Justice vs. Mercy in Les Misérables

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Warning: This post contains spoilers.

Like millions of other people around the world, this past break, I saw the film adaption of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables. I came to the film in a strange position—while I had never seen the musical staged, I was familiar with the novel, and did see bits of the 25th anniversary concert (with Nick Jonas) and had listened to the soundtrack. However, the soundtrack that I owned was not any Broadway Cast, nor West End cast, but rather, the 2005 Paris revival version. Meaning that the entire album is in French. And, while I could pick out a few key phrases here and there (e.g. “Je m’appelle Jean Valjean”), my French listening skills were not refined enough to comprehend the storyline. Therefore, this post is not going to be a comparison of the film versus the musical versus the book, nor a film review, but rather, an examination of themes and storylines prevalent in all three works.

Central to the plot of Les Misérables is the plight of Jean Valjean, who at the start of the story has just been released from 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving child, as well as an escape attempt. His foil is Inspector Javert, who, after Valjean breaks his parole, devotes his life to bringing Valjean to justice and returning him to prison. However, as the story progresses, these two men take on a symbolism much greater than their individual personas.

Valjean, from the start, is associated with acts of kindness and mercy. His imprisonment itself is the result of his attempt to provide for a starving child. When Valjean is released from prison and is unable to find neither work nor a place to stay because of his tainted criminal record, a bishop offers him a place to stay, and Valjean spends the night there. In the middle of the night, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and attempts to run away with it, but is caught by the police. But, in perhaps the most poignant moment in the musical, when the police bring Valjean back to the bishop with the silver, the bishop claims that he not only gave Valjean the silver, but that Valjean forgot that he also gave him a pair of silver candlesticks, asking, “Would you leave the best behind?”

From this moment, Valjean changes significantly, devoting his life to what he sees as the will of God, which is forgiveness and mercy. With the money from the silver, he becomes mayor of a town, and opens a few factories in which he treats his employees kindly and fairly. When Fantine, one of his former workers who is fired without his knowledge because she has an illegitimate child, is close to death, he promises to her that he will raise her daughter, which he does with care and love.  When given the chance to kill Javert, and ensure that he will no longer have to run from him, he instead spares his life, allowing him to escape.

Javert, conversely, rejects the idea of mercy in pursuit of justice as determined by the law. He pursues Valjean relentlessly, and sees himself as almost extension of the arm of God, as opposed to Valjean who he believes is “fallen from God, fallen from grace.” While he was born in the same lower class environment as Valjean, the two men diverge extremely in their view of the law and the role of religion (specifically, Christianity) in determining what is morally right and wrong.

This idea of justice versus mercy is examined in countless other works of literature and fiction, notably in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. And, while in Les Mis, both Javert’s and Valjean’s perspectives can be supported by religion (both men believe that they are acting in the name of God and pursuing the essence of Christian virtue), Victor Hugo’s perspective on which of these two men is in the right is hardly unclear. Hugo’s perspective seems to emulate that of Portia’s in Act IV of Merchant of Venice, where she claims, “The quality of mercy is not strained./It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,/Upon the place beneath./It is twice blessed//It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” This is supported by the fact that, once Javert realizes that he can no longer pursue bringing Valjean to justice because Valjean showed him mercy, he jumps off a bridge to his death in a moment where he questions whether he was right in pursuing Valjean.

However, while Hugo (and perhaps Schönberg and Boublil as well) clearly sympathize with Valjean’s commitment to mercy over Javert’s relentless pursuit of retribution, the issue is one which many people continue to struggle with in issues of law and politics. To what extent are people responsible for their actions, and how much should the intent behind these actions be taken into account? Valjean did, indeed, break the law multiple—though his sentence was undoubtedly extremely harsh, is it fair of the audience to view Javert as a villain when he is simply trying to uphold the law? Still, there seems something morally wrong about trying to bring Valjean to justice when we see example after example of him acting in a benevolent, generous manner.

Ultimately, I believe the criticism here is not of the Javert-types of the world, but rather of the inherent failures and biases in the legal system. Overall, Les Misérables deals with the plights of the lower classes within a regime that does not respond to their needs. Perhaps neither Valjean, who broke the law only to fill a moral obligation to sustain another person’s life, nor Javert, who sees himself as protector of order and justice, are able to carry any blame—but rather, both are the victim of a political system that does not care about them.

2 comments on “Justice vs. Mercy in Les Misérables”

  1. Me waiting for intramural discussion in the comments of this blog = student insurrectionists waiting for Parisians to arise in mass revolt in June 1832.

    It’s not TKO’s fault–we couldn’t get any real discussion ignited while I was there either.

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