Victor Hugo


July, 1847

“I’m saying that it doesn’t matter what a man has stolen.  The fact of the matter is that in choosing to steal, he is deciding that his desires are more important than another man’s rights.  And this makes him dangerous.”

“But my dear Inspector, surely that is taking things too far?  A man who steals for hunger and a man who commits murder out of spite are surely far removed from each other.”

“Not at all, sir.  A man who steals for hunger today, while he may seem sympathetic to you, is nonetheless taking another man’s livelihood.  Who is to say that the baker was not saving that bread for his own family?  Or that they will not go hungry due to the actions of the thief?  Or what of the boy whose job it is to mind the shop – if the bread is stolen and he does not prevent it, will the baker not dock his salary accordingly?  What of his hunger and his family, then?  Is the thief’s hunger so much more important than the hunger of a working man?”

Victor Hugo shook his head.  “Of course it is not.  But it is a long leap from petty theft to murder.”

Inspector Javert shrugged.  “In action, perhaps.  In the mind that performs the action, not at all.  But I will tell you a story if you like.  Perhaps we have a man who stole a loaf of bread to feed his family.  We will, on this occasion, ignore the fate of the baker and his boy, and follow our thief, who finds a few days later that his family is still hungry.  But now the baker is on his guard.  Our thief, however, is a strong man, and he is able to wrest the bread from the baker by force, pushing the man to the ground.  Our thief escapes, but only barely.  A few more days pass, and our thief once more needs bread.  He returns to the bakery, but finds it well-guarded, and he knows that if he is recognised and caught, the penalty will be severe.  So this time, he does not steal the bread.  He goes away, and then returns that evening to murder the baker and his boy.  His first crime, if you like, was minor enough, but it has led directly to his last, and the man is now a hardened criminal – and all because he decided, at the start, that his needs were of more weight than the laws that are put in place to protect us all.”

Victor frowned. “But then what is the man to do, who would feed his family but can’t find work?  I agree that theft cannot be condoned – though I am still not sure that the slide from petty theft to violent crime is as simple as you would have me believe – but does our society not commit a greater crime when it allows men to starve, when food is all around them?”

Javert smiled faintly.  “Such matters are outside of my jurisdiction, sir.  You are the lawmaker, not I.  But I will tell you this – I know these men and women who commit crimes.  I grew up among them.  I was born inside a jail, and lived my first years among the most hardened of criminals.  And yet, I have never stolen from a man.  I have never lied, or murdered, or sold stolen goods, or committed any of the crimes I see daily in these streets.  A man can rise from the gutter, if he works hard and respects the rights of others.”

“And you have no sympathy for those who do not.”

“What sympathy would you have me offer them?  They know me as well as I know them, and would show me no kindness if I were ever at their mercy.”

Victor shook his head once again.  “Yet I cannot believe that it is right to imprison a man for twenty years simply because he has stolen a loaf of bread.”

The Inspector’s laugh was grim.  “And nor do I.  I would lock him up and throw away the key.  He has already shown himself to be corrupt – why give him the opportunity to harm society again?  You look shocked, sir, but it is the truth.  I told you I was born in a jail.  My mother was imprisoned for the theft of a handkerchief.  They released her when I was seven, and do you know what she did when she was free?”

“I collect she did not lead a reformed life.”

“Hardly, sir.  Two nights after she left the prison, she went to the home of the woman who had accused her, and burned her house to the ground.  Four people died in that fire, and it was only by the grace of God that no other houses caught.”

“You believe in God, then?”

“A God of justice, sir.”

“But not one of mercy.”

Javert shrugged.  “Mercy to one man is mere injustice to his fellow. I would remove criminals from the streets permanently.  To you, this is cruelty.  To me, it is mercy to those who will never become their victims.”

Victor smiled a little.  “I shall have to tell them so.  Yet I believe men can change, and we should allow them the chance to reform.  Our prisons, I will grant you, are not well-adapted for this purpose, and the death penalty is barbaric – but if we could reclaim such souls, imagine what our society could gain.”

Javert shook his head.  “Men like that can never change.”

“And nor will Inspector Javert.”

“And Paris is the safer for it.”


July, 1848

Victor was too late for the funeral.  As a form of self-imposed penance, he had chosen to walk the five kilometres through the streets of Paris to the cemetery in Montparnasse, picking his way through the broken barricades, and avoiding the eyes of the citizenry as they worked to clear the streets and bury their dead.  Louis-Napoleon had praised him for his forceful suppression of the revolution, but Victor knew that he had blood on his hands, and greater guilt than any of the soldiers who had led the assault on the barricades.  He, personally, had informed the insurgents of the siege levelled against them, and he, personally had then gone to the barricades and spilled the blood of the very people he had joined Parliament to represent.  It was true that he had then lost his own house to fires set by the revolutionaries, but this was no excuse.  Material goods could be regained, or rebuilt.  Lives could not be replaced.

A novelist’s vice, to take his own bitter experiences and turn them to prose, but Victor could not stop the sentences forming themselves in his head as he walked…

Leaving a barricade, one no longer knows what one has seen. One has been ferocious, yet one has no recollection of it. Swept up in a battle of ideas endowed with human faces, one’s head has been in the light of the future. There were corpses lying down and phantoms standing up. The hours were colossal—hours of eternity. One has been living in Death. Shadows have passed. What were they? Hands with blood on them. A short deafening din. An atrocious silence. Open mouths shouting; other mouths, also open, but soundless. . . One seems to have touched the sinister perspiration of unknown depths. There is something red under one’s fingernails. One remembers nothing…

Lost in his thoughts, Victor had walked too slowly through the still-chaotic streets, and arrived just as the gravediggers were patting down the earth over the grave.  At least Javert had been consistent.  His body, fished out of the Seine the previous day, had still been clothed in his false revolutionary attire.  Assigned to spy on the disaffected workers, it was evident that Javert had been discovered and killed to prevent him taking information back to the army.

Still, he had died doing his duty, and fighting for the rule of law that he so strongly believed in.  A martyr to his cause, in fact.  This was more than Victor would have managed, had he perished last week.  Victor cast a slightly envious look at the grave.  Better still, Javert would never have to live with the memory of what he had done, nor would he have to find a way to redeem himself.  He was dead, and done, and there must be some relief in that.

One of the gravediggers was returning, perhaps to collect something he had left behind.  Victor’s gaze drifted past him, but was brought back sharply when the man knelt on the ground beside the grave, and reached one arm down deep into the soft earth.

“What do you think you are doing?”  His voice was sharp.

The man looked up, startled.  His eyes were piercingly blue.  “Are you speaking to me, sir?”

“Who else would I be speaking to?  And why are you desecrating this man’s grave?”

The man smiled vaguely and then sat back on his haunches.  There was a cobblestone in his hand.  “Peace, Monsieur.  I didn’t expect you to see me.”

From six feet away?  A madman, it seemed.  Victor felt his anger rising.  “That is no excuse for disturbing the dead when they are hardly buried.”

The man stood slowly.  He had a stocky, labourer’s build, and a calm face.  “Peace, Monsieur Hugo,” he said again.  “I know Javert well.  His grave is safe with me.”

It was too much.  The ghosts, the blood, the bitter self-loathing of the last few days filled his mind, and he found himself on the other side of the grave, grasping the man hard by the shoulders.

“Listen, I don’t know who you are, but the man who is buried there was a loyal citizen, one who did his best to keep the peace in our streets.  He deserves better than to have his grave insulted.”

Suddenly his hands clasped nothing, and the blue-eyed man was standing under a tree, several paces away.  Victor stepped back to catch his balance, then stepped forward again, angrily.  The man raised a hand to stop him.

“Enough, M. Hugo.  I am no grave robber, any more than you are a true counter-revolutionary.  You are angry, and you are grieved and you feel guilty, and you are right to feel all these things.  But you must go now.  Javert’s soul is in God’s hands.  Yours is still in your own, and you have work to do.”

Victor dropped his eyes from the fiery gaze, then looked up again, feeling rather faint.  There was no hole in the ground where the man had pushed his arm into the grave.  Nowhere the cobblestone could have come from.  “Who are you?”, he whispered.  “And… what are you holding?”

The man looked at him thoughtfully.  “My name is Michael.  As for this,” he gestured to the stone, “You might think of it as your friend’s remains.”

“What do you mean?”

Michael considered him again.  “Do you know how your friend died?”

“I assume he was killed by the revolutionaries when they discovered who he was.”

Michael shook his head.  “No, in fact.  They intended to murder him, certainly, but the man they sent to do it – the man who recognised him, an escaped criminal who he had arrested in the past – chose to let him go free.”

Victor laughed shortly.  “He must have hated that.  ‘Men don’t change’, that was his creed in life.”

Michael was silent.

“Are you saying he took his own life?”

“Not then.  As you say, finding that a man he thought of as a criminal could be capable of sparing his life was – rather shattering to Javert.  He was a man of conscience, as you know, and to consider that he had been acting unjustly was almost unthinkable to him.  But he might have continued, and lived, had he not later found that same man attempting to carry the wounded away from the barricades.”

“And I suppose he felt compelled to arrest him.”

“In fact, he turned away, and pretended not to have seen the man.  But it was too much for his inflexible conscience – he knew that he had acted unjustly, either by pursuing the man in the first place, or by letting him go free when he had the opportunity to capture him, and he could not live with either injustice.  And so he chose not to live at all.”

“Poor Javert.”

“He wouldn’t want your pity, I think.  He would prefer justice.”

Victor sighed.  “Whatever justice there is in this city.  I don’t feel possessed of very much of it.”

Michael said nothing.

“But how does this make Javert into a cobblestone?”

Michael sighed.  “Javert wanted to do what was right in life, but he was inflexible.  Without compassion or mercy or empathy for others.  And so his sentence after death is – inflexibility.  As a stone, he will serve the good and the bad alike as a place to stand, without judgment or favour, until he is worn down to soft sand, and ready to begin again.”

Victor felt suddenly sick.  “That is monstrous.”

Michael’s voice was sad.  “He chose this, when he chose not to live on and change.  And chose again, when he judged himself unworthy of mercy.  There are many forms of hell on this earth.  Some return as animals for a season, able to move in the world, but not communicate with it.  Others become plants, who may at least feel the sun on their leaves or the wind in their branches, but are yet powerless to move or affect others.  Javert was as stone during his life, and so he must be stone in death.  If it’s any consolation, he is quite a small stone.  His sentence won’t be more than a thousand years or so.”

Victor said nothing.  He felt paralysed with the horror of what he was hearing.  “Who are you?”, he whispered again.

The man placed a hand on his head in benediction.  “Go home, Victor Hugo.  Your friend is in good hands.  And you have work to do.”

Victor wasn’t sure when he had started weeping.


May 1968

The Latin Quarter was full of shouting students and the sound of police whistles.  And fighting.  Hugh Victorson, formerly of Monash University, and now a visiting student at the Pasteur Institute, was in the thick of it.  He was not feeling studious.

“Sous les pavés, la plage!” he shouted, gleefully.  “Under the cobblestones, the beach!”  He bent to prise another stone from the Place Saint-Michel, and threw it at the police barrier.  Student uprisings were awesome. Nobody built barricades in the streets of Melbourne.  He couldn’t imagine why.  Maybe they needed to rig up some barricades back home, throw cobblestones until the government gave up on conscription and sending his schoolmates off to fight in Vietnam.  The birthday lottery had been in his favour so far, but he was just as pleased to be in Paris, where any form of conscription would be hard to enforce.

Hugh pulled up another cobblestone, revelling in the chaos around him.  This stone had a nice heft to it, he thought.  He weighed it in his hand, then flung it as far as he could.

The stone that was once Javert sped through the air in a shallow arc, missing the police barrier entirely, and flying towards the Fontaine Saint Michel.  It must have struck the statue at just the right angle, because it seemed to burst on collision, shattering into a mass of pebbles and sand.

Unobserved among the fighting students, a blue-eyed man with the build of a laborer smiled.  Javert, inflexibly just, would have served out his thousand year sentence in grim duty, but Michael had always preferred mercy.




The Station

The Metro Station Victor Hugo opened on December 12, 1900, making it one of the oldest stations in the Paris Metro system. It is located directly below the Place Victor Hugo in the 16th Arrondissement, north of the Seine on the western side of Paris, and is served by Metro Line 2 (Charles de Gaulle-Étoile – Porte Dauphine).

The Man

Born in 1802, Victor Hugo was a French poet, novelist and playwright. In France, his literary fame is drawn from his poetry; however in the English speaking world, he is best known for his novels Les Misérables (which inspired the musical of the same name) and The Hunchback of Nôtre Dame. Hugo was quite involved in politics, initially as a royalist though his views changed over time. I was surprised to learn that Hugo fought on the barricades during the June Rebellion in 1848, on the side of the government and against the rebels. This experience affected him deeply (the section in italics above is a direct quote from his memoirs, translated by Graham Robb in his biography, Victor Hugo), and he began to speak out increasingly against the monarchy, eventually becoming a notable republican and liberal voice in the government. Hugo spoke out throughout his career against social injustice and the death penalty and in favour of public education and freedom of the press. He died in 1885, and was buried in the Panthéon, where he shares a crypt with Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola.

Hugo was brought up as a Catholic, but identified himself in later life as a free thinker and a Deist, with an interest in spiritualism. I did not invent the theology in this story – in fact, I’m not at all sure I agree with it – but the system of levels of damnation, in which the dead might be reborn as animals, plants, or stones is taken directly from a very long poem that Hugo published in 1855, titled, Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre (“What the mouth of shadows says”). I have not read this poem in its entirety, but the extract I read at school stayed with me rather vividly, so you can blame Hugo entirely for Javert’s cobblestoned fate. Javert, of course, is the police inspector from Les Misérables. I’ve always felt rather sorry for him – he was in no way a kind character, nor was he one who one would necessarily want to spend time with, but his commitment to a very bleak view of justice and morality was absolute and sincere, and in the end, he died for it. I don’t know that I’ve treated him any better, but I’m hoping his 1960s reincarnation will have a better shot at life.


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