Friday, December 28, 2012

Mercy Triumphs Over Justice: Jean Valjean vs. Javert

As foils in Les Misérables, Jean Valjean and Javert can be seen to represent mercy and justice. Additionally,  Jean Valjean represents a life redeemed from crime and innocence before God, while Javert represents the Law and guiltlessness in the eyes of the Law. 

Jean Valjean was a convict who served for nineteen years as a galley slave. In the galleys he became a hard, angry man. But after his release he met Monsieur Bienvenu, the bishop of Digne, who initiated a change of heart in Jean Valjean and he devoted his time to improving the welfare of those around him.

Javert was never on the wrong side of the law, yet he too was a hard man although he always performed his duties impeccably. He understood right vs. wrong and justice void of mercy.

Javert  was determined to bring Jean Valjean to justice after he escaped from his second imprisonment.

When both men found themselves at the barricades during the revolt of 1832, they were brought into contrast.

The revolutionaries decided that they would kill Javert (a spy) and when the time came, Jean Valjean asked for permission to do the deed. Finally, the man who had been hunting him for years was in his hands, and he had the power to end his prepetual flight from Javert.

And he did. But not in the way one would expect, and he didn't even know it himself.  Alone in the street together, Valjean freed Javert and gave him his address so that Javert could arrest him later.

Javert left and Jean Valjean escaped the barricades with young Marius. After finally making his way out of the sewer with the almost dead Marius on his back, he encountered Javert. Expecting to be arrested, he begged Javert to let him take Marius home. Javert called the coach up and after depositing Marius, who Javert believed to be dead (otherwise he deserved prison too), Jean Valjean asked for a few moments at home before being taken away for life.

Outside the house, Javert said, to the surprise of Jean Valjean, "I'll wait for you here." Based on Javert's character, he would have followed his prisoner into the houseif he even allowed a quick visit home.

Upon entering the house, Jean Valjean looked out the window, and discovered the street was empty.

What's this? Javert letting an escaped prisoner free when he had him in his clutches?

Javert couldn't believe it himself. He was torn between his feelings of owing his life to Jean Valjean and the law that had ruled his life up til that point. "A novelty, a revolution, a catastrophe had just taken place in the depths of his being; and he had something upon which to examine himself." (Volume II, Book IV, chp. I)

Javert then sees Jean Valjean as "A benevolent malefactor, merciful, gentle, helpful, clement, a convict, returning good for evil, giving back pardon for hatred, preferring pity to vengeance, preferring to ruin himself rather than to ruin his enemy, saving him who had smitten him, kneeling on the heights of virtue, more nearly akin to an angel than to a man." And he cannot make this fit with his worldview. (Volume II, Book IV, chp. I)

He realized that the law was fallible, that a convict could be good man, and was surprised at the act of mercy he himself just committed. He is trapped in his reasoning: "He said to himself that it was true that there were exceptional cases, that authority might be put out of countenance, that the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforeseen compelled obedience, that the virtue of a convict might set a snare for the virtue of the functionary, that destiny did indulge in such ambushes, and he reflected with despair that he himself had not even been fortified against a surprise.
He was forced to acknowledge that goodness did exist. This convict had been good. And he himself, unprecedented circumstance, had just been good also. So he was becoming depraved."

Javert had done a good deed by letting the man who saved his life go free. Yet, in so doing, he broke the law himself.

"He had certainly always entertained the intention of restoring Jean Valjean to the law of which Jean Valjean was the captive, and of which he, Javert, was the slave. Not for a single instant while he held him in his grasp had he confessed to himself that he entertained the idea of releasing him. It was, in some sort, without his consciousness, that his hand had relaxed and had let him go free. "

And so Javert discovers the existence of God. "He asked himself: "What has that convict done, that desperate fellow, whom I have pursued even to persecution, and who has had me under his foot, and who could have avenged himself, and who owed it both to his rancor and to his safety, in leaving me my life, in showing mercy upon me? His duty? No. Something more. And I in showing mercy upon him in my turn—what have I done? My duty? No. Something more. So there is something beyond duty?".....he had centred nearly all his religion in the police. Being,—and here we employ words without the least irony and in their most serious acceptation, being, as we have said, a spy as other men are priests. He had a superior, M. Gisquet; up to that day he had never dreamed of that other superior, God."

After making a final decision to leave Jean Valjean free, he turned in his police report, making no mention of Marius and Valjean, and then jumped into the Seine and drowned.

Javert discovered that the law was not infallible. A person can be good even if they are on the wrong side of the government's law.  He catches a glimpse of God's higher power but he fails to reach out to Him and receive life.

"Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." Romans 3:19b-22a

Jean Valjean, although guilty before God and man, found redemption and began serving God and following His laws. Hugo doesn't stress this, and he may not have known it himself, but the only way to be free from guilt and considered as righteous is through believing in Jesus Christ. He is righteous and His righteousness is conferred on us, as long as we believe and accept his gift to us. It doesn't matter what crimes we have committed. "Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses." Acts 13:39

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering." Romans 8:1-3

Javert tried to be righteous by the law, but he realized that the law was incomplete and he broke the law he lived by: Justice without Mercy. He saw that there was something greater than the Law: God himself. God's law is different than laws created by men, everyone has broken it; yet in His mercy, He extends pardon to all, they just need to accept it.

~ "Mercy triumphs over judgement!" James 2:13~

Les Miserables: The Gutenberg Project: Les Miserables


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