It doesn't take a crisis for most of us to understand that we can change our behavior, but the prospect of changing our identity seems threatening or impossible to most. Breaking away from our core beliefs about who we are gives us the most intense pain, and some people would even go so far as to kill themselves to preserve those beliefs. This was dramatically illustrated in Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables. When the hero Jean Valjean is released from his prison work crew, he is frustrated and alone. Although in the many years he's spent in the custody of the French police he has never accepted his label of "criminal" (he'd merely stolen a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and was sentenced to many years of hard labor), once released, he discovers that he can't get an honest day's work. He is scorned and rebuffed because of his status as an ex-convict. Finally, in a state of helplessness, he begins to accept the identity that his societal label has imposed. He now is a criminal and begins to act as such. In fact, when a kind priest takes him in, feeds him, and gives him shelter for the night, he fulfills his criminal identity by stealing his benefactor's humble silver setting. When the police stop Valjean on a routine check, they discover not only that he is an ex-convict, but also that he is carrying the priest's most valuable possessions—a crime punishable by a life of hard labor. Valjean is brought back to face the priest, and upon presentation of the facts, the priest insists that the silver was a gift and reminds Valjean that he's forgotten the two remaining silver candlesticks. To Valjean's further surprise, the priest subsequently makes his generous falsehood a truth and sends him away with the silver to start a new life. Valjean has to deal with the priest's actions. Why would he believe in him? Why didn't he send him away in chains? The priest told him that he was his brother, that Valjean no longer belonged to evil, that he was an honest man and a child of God. This massive pattern interrupt changes Valjean's identity. He tears up his prison papers, moves to another city, and assumes a new identity. As he does, all of his behaviors change. He becomes a leader and helps those in his community. However, a policemen, Monsieur Javert, makes it his life's crusade to find Valjean and bring him to justice. He "knows" Valjean is evil and defines himself as one who brings evil to justice. When Javert finally catches up with him, Valjean has the opportunity to eliminate his nemesis—but he magnanimously spares his life. After a lifetime of pursuit, Javert discovers that Valjean is a good man—perhaps a better man than he—and he cannot deal with the potential of realizing that maybe he was the one who was cruel and evil. As a result, he throws himself into the rapids of the river Seine.
"His supreme agony was the disappearance of certainty, and he felt himself uprooted.. . Oh! what a frightful thing! The man projectile, no longer knowing his road, and recoiling!"
VICTOR HUGO, LES MISERABLES