Learning Mercy

Victor Hugo’s famous story, Les Miserables, endures to this day. The point on which the whole story turns is when police apprehend a newly released convict, Jean Valjean, in possession of silver cutlery. Surely, he is a thief. But when they take Valjean back to the home of the Bishop from whence the cutlery came, the Bishop astounds everyone by pressing him to take a pair of matching candlesticks too. When Valjean later asks him why, he replies:

Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.

Jean Valjean is a man reborn because of the Bishop’s mercy and seeks to live a virtuous life from then on. But Police Inspector Javert is equally intent on pursuing him as an ex-convict. Javert lives his life by the rule of justice and towards the end, after Valjean has the opportunity to show him the same mercy he had once received, Javert simply doesn’t understand it.

Jean Valjean:

You never temper justice with mercy?

Inspector Javert:

No, we might as well understand each other… I administer the law – good, bad, or indifferent – it’s no business of mine, but the law to the letter!

This is a view Javert maintains until the end where he exclaims,

it’s a pity the rules don’t allow me to be merciful.