The characters in the novel live in a world of consistently harsh judgment. Convicts and the poor are considered to be the dregs of society, while the rich, in turn, are assumed to be greedy and worth only as much as they can be tricked out of giving away. Women, especially, are subjected to difficult standards, placed on a pedestal of purity but easily and hastily condemned for diverging from this norm, while men who are promiscuous or simply carefree are celebrated rather than judged. Into this framework, the act of mercy enters as a powerful counterweight, at times shocking its recipients into a new way of life, but at other times proving overwhelming in its radical reversal of social norms.
As the novel begins, Jean Valjean is used to being treated and judged as the convict he is. He is therefore dumbfounded by the mercy that Bishop D— shows him in letting him go free after his attempt to steal the bishop’s silver candlesticks. Valjean has no idea how to deal with the mercy shown to him—he is so confused, in fact, that his first move is to commit another crime of robbery, as he desperately tries to reaffirm the values of by which he’s lived for so long. It takes this final criminal act, committed almost as a reflex, for Valjean to repent and embrace the mercy that the Bishop has shown him. Accepting mercy, then, can be excruciating, and takes profound will and grit. Javert, conversely, doesn’t have such mental strength in the end. He finds he cannot live in the contradiction between the judgment he’s bestowed upon Jean Valjean and the mercy that Valjean has shown to him, and he kills himself as a result. As a life transformation, the movement from judgment to mercy can be very painful, the novel reveals, even as Hugo celebrates mercy as the morally correct way to live.
Mercy vs. Judgment ThemeTracker
Mercy vs. Judgment Quotes in Les Miserables
“The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow.”
“Let us never fear robbers nor murderers. Those are dangers from without, petty dangers. Let us fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers. The great dangers lie within ourselves.”
The scaling of that wall, the passing of those barriers, the adventure accepted even at the risk of death, the painful and difficult ascent, all those efforts even, which he had made to escape from that other place of expiation, he had made in order to gain entrance into this one. Was this a symbol of his destiny? This house was a prison likewise and bore a melancholy resemblance to that other one whence he had fled, and yet he had never conceived an idea of anything similar.
The wild spectres who roam in this grave, almost beasts, almost phantoms, are not occupied with universal progress; they are ignorant both of the idea and of the word; they take no thought for anything but the satisfaction of their individual desires. They are almost unconscious, and there exists within them a sort of terrible obliteration. They have two mothers, both step-mothers, ignorance and misery...
The Jondrette lair was, if the reader recalls what we have said of the Gorbeau building, admirably chosen to serve as the theatre of a violent and somber deed, and as the envelope for a crime. It was the most retired chamber in the most isolated house on the most deserted boulevard in Paris. If the system of ambush and traps had not already existed, they would have been invented here.
He had found him at last, and how? His father’s savior was a ruffian! That man, to whose service Marius was burning to devote himself, was a monster! The liberator of Colonel Pontmercy was on the point of committing a crime whose scope Marius did not, as yet, clearly comprehend, but which resembled an assassination! And against whom, great God! What a fatality! What a bitter mockery of fate!
Encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.
When Cosette went out with him, she leaned on his arm, proud and happy, in the plenitude of her heart. Jean Valjean felt his heart melt within him with delight, at all these sparks of a tenderness so exclusive, so wholly satisfied with himself alone. The poor man trembled, inundated with angelic joy; he declared to himself ecstatically that this would last all their lives; he told himself that he really had not suffered sufficiently to merit so radiant a bliss, and he thanked God, in the depths of his soul, for having permitted him to be loved thus, he, a wretch, by that innocent being.
The bourgeois decked out in their Sunday finery who passed the elephant of the Bastille, were fond of saying as they scanned it disdainfully with their prominent eyes: “What’s the good of that?” It served to save from the cold, the frost, the hail, and rain to shelter from the winds of winter, to preserve from slumber in the mud which produces fever, and from slumber in the snow which produces death, a little being who had no father, no mother, no bread, no clothes, no refuge. It served to receive the innocent whom society repulsed.
Slang is language turned convict. That the thinking principle of man be thrust down ever so low, that it can be dragged and pinioned there by obscure tyrannies of fatality, that it can be bound by no one knows what fetters in that abyss, is sufficient to create consternation. Oh, poor thought of miserable wretches! Alas! Will no one come to the succor of the human soul in that darkness?
His supreme anguish was the loss of certainty. He felt that he had been uprooted […] A whole new world was dawning on his soul: kindness accepted and repaid, devotion, mercy, indulgence, violences committed by pity on austerity, respect for persons, no more definitive condemnation, no more conviction, the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, no one knows what justice according to God, running in inverse sense to justice according to men. He perceived amid the shadows the terrible rising of an unknown moral sun: it horrified and dazzled him.