Les Misérables and Jansenism: Can His Sins Be Forgiven? Shall His Crimes Be Reprieved?

One year ago on Christmas a miraculous event took place. On 25 December 2012, the movie adaptation of the English-language version of the musical Les Misérables was released. For someone who is as much a Francophile as I am, this was a momentous occasion, though my love affair with the musical actually comes from when my grandfather took me to see the stage production back when I was in the first grade. Having since become an academic, the one-year anniversary of the release of the movie has given me an opportunity to reflect on the theology portrayed in the musical’s characters.

After re-watching the film, there is so much that I want to say about it (candlesticks!), but in particular the character of Inspector Javert caught my attention. Though I doubt Cameron Mackintosh, who created the English-language version of the musical, knew anything about my present area of research, Jansenism, it is uncanny how Jansenist Javert’s theological anthropology appears. Jansenism was a religious movement in early modern France, thriving especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, scholars characterize it by its heavily Augustinian theology of grace and its rigorism in sacramental practices. Of course, Jansenists themselves denied the existence of any so-called heresy, asserting their orthodoxy through Augustine.

In terms of theological anthropology, alleged Jansenists had a pretty negative view of human ability, emphasizing especially the sinful nature of humanity. For example, the abbess of the convent of Port-Royal, Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), repeatedly emphasizes her tendencies toward sin, especially pride, in her letters to Jeanne de Chantal (1572-1641). For example, her 9 November 1637 letter states:

I am miserable from the continuation of my infidelities and resistance to [God’s] grace. I cannot fully express to you what I am suffering… I believe that my whole life is only lies and hypocrisy. With this I have a fear of God which is servile and horrible and such an apprehension of death and of hell that it seems that I have no love [for God], nor true confidence in him. All my prayers and actions appear… to be only products of human spirit…, not of grace.

Jansenists emphasized the inability of humans to contribute anything to their salvation. In her letters Angélique frequently requests prayers for herself so that God might overcome her will and end her resistance to his grace. In the same letter she says, “I beg you, my very dear mother, pray to God that he might have pity on me and destroy in me all opposition… to his grace… It seems I have a great need to be humbled and overcome… [But] God will make what he needs out of me, and will do so despite me.”

So, returning to Javert, some of these same themes appear in his songs. For example, his part in the confrontation with Jean Valjean begins, “Men like me can never change. Men like you can never change,” which, like the Jansenists, emphasizes the inability of human beings to overcome their own innate (sinful) tendencies. (Though I will note that this seems to be contradicted later by “Every man must choose his way.”) In the same song, he also notes that “Every man is born in sin,” highlighting a negative view of the human condition.

His negative theological anthropology appears most in his song “Stars,” which begins, “There, out in the darkness, a fugitive running, fallen from God, fallen from grace.” His view is that once fallen, human beings are unable to find redemption. We do not even get the sense that those who have fallen can be redeemed by God, as Angélique believed. He continues, “And those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward. And if they fall as Lucifer fell, the flames, the sword!” and, “So it must be and so it is written on the doorway to paradise that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.” Here, it is not only those who have fallen that will be unable to reach paradise, but even those who merely falter in their ways. There is not much room for hope in Javert’s theological anthropology.


Javert represents the adversary in Les Misérables. Isabel Roche explains in her study of the different character types that appear in Victor Hugo’s novels what makes a character the adversary, saying, “These characters, most of whom fulfill the narrative role of the hero’s adversary and in whom the archetypal qualities of good and evil are both clearly outlined and at odds, are most often faced with a dilemma, or undergo a crisis or moment of possible conversion (spiritual, ideological, moral) that causes their internal antithetical extremes to either explode or implode, resulting often in their deaths” (Roche, Character and Meaning in the Novels of Victor Hugo, 83). Javert’s crisis occurs when Valjean saves his life at the barricade. He is unable to reconcile with his belief system the idea that the “fallen” Valjean that he knew in prison could have redeemed himself and this leads ultimately to Javert’s suicide. He does not believe that humans can change their sinful ways and the selfless act of Valjean in saving his life destroys his worldview. In the musical, this is expressed in song:

And my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved? And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years? My heart is stone and still it trembles. The world I have known is lost in shadow. Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know that granting me my life today, this man has killed me even so?

I suggest watching the video for Javert’s suicide after watching the above video from stars. The movie does an excellent job at paralleling the imagery of the two scenes.

Now, again, I doubt that Mackintosh had Jansenist theology in mind while adapting the character of Javert for the English-language audience, but could Victor Hugo (1802-1885) have had Jansenism in mind when creating the character? Here’s where an interesting coincidence of history comes in. Hugo was friends with Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869). Sainte-Beuve is the author of the iconic (among scholars of Jansenism at least) Port-Royal, a romantic literary history of the convent of Port-Royal, where Angélique was abbess. So, is Javert meant to represent a Jansenist theological anthropology? I’d say it’s possible.

11 thoughts on “Les Misérables and Jansenism: Can His Sins Be Forgiven? Shall His Crimes Be Reprieved?

  1. I have always been struck by the utter lack of graciousness towards himself or others exhibited by Javert. I think I attributed it more broadly to traditions where human depravity and grace-only-through-rules are emphasized. Your focus on Jansenism is interesting. Nice connection.

  2. If Javert was a Jansenist, wouldn’t he believe that Jean Valjean could be saved by miraculous and radical Augustinian grace? Certainly Jean Valjean couldn’t do it himself. His salvation would be… well… God’s grace breaking in. I am horrified by Jansen’s recovery of Augustinian double predestination, but I don’t think of Jansenism being legalistic per se. This is a fascinating and truly thought-provoking post.

  3. I tried to give your question some thought and I hope my answer doesn’t suffer the death of a thousand qualifications.

    What about a “rigid moral code” instead of the vague term “legalistic?” Javert certainly believes in “God.” But if you think of terms of his rigid moral code and utter inability to believe in forgiveness, he sounds like a Kantian. In the song “Stars,” he even invokes the moral law within and the starry skies above! Does forgiveness have a place in such a scheme?

    On the other hand, Jansenism at first blush has a nasty reputation of its own “rigid religious code.” But I don’t think of it the same way, precisely because of the presence of God’s grace.

    • Sometimes I think that any discussion of Jansenism requires a thousand qualifications — especially since people like Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole actually didn’t agree completely on the topic of grace. I only asked for clarification because the rigorism of Jansenism in relation to sacramental life could very well be qualified as “legalistic.” Having a rigid moral code such as that expressed by Javert seems very Jansenist in that sense.

  4. You might like this article I came across just recently: Mary Anne O’neil “Pascalian reflections in Les Miserables” Philological Quarterly v78.iss3. (Summer 1999).

    O’Neil acknowledges a number of people have noticed similarities between Pascal’s Pensées and Les Misérables. She wants to go further and argue there are dependencies in the thinking to the extent that Hugo is very much making a case for faith along the lines of Pascal’s own apologetic.

    “The author’s frequent allusions to such key Pascalian concepts as “les deux infinis” and “Dieu sensible au coeur” suggest that the Pensees serves as a more prominent intertext in Les Miserables than critics have previously recognized. Moreover, a close examination of Hugo’s conception of the deity, the relationship between the human and the divine, and redemption reveals that he understands these issues in the same way, and often in the same terms, as his Jansenist predecessor. A comparison between Les Miserables and Pascal’s work allows us to approach the novel’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, as a character who embodies the efficacy of faith and moral commitment advocated in the Pensees and to interpret the story of this hero’s progress from crime to sanctity as a nineteenth-century version of Pascal’s wager.”

    There is a lot in Book 7 of “Cosette,” “A Parenthesis,” where the narrator lays down some notions of when to find convents distasteful and when to find in them the sublime (again with the dual notions of wretchedness and greatness). Book 7 ends with this:

    “As for us, we who do not believe what these women believe, but live like them by faith, never could look without a sort of tender and religious awe, a kind of pity full of envy, at those devoted beings, trembling yet confident—those humble yet august souls, who dare to live on the brink of the great mystery, waiting between the world closed to them and heaven not yet opened; turned toward the daylight not yet seen, with only the happiness of thinking that they know where it is; their aspirations directed toward the abyss and the unknown, their gaze fixed on the motionless obscurity, kneeling, dismayed, stupefied, shuddering, and half carried off sometimes by the deep breath of Eternity.”

    So, I think you’re on to something.

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  6. Great article. I have a theory that Valjean’s trip through the sewer is meant to show us Javer’s pre-suicide thoughts. See what you think.
    The sewer is a long arduous journey through darkness and filth. Valjean’s makes his way as best he can, but in the end, he comes to a crisis. A locked gate prevents his exit. There now are two courses before him. First, he can go back through all the wrong paths he took through the sewer and find one that leads to freedom. Valjean cannot do that, however, and he sits down to die.
    Similarly, Javer has had a long arduous journey through life. In his own spiritual darkness, brought on by his own sad history, he made his way through life. He clung to the idea of a sort of predestination. But for Javer, this didn’t include God, and thus didn’t include grace or regeneration. But, in the end, a crisis comes. Valjean, an evil criminal, works for the rescue of others, becomes a model citizen, and finally forgives and frees Javer as he saves the life of Marius. For Javer, too, the path he has chosen is proved wrong. The life of Valjean is a gate absolutely preventing progress along his chosen course. God’s existence and power to change men has been proven.
    Javer now has the same two choices as Valjean in the sewer. He can repent, and go back through a lifetime of choices, felling them all anew, this time with the guilt of recognized personal wrongs. But that trip back through the filth of his life is too much for his hard heart and death is the only choice for him.
    Meanwhile, for Valjean, a miracle occurs by way of Thenardier’s entry of the sewer precisely where he can rescue Valjean and Marius.
    This, I think, represents grace for Valjean, which brings us back to Jansen –> Pascal –> Hugo. I’m still thinking through what this teaches us about what Hugo actually believed about soteriology and predestination.
    I’m going to go back and re-read Pascal.

    Thanks for the post!

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