A Strange Way of Judging

strange way of judging“There are two kinds of righteousness.” This phrase from Martin Luther identifies a motif in Victor Hugo’s, Les Misérables. The story of Jean Valjean is at once a literary masterpiece and a thunderbolt of social commentary. The massacre of the students involved in the June Rebellion and the agonizing existence Hugo portrays as the life of the poor function as a narrative unveiling of the injustice of Restoration France. The book is, in Hugo’s description, a “sad story” and the title tells the truth: it is about Les Misérables – the sufferers, the “wretched of the earth” as the musical sings. It is, however, the more intimate stories that Hugo paints on this vast socio-political canvas that provide the color for his lament. Let’s consider one: Fantine.

In chapter eleven, Hugo asks: “What is the story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave. From whom? “From misery.” Fantine’s narrative arc goes from star-crossed lover to prostitute by way of the desperation of a mother who has already sold her hair and two front teeth in an attempt to support the daughter she has left with monstrous innkeepers. Our question is this: what happens when Fantine, la miserable, suffering personified, encounters the two kinds of justice, an encounter that in narrative terms is identical with Fantine’s interactions with Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean? To anticipate our conclusion: the effects of the justice of Javert and Valjean echo another Reformation distinction – judgment kills; mercy makes alive.


Two justices: judgment and mercy

The first justice is that which imprisoned Jean Valjean for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s children from starvation. We first hear of its effects in relation to Hugo’s hero: “Jean Valjean entered the galleys sobbing and trembling; he left hardened;” as “dry eye goes with a dead soul” and “he had not shed a tear for nineteen years,” Valjean was dead. It is this justice, the kind that killed Jean Valjean, that is embodied by Inspector Javert. Javert is introduced as absolute and terror-evoking. “Order, law, morality,” writes Hugo, “were personified in him,” as were “justice, light, and truth in their celestial function as destroyers of evil.” As justice, he is the “thunder of the law.”

Juxtaposed to this political justice is another righteousness, embodied by the Bishop of Digne. “Compassion,” he muses, “is the most beautiful of all [God’s] names” and this divine name is the bishop’s chief characteristic. As an “ex-sinner” he sees humanity honestly and so sees suffering as an opportunity for love: “Grief everywhere was only an occasion for love always.” Following this “rule of love,” the bishop opens his doors to Jean Valjean: “You are suffering; you are hungry; you are welcome.” But the corpse of Valjean is too cold to feel the warmth of love and so he steals the bishop’s silver only to be caught in the night and dragged back to face the bishop’s justice.

And here is where the story turns: Bishop Bienvenu “has a strange way of judging things,” a different kind of justice which Hugo suspects “he acquired from the Gospels.” Expecting condemnation, Valjean encounters forgiveness, freedom, and a future: “Go in peace… It is your soul I am buying for you… I give it to God.” What is the effect of this different justice? Whereas prison had wrought the death of dry eyes, forgiveness remade a man: “he burst into tears.” Judgment killed Valjean; mercy made him alive.”


Death and life

It is these two kinds of justice embodied in Javert and Valjean that Fantine encounters in the hell that is her history. Having lashed out at a customer who provoked her, Fantine listens to Javert’s judgment: “Six months! The Eternal Father in person couldn’t help you now.” And in response to her whispered plea for mercy, “Javert turned his back.” But it is when this justice is done sentencing that the justice called mercy speaks: “One moment if you please,” interjects Jean Valjean, “Inspector Javert, set this woman free.” Instead of the jail Javert threatened, Fantine finds a hospital bed, pardon (“you have never ceased to be virtuous and holy before God”), and a promise: Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, will be cared for. Again, Hugo highlights the effects: Javert caused Fantine to weep and collapse; but “when Javert was gone” – at the end of the law (cf. Rom 10:4) – “she felt the fearful darkness of her hatred melt within her and flow away, while an indescribable and ineffable warmth of joy, of confidence, and of love welled up in her heart.”

In Valjean’s protection Fantine was “joy itself.” However, “her face…turned deathly pale, and her eyes, wide with terror, seemed to fasten on something terrible.” That “something terrible” was Inspector Javert. Confronted with “justice personified” and the “vengeance of the law,” Fantine shrieks, “Save me!” Mercy could not save Fantine from the “first death,” however. Javert was a “monstrous St. Michael” and “She was dead.”

But the judgment that kills is not the last word. We do not learn what “this condemned man said to this dead woman,” but the one eyewitness reports “that as Jean Valjean whispered in Fantine’s ear, she distinctly saw an ineffable smile spread across her pale lips.”

There are two kinds of righteousness that reach Fantine. The first is the justice called judgment, and it puts a desperate mother to death. The second is the justice called mercy, and from the nothingness of despair and hatred it creates hope and love. “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” James says (James 2:13), and so it is in Les Misérables: death cannot stop the eternal smile of love. Judgment kills; mercy makes alive.


Dr. Jono Linebaugh is the associate professor of New Testament and dean of students at Knox Theological Seminary. E-mail: [email protected]

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