Movies have different depictions of how Javert discovers Jean Valjean’s identity. The “Runaway Cart” scene reveals a certain part of Valjean’s past before he even went to prison. Valjean is a big man. He’s a strong man. He’s apparently so strong that he caught the attention of Javert when he was in prison.
Valjean is close to sixty years old when an incident occurs in the town. A cart overturns and a man is caught beneath it. The bystanders epitomize the attitude of the society of the time. They see a man being crushed beneath the weight of an object but conclude there is nothing they can do; he’s just going to die anyway.
Valjean, by his aid to Fantine, has already shed any hope of blending in. The same part of him that was stirred to assist a prostitute who was being denied mercy is also stirred to help the man being crushed beneath the cart. He lifts the cart by himself and the man is rescued.
This action reveals Valjean’s almost super-human strength. He performed a feat that the average man standing around the scene felt unable to perform. It was such a monumental moment, that Javert is suddenly reminded of a similarly strong prisoner who, once freed, broke his parole and disappeared.
Javert is thinking out loud when he repeats this memory to Valjean. Valjean asks him how he can be certain that he is not the convict of whom Javert speaks. Javert replies that the man in question has already been caught and is about to go to court.
It almost seems like a test sent from God. Valjean spent ten years masking his identity, starting a business, and governing a town. By ignoring Fantine the first time, he shows he’d grown very comfortable in his new life, almost to the point of forgetting where he’d come from.
Then, within a short period of time, three incidents occur to remind Valjean of who once was and, to some extent, who he still is. He has three opportunities to either turn a blind eye or enter into another’s pain and show mercy. With Fantine and the man caught beneath the cart, Valjean had little to risk. He might have gotten a little dirt on him and been inconvenienced for a short period of time, but his reputation and his world remained intact.
However, with the man accused of being him, he has much more to risk. In fact, he has more to risk than he ever had the first time he went to prison. He expresses his dilemma in the song “Who Am I?”
I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
How can I abandon them?
How would they live
If I am not free?
It would be the opportunity to be completely free if he let this unknown man take his place. He would no longer have anyone hunting him. He could live in peace with no shadow of his past lingering over him.
But Valjean knows enough of shame to know that he would never be free of his past. If he lets the man perish for him, he would never be able to face himself.
How can I ever face my fellow man?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
It’s this remembrance of God and his mercy that finally makes Valjean’s decision. He goes to the assembly where the false Valjean is being tried. Valjean reveals himself to the court and to Javert, shedding his alibi forever.
First performance: October 8? 1985
Composer: Claud-Michel Schönberg
Adapted from: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Playwrights: Alain Boublil, Claud-Michel Schönberg
Lyricists: Herbert Kretsmer, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel
Quoted: Who Am I?