I went to see the film version of Les Miserables the other week, and it was fantastic. I started learning the songs when I was in primary school, and know most of them word for word by now. I saw an AmDram version at a local theatre when I was 16 but at the time I didn’t follow the story very well and unfortunately I lost track of what was happening to the characters, something that the film fixed. Not gonna lie, I cried when Eponine died, and when I saw Gavroche’s little body laid out in the Café.
Just from listening to the songs as a teen, I’d picked up the themes of love, redemption, sacrifice and the conflict between the moralities of Valjean and Javert, the latter’s based on justice and the former’s on mercy. I witnessed the cry for social justice and knew the importance of standing up for what you believe in, even if it doesn’t bring the change you desire, and I understood that people can fall on hard times through no great fault of their own. But there was one thing I didn’t fully grasp until I saw the film, which is what I want to talk about here. It’s below the cut for a reason.
In the stage version I saw, I watched Javert fall off the bridge, and understood that he’d died but I didn’t understand why. I didn’t realise that he’d done it on purpose, that he’d killed himself, committed suicide.
No-one I love has killed themselves, nor do I know of any failed attempts, but others have not been so lucky. There are the stories I know – an acquaintance’s mother, who blamed them for her suicide. A grandfather who hung himself in his church porch. My own father has been seriously suicidal at least once that I know of, not that he told me at the time. As for me, well, we’ll get to that.
Viewing Les Mis in its entirety allowed me to follow Javert’s story in detail but when he threw himself off the bridge after his final soliloquy, it jarred. It felt like they’d cut short the development from Javert’s realisation that Valjean had saved his life, offering him mercy and forgiveness, to his deciding he couldn’t live with it. And in that moment, I couldn’t understand why he did what he did. I physically couldn’t watch him plunge to his death, and yet…
And yet, throwing myself off a bridge is one of the things that, in my lowest moments, I’ve considered. That, or stepping out in front of a high-speed through-train. I remember feeling so down, so hopeless of anything changing, that it seemed like it would be better if I was just. not. here. I considered more than once, simply emptying all of the money out of my bank account and just walking off. Disappearing. Looking back on that time two years ago, I know I was depressed. Moreover, I was having suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t like I had a definite plan but the thought, the option, was there.
Why I didn’t take it? I don’t really know. I do remember knowing that my parents would miss me. That Melian would miss me, that it would likely destroy her if I did. I knew that, even though I didn’t feel able to reach out to any of them. They knew things were bad, but not how bad, in part because I didn’t. And if I didn’t know, how could anyone else? It took me over a year to recover and it’s only been recently that I’ve realised I’m not plagued by those thoughts any more. In their absence, I can finally see them for what they were.
So, in realising that I knew what it was to feel vaguely suicidal, I knew that it was possible for it to be a hell of a lot worse. If my brain could be messed up enough for it to be an option, then Javert’s suicide makes sense. A thwarted sense of justice and utter confusion at your life’s premise being turned up-side-down by someone you’ve made it your life to hate does not on the one hand seem like a valid reason. On the other, yeah, who am I to judge? That level of confusion, despair and pain are real reasons when your head’s a mess. It’s awful but it’s true. When it’s someone famous the news is full of it for a time, with their families and friends saying how they didn’t know things were so bad, that they were a good person with so much going for them. But it doesn’t change the fact that the inside can be very different from the outside, and that people who are depressed are already having trouble reaching out for help.