I’ve come to a realization this week: I don’t think it’s possible to assign a definitive MBTI type to Jean Valjean from Les Misérables.
I had thought he was an INFJ. I was comfortable thinking of him as an INFJ. But then Charity of @funkymbtifiction, whose typings and insights I generally agree with, typed him as an ISTJ. That made me stop, think, go back, and reread several of his key chapters in the novel. The more I reread, the more I thought to myself that yes, he’s most likely a Sensor, not an Intuitive. His focus is almost always on there here and now, not on abstract ideas. Abstract, Intuitive language that I had previously read as being his inner voice is actually more the voice of INFP Victor Hugo as narrator.
But is he really an ISTJ and not an ISFJ?
I might be biased as an ISFP, but I’ve never once viewed him as a Thinker. Of course he can be pragmatic, he has to be, but all his inner struggles and decisions seem to revolve much more around moral, ethical right and wrong than around pragmatic usefulness. He contrasts in this way with the very ISTJ Javert, who lives only to pragmatically serve the law. In the novel, at least, I think he also shows signs of high Fe in his interactions with Cosette – overprotective, yes, but in a very gentle, smiling, “let’s swallow all negative emotions and pretend everything is fine so we’ll both be happy” way, rather than in the overbearing, controlling TJ-ish way that some of the adaptations portray. (I fully agree with the ISTJ typing for the BBC miniseries Valjean.) And yet when we hear his inner voice, as @funkymbtifiction argues, his moral compass seems much more like Fi than Fe. He makes decisions based on what he personally feels is right and wrong, not on what others feel is right and wrong or on what will make everyone happy – he lets a whole town fall into poverty to save one innocent man from prison, and later goes against the will of all the barricade boys by secretly freeing Javert. Yet he doesn’t come across as an ISFP: he seems like an IJ, driven by principles first, emotions second.
This makes me think of another recent post of Charity’s, about the characters in Hamilton and how hard they are to type. She argues that because of the show’s rapid-fire pace, and because its focus is more on the way it tells the story than on deep characterization, the characters often become composites of different MBTI types. Hamilton himself feels like he should be an ENTJ (and most likely was an ENTJ in real life), but tends to be written more like an ENTP, probably because Lin-Manuel Miranda is an ENxP and projected a lot of himself into the musical’s Hamilton.
I think we see a bit of the same thing with Jean Valjean. He seems like he should be an ISFJ, but because he’s written by an INFP author, his moral compass seems more Fi than Fe. Or, alternatively, he seems like he should be an ISTJ, but Hugo’s own Feeling preference makes him more of a Feeler. As for my original typing of him as an INFJ, maybe that’s not just me mistaking Hugo’s narrator voice for Valjean’s thoughts: maybe it’s also Hugo’s Intuition sometimes creeping into a character he generally writes as a Sensor.
Maybe this explains some of the difficulties people have with typing other fictional characters.
I’ve posted before about how hard it’s been for me to type Musetta from La Bohéme. I’ve never been quite sure whether she’s an ExTP or an ESFJ. She seems like she should be an ExTP: a feisty, cunning, freedom-loving maverick, who defies the rules of how women are supposed to behave and who pragmatically leaves her charming yet poor lover Marcello for the comforts rich older men provide. But I can’t help but see her as too flamboyantly emotional and too obsessed with how other people feel about her to be a Thinker. I don’t think she’s an ESFP either, because none of the Fi-users I know are skilled manipulators or attention hounds the way she is.
Likewise with Belle from Beauty and the Beast: I’m still not sure if I agree with the INFP typing that most people assign to her, or if I think she’s more of an INFJ or even a reserved ENFJ. In the village she seems like an Fi-user, a solitary individualist who never tries to fit in. But at the Beast’s castle she seems more like an Fe-user, clashing with an Fi-user (the Beast) until he comes out of his moody shell and shows her the social graces she values.
Or what about that character whom Belle is often compared to, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice? It’s astounding how many vastly different types fans have assigned to her: ENTP, ENFP, ESFP, ENTJ, INTJ, ENFJ, INFJ, or INFP. She’s probably most often typed as either an ENFP or ENTP, though, and again, the debate about which is the right typing mostly comes down to the Fi vs. Fe debate. Some insist Fi, because she so often defies others’ demands and expectations and because she refuses to marry a man she dislikes for security or for her family’s approval (although the idea that she’s only willing to marry “for love” is only in the adaptations). On the other hand, as with Belle and the Beast, her initial conflict with Darcy feels very much like Fe on her part clashing with his obvious Fi: she cares very much about social graces and manners and she makes the mistake of judging others by their outward charm or lack thereof. Maybe some of these fans are oversimplifying what Fi or Fe really mean. Or maybe Elizabeth is another character who seems like she should be one type, but whose author subconsciously nudges her in another direction: maybe she’s set up to be an ENTP or an ENFJ, but INTJ Austen’s own Fi creeps through her.
None of these characters are badly written in the slightest. None of them seem inconsistent. But they defy easy MBTI typing.
Maybe this shows that while MBTI can be useful to help real people understand themselves and the people they know, and while it can be fun to apply to fictional characters, we shouldn’t assume that every fictional character has one true typing. If an author sets out to write a character very different from themselves, but hints of their own personality still manifest in that character, then typing is hard. Or if the author is more focused on plot than character and the character’s behavior changes to move the plot forward, then typing is hard. Even if we accept that every real person in the world is one and only one of the sixteen MBTI types, maybe the same just isn’t true for fictional characters.