I recently purchased and watched the highly acclaimed movie musical adaptation of one of the masterpieces of literature, Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” If you have never seen this movie, I would recommend it to you without reservation. That is, if you don’t mind shedding a few tears!
The movie illustrates that the wonderful concept of grace is almost impossibly difficult for some people to grasp. This becomes vividly apparent as the story of Javert, the law officer in his pursuit of Jean Valjean, plays out. Javert is totally committed to the law and to the pursuit of justice it demands. He sees the law as an answer for everything, and no exception should be made regardless of how small the crime.
In the story, when Valjean is released after nineteen years in prison for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry child, his parole demands that he carry a yellow passport which assures that he has virtually no rights in Paris in the early 19th century. He cannot get a job to support himself and has no prospect of anything better. He is taken in by Father Myriel, a kindly bishop, who gives him a new identity and an opportunity to start a new life. Still not knowing how he is going to live until he is able to establish himself in a new location, Valjean steals the bishop‘s silver service and flees. When he is caught, the bishop lies to the police, saying he had given Valjean the silver and even gives him two valuable silver candlesticks in addition to what he had already taken. Valjean is overawed at the unbelievable act of grace by the bishop and vows to make something of himself, even though it meant that he had to break parole. He eventually established himself as a successful manufacturer and mayor of a city.
When he is eventually discovered and Javert takes up the chase, Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but spares his life. This act of mercy is incomprehensible to Javert, but he continues to pursue him regardless. In his soliloquy from the musical, he asks …
Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
Eventually cornering Valjean, after Valjean promises to return from a mission of mercy and turn himself over to Javert and “have done with this,” he allows him to turn his back and walk away. Should he allow him to go free? Javert cannot live with this decision. He cannot allow himself to let Valjean go free and extend to him the same mercy he had received. He cannot go back on his commitment to the law. As he continues agonizing over this unthinkable act he asks,