Place in the narrative
This location is where Javert commits suicide. He finally catches Valjean at the exit to the sewers and is planning to arrest him after years of chasing him down. After taking Marius back home to 6 Rue de Filles de Calvaire, Javert however allows Valjean to go home but frees him by leaving before he comes out again. He has obeyed the law since his childhood so the idea that one man could destroy all his life up to this point deeply troubles him. For the first time in his life, he discovers that there is another higher being than the commander of the police and that people who are bad, can become good. The being he discovers is God. Javert can’t face God without feeling guilty of what he has done in the past so he decides to die. He throws himself from the parapet of the Pont Notre-Dame into the swirling rapids of the Seine. The place where he jumps is between Notre Dame on the left and the Palais de Justice on the right which represents his internal struggle between the law and God.
‘He took the shortest cut to the Seine, reached the Quai des Ormes, skirted the quay, passed the Greve, and halted at some distance from the post of the place du Chatelet, at the angle of the Pont Notre-Dame. There, between the Notre-Dame and the Pont au Change on the one hand, and the Quai de la Megisserie and the Quai aux Fleurs on the other, the Seine forms a sort of square lake, traversed by a rapid. This point of the Seine is dreaded by mariners. Nothing is more dangerous than this rapid…at that epoch…irritated by the piles of the mill on the bridge, now demolished. The two bridges, situated thus close together, augment peril; the water hurries in formidable wise through the arches…Men who fall in there never re-appear…’
‘Authority was dead within him. He had no longer any reason for existing.’
‘A ceiling of clouds concealed the stars. Not a single light burned in the houses of the city; no one was passing; all of the streets and quays which could be seen were deserted; Notre-Dame and the towers of the Court-House seemed features of the night. A street lantern reddened the margin of the quay. The outlines of the bridges lay shapeless in the one behind the other. Recent rains had swollen the river.’
‘Javert bent his head and gazed. All was black. Nothing was to be distinguished. A sound of foam was audible; but the river could not be seen. At moments, in that dizzy depth, a gleam of light appeared, and undulated vaguely, water possessing the power of taking light, no one knows whence, and converting it into a snake.’
‘Javert was undergoing horrible suffering….Javert felt divided within his conscience, and he could not conceal the fact from himself….He beheld before him two paths, both equally straight, but he beheld two; and that terrified him; him, who had never in all his life known more than one straight line. And, the poignant anguish lay in this, that the two paths were contrary to each other. One of these straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one?’
‘To owe his life to a malefactor, to accept that debt and to repay it; to be, in spite of himself, on a level with a fugitive from justice, and to repay his service with another service….to sacrifice to personal motives of duty, that general obligation, and to be conscience, in those personal motives, of something that was also general, and perchance, superior, to betray society in order to remain true to his conscience; that all these absurdities should be realized and should accumulate upon him,- this was what overwhelmed him.’
‘Jean Valjean disconcerted him. All the axioms which had served him as points of support all his life long, had crumbled away in the presence of this man. Jean Valjean’s generosity towards him, Javert, crushed him.’
‘He was forced to acknowledge that goodness did exist. This convict had been good. And he himself, unprecedented circumstances, had just been good also. So he was becoming depraved. He found that he was a coward. He conceived a horror of himself.’
‘What would he do now? To deliver up Jean Valjean was bad; to leave Jean Valjean at liberty was bad.’
‘…up to that day he had never dreamed of that other superior, God.’
What I wrote in Paris
This location was reasonably easily to find considering that it was between two bridges which still exist today. The Pont au Change looks towards the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, and towards the Palais du Justice. Then if you walk towards the Pont Notre Dame you can see what Javert saw before he jumped. In Les Mis, they say he fell between the Palais of Justice and Notre Dame as symbols of grace and the law. I found it easy to imagine him there despite the traffic and hustle and bustle. Also there is now a road where the river used to be which could make it difficult to replicate what he did today!
I was very excited to see this location as I knew that the bridges exist today and also because the event that happened here is described in minute physical and emotional detail. We walked from the Place St Michel over Pont St Michel before arriving on the Pont au Change, the bridge Hugo mentions. The Pont au Change is sandwiched between the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, and the Pont Notre-Dame, which is just below Notre-Dame on the Ile de la Cite. The place where Javert killed himself is between the Pont Notre-Dame and Pont au Change. Hugo describes the water forming rapids in the Seine here in Les Miserables, however today Javert would have a problem as there is a road running beside the Seine at river level. So instead of falling in the river he would be run over before he reached the water. From the location Hugo describes, you can see the Palais de Justice on the right and Notre Dame in the distance on the right. These monuments represent Javert’s choice between God and the law. When Hugo was writing, the area wouldn’t have been so built up so you would have been able to see Notre-Dame more clearly. Even though the area is busier with cars and people, I had no difficulty imagining Javert there, on the precipice ready to jump and felt closer to the character regardless of the changes that have taken place since it was written.