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Javert spends the book pursuing the protagonist, Jean Valjean, who had previously spent nineteen years in prison under Javert's just for stealing bread out of desperation for his family (the initial sentence was five years, but it was extended because he tried to escape). After finally being released, Valjean carelessly steals a silver coin from a bishop out of habit, and Javert starts to tenaciously pursue him for an additional seventeen years. In the process of fleeing from Javert, Valjean becomes a great altruistic man who touches upon many lives, such as being the mayor of a town.
Towards the end of the book, Valjean saves Javert's life, and the inspector cannot comprehend how the person he had been out to get for so many years could possibly show him mercy. He also finds himself unable to decide whether to arrest him now, and he is thus at a complete loss and cannot reconcile with himself. As a result Javert commits suicide by jumping into the Seine river.
- "Inspector Javert" is also the name of a TV Tropes trope that is about characters similar to Javert; that is, misguided law enforcers who are against the protagonists.
- In the 1998 film adaptation, Javert explains his father was a thief and his mother was a prostitute.
- In the book, Javert was born in a prison around 1780, his mother a fortune-teller and his father a convict serving on a galley. The narrator explains that "he thought that he was outside the pale of society" and had a "hatred for the race of bohemians whence he was sprung." Feeling condemned to stand outside normal society either as a criminal or a policeman, he chose to enforce the law and proved successful in that career.
- The trope aside, because of the doggedness of their pursuits, Javert is considered the direct inspiration for both Lieutenant/Marshal Gerard from The Fugitive and Reporter Jack McGee from the live-action TV version of The Incredible Hulk. Both characters, however, lacked the monomaniacal focus on the guilt of their charges; Gerard's aim was to bring Kimble in, believing the courts could possibly resolve his guilt, which he now doubted; McGee badly wanted a story to make him a legit reporter once more, but later also wanted to aid the tormented man he knew as John Doe, who became the Hulk. They were, unlike Javert, fully capable of dealing with the better natures of those they pursued, but still wanted them to answer for the murders they were charged with.
- In the 2007 anime, he didn't commit suicide. He even attends Valjean's funeral and rededicates his life to rehabilitating lawbreakers like Thenardier. In that series, both of his parents were criminals and Javert had to arrest them.
- Claude Frollo, Victor Hugo's other major villain.