Study Guide

Les Misérables Power

By Victor Hugo

Power

His mental attitude was compounded of two very simple principles, admirable in themselves but which, by carrying them to extremes, he made almost evil – respect for authority and hatred of revolt against it. (1.5.5.14)

To give Javert credit, he's got more than a one-track mind: he has a two-track mind. (Hey, that's more than most of us get.) He unquestioningly respects authority and he always punishes anyone who revolts against it. There's nothing wrong with these qualities, exactly—you might even say that a well-functioning society needs a few people like this. The sad fact (for Javert) is that no one likes the hall monitor.

He then turned to Fantine and said: "You're getting six months." (1.5.13.15)

Javert has no sympathy for himself when it comes to breaking the rules, so you can't exactly expect him to sympathize with a prostitute who's getting above herself by attacking a "decent" member of French society. So putting her away will effectively destroy her life. So what? In his eyes, breaking the law destroyed her life; it's out of his hands.

"An inferior member of the public service has shown the utmost disrespect for a magistrate. I have come, as in duty bound, to inform you of the fact." (1.6.2.11)

Talk about job commitment: Inspector Javert is so committed to serving power that he's willing to quit his job just for suspecting that Jean Valjean (his social superior) was an ex-convict. Hey Javert—we're hiring!

Javert reached the couple. He clapped one heavy hand on the woman's shoulder and the other on her husband's head. (3.8.21.31)

When Javert springs into action to save Valjean from the Thénardiers, it almost seems like a beautiful thing. Then we remember that this is the same guy who will relentlessly pursue a reformed ex-convict stealing a loaf of bread for twenty years, and we lose all those warm fuzzies.

Two questions arise. In the first place, what is power? And secondly, where does it come from? The clever ones do not seem to hear these murmurs and continue their operations. (4.1.2.5)

Ooh, deep thoughts, Victor. So why do some people have power while others don't? The people in power, of course, have a pretty easy answer: "We deserve it!" Just … don't try asking any follow up questions.

[Louis-Philippe] had been born a prince and believed that he was elected king. He had not conferred the mandate on himself or attempted to seize it. (4.1.4.2)

To be fair, the dude who ended up being king in 1830 (that would be Louis-Phillipe) didn't exactly sweep into power and steal it from the French people. He just got a call one day and was asked if he wanted to be king, so he said "Sure," thinking that the French people had elected him. The real power(s) behind the throne were the wealthy bourgeoisie—people who had a lot of power and wealth to lose by letting democratic rule take over.

Power itself is often no more than a fiction. In all revolutions there are those who swim against the tide; they are the old political parties. (4.1.4.6)

You know how stories are a powerful? Well, one of the most powerful, according to Hugo, is the very idea of power itself. When you think about it, what's really keeping governments and oligarchies in charge? The fact that we're all willing to go along with it, and not much else.

There were ominous threats on the horizon. A strange creeping shadow was gradually enveloping men, affairs and ideas, a shadow born of anger and renewed convictions. (4.1.4.28)

Second verse, same as the first. (Well, not quite the same. For one thing, it's a lot shorter.) In the last third of the book, we find out that once again a revolutionary attitude is starting to spread in France. Folks are tired of having an unelected king as their leader, and they're determined to install democracy in France. But as we already know—thanks to the fact that Hugo was writing in 1862—it's not exactly going to topple the foundations of monarchy.

Power feels revived after a revolt, like a man after a massage. (4.10.1.9)

Okay, so the revolution failed. At least it got powerful people feeling a little on edge, right? Not so much. According to Hugo, revolts actually backfire allow power to show the world how much it's in control of society. If a society goes too long without a revolt, people might suspect that the people in power are getting lazy. But in the end, revolts just let powerful reestablish their dominance.

In democratic states, the only ones based on justice, it may happen that a minority usurps power. (4.10.2.1)

For Hugo, the only just form of government is democracy, but even that has flaws. A powerful minority can sometimes grab hold of power in a democracy—but at least it's rare, whereas it's built into the DNA of a tyrannical system with an unelected king.