Time to talk about linguistics as it pertains to literature — specifically Les Mis, and even more specifically Valjean and Javert. This is going to get pedantic and also very passionate, so buckle up, y’all, it’s gonna be a fun ride.
Several languages — French, Dutch, German, Russian, just to name a few — use two forms of address when speaking to another person (2nd person). French has a handy flowchart here which explains the difference pretty succinctly.
Basically, if a stranger bumps into you on the street, and you don’t want to get into a fistfight, you call them “vous.” But if you do want to get into a fistfight, you call them “tu.”
The nouns and verbs in French to describe this phenomenon, of addressing people in/formally, are tutoyer/tutoiement and vouvoyer/vouvoiement. The same way that gender is hammered into every single part of speech in French (even the chair has a gender, which, that doesn’t make sense to me but you do you, chair), so is in/formality. It’s not something they really emphasize in written literature because to them it’s just as natural as swimming is to a fish. For native English speakers, though, it’s a struggle to convey that cultural and linguistic difference without a couple paragraphs’ worth of explanation.
English used to have an in/formal dichotomy in the 2nd person address. “You” used to be the way a person addressed their teacher or king or possibly their parents, and “thou” was the way they addressed their friends, their children, and their underlings.
The interesting bit about English in/formality is that nowadays the “thee” form is only actively consistently used in places like Rite One of a Christian Protestant church service. We call God “thee” — we address Him informally.
(Yeah, there’s a theological reason for that, but I am not anywhere near qualified to answer that question.)
But in modern media depicting ye olde days, the “thee” form is used pretty haphazardly, addressing any old person any which way, when back in the 1600s that really wasn’t the case. If a princeling talked to some commoner on the street, the prince used “thee” on the commoner; if the commoner used “thee” back at the prince, he would probably have been beaten for the impertinence. There’s a reason all the best Shakespearean insults start with a “thou” — it’s purposefully conveying, through the dang pronoun even before you get to the good part of the insult, that the speaker is the hearer’s superior in every possible way.
With that in mind …
… Javert calls Valjean “tu” throughout the entire book — when he knows it’s Valjean he’s addressing.
And that’s a whole sticky issue in and of itself. Javert values authority more than anything else; the forms of address are just another way for him to express that value. He might be the lowest guy on the right side of society’s totem pole, but by God he’s still better than the criminals and scum of the gutter that he clawed his way out of. Valjean, 24601, is an escaped convict: Javert calls him “tu” to indicate that even though they come from similar backgrounds, Javert is still Valjean’s superior.
This gets snarly and gross really quick when it comes to Valjean’s stint masquerading as Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer.
See, even when he isn’t sure that Madeleine is Valjean, Javert doesn’t like him. There’s something about the guy that just pings Javert’s nerves something awful. But Madeleine as the mayor is an agent of authority, a greater authority than Javert can ever hope to possess; he calls him “vous” with a respect that’s ingrained into his very being, no matter how it chafes at him. Other people may grumble about Madeleine all they like, but Javert can’t bring himself to say a word of his misgivings, because he cannot bring himself to rebel against authority even a little.
Then Fantine’s arrest comes around — which is a whole separate post on its own, to be honest — and Valjean intercedes on Fantine’s behalf, but does so in a way that is publicly humiliating to Javert.
So Javert breaks past his code of respecting authority, and gathers all of his (correct) evidence, and denounces Madeleine to the police as 24601. And then the police at Arras write him back saying that they’ve already found Valjean, he must be mistaken.
So we have a scene, called “How Jean May Become Champ,” where Javert comes to Madeleine’s office and asks — demands — that Madeleine fire him, because of his audacity in defying authority, and his certainty that all transgressions against it must be punished even if he himself is the transgressor. Yeah, that’s right, no double standards for this guy, he genuinely believes in this stuff. (Of course, that’s also due to a morass of self-hatred that’s been inculcated by the same society he so thoroughly believes in. So there’s that.)
But Madeleine (whom we the readers know to be Valjean) is so baffled, and so relieved at not being found out for certain, that he takes this first revelation that Javert is a human who has feelings as though it were the most normal thing in the world.
And in fact, this very interaction makes Javert’s discovery that Madeleine is Valjean that much more egregious to him. It isn’t enough that he’s been treating an escaped convict as an agent of authority, oh no — in fact, he has asked an escaped convict to fire him from his post.
Naturally Javert’s gonna be a little mad about that. I mean, I’d be mad, and I don’t even stick to that kind of rigid societal view. Wouldn’t you?
So! Now we have interpersonal feelings tangled along with that whole mess! Eight years later and they’ve both been on a barricade for a few hours, watched a few people die, it’s been a pretty bad night for everybody all around, and when Enjolras decides that it’s time to execute the prisoner, who should volunteer to blow out his brains (it’s literally translated as “blow out his brains”, what fun!) — who should request, as a personal favor from the leader of the rebels, permission to execute him — but Jean Valjean! The escaped convict! Ta da!!
In the musical, Javert expresses supreme outrage. “The law is inside out! The world is upside down!”
In the book, Javert look at Valjean and says, “That’s just.”
Not “correct.” Not “right.” Just.
Give me a second to wail over this guy, won’t you? Come on.
Javert is so incredibly prepared to die, and so incredibly prepared to die at the hands of the man who has turned out to be his own personal nemesis, that when Valjean cuts the rope and sets him free, Javert is utterly gobsmacked. He can’t fathom what has just happened. There is nothing in him that understands the situation. For all fifty-two miserable years of his life, mercy has never been part of his vocabulary — whether shown to him or by him — and now, having had mercy from the last person he would ever expect, he is so completely overwhelmed —
— That he slips, and calls Valjean “vous.”
“Vous m’ennuyez. Tuez-moi plutôt.”
You annoy me. Kill me, rather.
And the kicker? The absolute one-two punch? The very next line that Hugo writes is that Javert doesn’t realize he has addressed Valjean with respect instead of rudeness.
He doesn’t quite realize that in this moment he has acknowledged a moral superiority higher than human law.
That one momentary lapse is indicative of the ultimate collapse that’ll come not 24 hours later in the narrative, the collapse of his belief system that will result in his suicide. And it all comes down to a single, freaking, pronoun.