And All That Jazz

A creativity researcher's take on the highs and lows of pop culture and the arts.

Why Couldn't Jean Valjean Have Been More Creative?

With some creativity, Jean Valjean could have made more lives less miserable.

I finally saw Les Miserables this past weekend. I had many of the usual feelings and thoughts. Anne Hathaway was pretty good and Russell Crowe was pretty bad. I think Hugh Jackman should have played Javert, and a Josh Groban-type should have played Valjean. But I'm also a musical fan, so I'm not necessarily responding with what's best for a film.

But one thing did strike me -- the same thing that struck me when I originally saw the show and when I saw the non-musical 1935 film with Frederic March and Charles Laughton.

Jean Valjean is clearly a smart guy. When we meet him for the second time in the film, he's gone from nothing to becoming the mayor and leader of a large factory. He has the tremendous capacity to do good for a large number of people. Indeed, his shame at having let down one person though passive inaction (and lack of knowledge) -- by letting Fantine be fired -- is such that he promises to raise her daughter Cosette as his own. This potential for good is perpetually threatened by the crusading Javert, obsessively hunting for Valjean despite there being presumably other French criminals to be found. When Javert sees Valjean again, he is struck by the facial resemblance and physical strength of the mayor to this old parole escapee. But, he tells Valjean, he clearly must be mistaken -- the "real" Valjean has already been caught.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

This brings Valjean to a moral dilemma. If this other "Valjean" (who denies his crimes) is convicted, then Valjean will truly be free. There will be no Javert continually hunting Valjean and lurking in the shadows. But, of course, if he lets another man take his place in prison, then he has committed a grievously immoral act. What to do?

Valjean decides to confess his crimes. Valjean has just promised he will take care of Fantine's daughter when he is caught by Javert. Valjean begs for three more days as Fantine dies, which raises the question of what exactly he expected to do in those three days -- we have seen how well Fantine's plan of sending money to an innkeeper has worked (would he enroll Fantine in a convent?). Regardless, Javert fights and does not relent, and Valjean manages to escape, leading to the next segment of his life on the run.

But: Valjean was the mayor of a large town and the owner of a large factory. Why couldn't he have just been a little creative?

Valjean: "Say, Javert, that is funny about this guy looking just like me. What does he say his name is?"

Javert: "Well, Monseigneur Mayor, he says his name is Doug."

Valjean: "I should go check this out myself."

[At the courthouse]

Valjean: "Wait a minute, I know this man! His name IS Doug. He worked at my factory three years ago. There's no way he could be this dastardly Jean Valjean. I demand you release him right away to my custody. Because of the horrible accusations against him, I will give him a job in my factory. In fact, I'll put him in charge for one week while I pick my... my niece, Cosette. Then I'll be back and raise her to adulthood and be safe and secure and able to help an entire town's worth of people. And if I ever hear of some guy named Valjean being arrested, I'll go check it out and make sure it isn't another one of my former factory workers who I can vouch for."

Javert: "Okay. Sounds like a plan, Monseigneur Mayor."

Why did Valjean have to be just as unbending as Javert? Couldn't he have shown a little creativity? He could have kept his morality intact and more easily kept his word to Fantine.

This blog originally was posted on my personal website: jamescoreykaufman.com

James C. Kaufman is a creativity researcher and Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University of San Bernardino.

more...

Subscribe to And All That Jazz

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.