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When Shame and Hate Tear Hope Apart

Psychoanalytic Reflections on ‘Les Miserables’

Please welcome the wise words of my friend and colleague, Dr. Sandra Fenster, by reading her guest post on the film, Les Miserables.

Victor Hugo may have written his 19th century novel, ‘Les Miserables’, to condemn the ills of a society that created a class of ‘miserable ones’. But as a psychoanalyst, I’m interested in what ‘Les Miserables’ tells us about the inner causes of human misery. In ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, Fantine sings about one cause: Shamewhich tears hope apart. Fantine doesn’t survive it.

Jean Valjean and Javert struggle with shame, too. Like many of us, they are haunted by their pasts; by losses and mistakes. Although, on the surface, it’s difficult to compare Jean Valjean and Javert, they are each one side of the other. The hate that grips them both takes a different form. Jean Valjean’s is turned against himself; Javert’s is directed outwards. Neither escapes. Each is trapped by the other.

Who is Jean Valjean to Javert—and Javert to Jean Valjean? We have no idea, in Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables, why Javert single-mindedly pursues the letter of the law; bent on destroying Jean Valjean. Except that this puts him in the ‘right’. What makes more sense is that Javert was born in prison to a convict father and a gypsy mother. He turns against his shameful origins by becoming ‘Inspector Javert’.

Isn’t Javert’s unrelenting hate for Jean Valjean, then, really directed at his own origins and, particularly, against his shameful self? ‘Inspector Javert’ is a more respectable identity. But another self in the form of Jean Valjean haunts him; a self he must destroy. For Jean Valjean, Javert is the self-hating, shaming, unforgiving voice that won’t leave him alone: “Men like you can never change” —a constant reminder of his wrongs.

Shame and self-hate can make love seem dangerous. The complicated thing, though, is that love cures hate. Yes, there are risks to love. Jean Valjean loses Cosette to her own life. But, more tragically—with the Javert-voice constantly pursuing him in his mind, he can’t feel the real goodness of Jean Valjean. Losing Cosette makes him feel unlovable. He doesn’t really believe in Cosette’s love or the possibility of anyone else’s. He can’t go on. His shame is his prison and his demise.

But, perhaps, Javert is the most tragic. His heart must unwaveringly remain stone; never allowing love. Not a fleeting feeling for the dead boy revolution fighter (his little boy self; the victim of his self-hatred); and especially not Jean Valjean’s kindness in releasing him. Kindness turns to pity in his mind—and he must set himself against Valjean. If he lets his heart soften, he doesn’t believe he’ll survive his shame; that he (his Valjean self) can be forgiven.

It’s true; shame and self-hate are difficult to overcome. But, painful experiences from the past, even mistakes, can be reconciled; and they don’t make someone ‘bad’. Psychoanalytic therapy wasn’t available in Victor Hugo’s time. But, it is now. One of the most satisfying parts of my work is helping people get those cruel voices out of their heads and making love safer. Shame, self-hate, and despair don’t have to ruin anyone’s life—or hope.

Copyright 2013 by Sandra Fenster, Ph.D.

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Dr. Sandra Fenster is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills. To learn more about her practice and writing, visit her at