Is Javert the real villain in this story?
What makes Jean Valjean decide in a moment that he can provide for and raise a child he doesn’t even know?
Let’s talk about the first question. You learn in literature classes and basic story writing workshops that the best villains are the ones that can provoke both sympathy and disgust. In the song, “Confrontation” Javert reveals that he was born inside a jail. He also is convinced that once guilty you are forever guilty. It causes you to wonder, did Javert always hate the gutter? Was he always, what he considers, a righteous person? Where did he learn his sense of right and wrong? And, is his crusade to rid the streets of the people he considers vermin--and simultaneously hunt down Valjean--in some way a penance or simply a passion?
We’ll talk more about Javert later, for now lets focus on some different villains. The Thénardiers enter the story. In the musical, this couple provides the comic relief. I would like to put forward that the only reason we can laugh at them is because they are so villainous we don’t even think about feeling sympathy for them. They don’t think twice about swindling a single mother and mistreating her young daughter. Profit is their aim and nothing else matters. When we meet them, they are running a hotel out in the middle of nowhere and proceed to charge exorbitant prices while also robbing their guests.
Enter Jean Valjean. He’s found Cosette and knows she’s being ill cared for by her guardians. He could take her quite easily. He’s already escaped from Javert and lifted a heavy cart off a man, proving he can’t be stopped. But he insists on paying, hoping to keep the swindling Thénardiers from putting up a fight.
They finally settle on a price. It’s a ridiculously high price considering they have already robbed Fantine and they barely take care of Cosette. Later on, they blame Valjean for their misfortunes and decide he didn’t pay enough. For the moment, however, they are satisfied.
Suddenly, Valjean finds he is a father. Cosette grows up and begins to call him papa.
Now let’s talk about the second question. What makes Jean Valjean decide in a moment that he can provide for and raise a child he doesn’t even know?
At the very beginning, we find out the reason Valjean is in prison was due to the fact that he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. In the book, Valjean’s sister was a widow with seven children. She and her children vanished before Valjean was released from prison. Was there some part of him that resented this family for his imprisonment? After his change from vile ex-convict to upstanding mayor/factory owner, did he try to find his family? Maybe, because of his nieces and nephews, Valjean has a natural soft spot in his heart for children. Or, perhaps at first it was only the promise he made to Fantine that drove him to care for Cosette.
Either way, Valjean grows to love Cosette in such a sacrificial and unconditional way that he would deny her nothing, not even at the risk of his own life.
It’s the strangest kind of love and very hard to understand. Cosette is not his biological daughter or even his relative. He doesn’t have any innate obligation to take care of her. His vow to Fantine could have been fulfilled by hiring someone to care for the child. Cosette has nothing to offer Jean Valjean. She’s actually quite a burden for a fugitive on the run.
The love Valjean has for Cosette is the rarest form of love. It’s a love that gives and sacrifices and expects nothing in return.
It’s a love that the Valjean of the beginning of the story knew absolutely nothing about. It’s a love that he was incapable of conjuring on his own.