Is he a villain?
Not at all.
Javert was one of the obstacles that Valjean had to overcome. Javert’s actions are nicely summed up in Valjean’s song when he frees Javert, who had been sentenced to be shot as a spy:
“You are free, and there are no conditions,
No bargains or petitions.
There’s nothing that I blame you for.
You’ve done your duty: nothing more.”
And – going a little apart here, Javert’s suicide was his way of fulfilling the law after seeing that there is something greater than the letter of the law and his duty. The Law required that a lapsed parolee be returned to Justice. Valjean had shown himself to be a good man. The only thing that stood between Valjean and freedom or, if you like, the thing that would return Valjean to the galleys was Javert. So Javert took himself out of the equation and allowed a good man to go free. An antagonist, and an admirable man. Not a villain. (The singer here, distinguished Australian actor Philip Quast, handles this difficult song beautifully. Javert’s Suicide) If you are a fan of fine singing, there are two passages, one starting at 2:34 and one at 3:53 that are simply breathtaking.
Villain: The Thenardiers win this hands down. They stink and squabble, murder and corrupt through the entire book. In Paris they control the crime in part of the city. Torture, murder, kidnapping, robbery, prostitution – they do it all. In the musical they are humorous… Until you listen to one of their songs, here: Dog Eat Dog
Nice person: Fantine.
Jerk: Marius. A good many people who watch the musical want to thwack him with something firm because he seems rather spineless and moons about like a doofus. In the book he achieves ‘Jerk-ness’ (just ask Javert) when he sees Valjean leading Javert off to his supposed execution. He had had dealings with Javert, and had some hazy notion of maybe speaking up for him. The sound of the shot puts an end to that muzzy train of thought. And for the rest of the book he looks oddly at Valjean for having executed the spy, as he thinks.
Let us remember that Marius was participating in an armed insurrection, firing upon government troops, inciting riot and revolution and rebellion and other such things. In this case, he is the pot calling the kettle black.
I have run into a lot of people who have trouble not equating ‘Hero’ with ‘Protagonist’ and ‘Villain’ with ‘Antagonist’. As we have seen here, they are not necessarily the same. By the same token, the male romantic lead can be an utter jerk, like Marius. Or, at least, a spineless ninny who is prone to fuzzy thinking and snap judgments.
My next post will deal with Richard Adams’ book, Watership Down. Heroes, villains, deus ex machinae, prophets – you name it. And it is about rabbits!