"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
The Merchant of Venice Act 4, scene 1
We went to see Les Miserable yesterday and it was everything it had promised to be, as least as far as we were concerned. It was a dark story in so many ways, with the depravity and cruelty of men front and center throughout the entire story. The director and actors created a number of memorable moments, with Fantine's song "I Dreamed a Dream" being promoted as perhaps the most haunting. What has lingered in my mind, though, is the mystery and tragedy of Javert.
The theme of mercy, as everyone knows, is strong in this story. It's not a Romanticized vision of mercy, though. Those who receive mercy still struggle, still face injustice, still have pain and loneliness. The transforming power of mercy is evident in the way it leads to life. Mercy in Jean Valjean compells him to protect and help, to see the need in others rather than just his own need, and to grapple with the hard choices between doing what is right and doing what is expedient. He learns to love because he is a man who has received mercy, but that transformation wasn't easy. He had to relinquish the very things that had defined him - his victimization, his anguish, his suffering. In laying those things down, he finds his way forward in doing what good he can for others. Through this, he comes to love. And it is this love which ultimately frees him from the fear of Javert.
Javert's refusal of mercy is so hard for me to grasp. How can a man stare mercy and love in the face and turn away to his own death? This is where I think the story is the most profound. The scope and depth of this refusal is in plain sight so we can't miss the reality of what's happening. We can't ignore the consequences. Javert doesn't go out as a strong individualist that we can admire. He dies a pitiable man. We don't rejoice at his defeat because he's a bad guy. We hope, up until the last moment, that he'll change his mind, that he'll receive the mercy extended to him. The choice, finally, is between life and death - a choice he sees very clearly. His final refusal of mercy was, for me, the most heart-wrenching moment in the movie. It took my breath away.
I'm glad Javert's choice wasn't the last moment of the movie. The last image in my mind is Valjean's prayer of blessing at the end of his life. This is mercy's work - to impart life. And I find myself hoping that those seeing the film who, like Javert, might be on the precipice of choice will not follow his direction, but will, instead, open up to life, receiving and extending mercy.