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Vengeance vs. mercy: Monte Cristo & Jean Valjean in real life

In our interactions, so much boils down to the charged interpretation we make of revenge and forgiveness. Revenge can feel both liberating and a prison, while forgiveness is sometimes perceived as a weakness. Vengeance and mercy act as opposite poles in human morality. Their ambivalence is already explicit in religion and archetypes from Greek tragedies and fables going back to oral culture.

Entire genres in literature, cinema, or video games have banked their popularity reviving the Frontier myth of rogue self-defense and vigilantism that punishes wrongdoers, and superhero revenge schemes against supervillains aid Hollywood in a moment of transformation and a feeling of burnout. Science fantasy, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic movies replicate the old passions already present in good ol’ westerns.

After serving a draconian prison term for stealing bread, Jean Valjean is released. He resorts to petty crime, but there is Hope and Valjean’s agency will grow, as will do also his positive impact around him

When building a credible, compelling pathos in popular culture, Shakespeare is never too far below the surface of post-modern novelty. Venture a little bit underneath, and we will feel the presence of the two artistic impulses behind the birth of the tragedy: the logic and prudence of Apollo and the impulsive flirting of Dionysus, not canceling but complementing each other.

Why we struggle to grant forgiveness

To Nietzsche, the sense of revenge and justice is full of impulsive vitality in the early surviving tragedies by Aeschylus, as if the stories depicted a world unconstrained by moral constructions. In the Iliad, for example, revenge shows merciless cruelty when, after killing Hector to avenge the death of his cousin Patroclus, Achilles can’t help by mutilating the Trojan prince’s body by dragging it around the perimeter of Troy’s defense walls.

In the Bible, the tribal retaliation of the Old Testament (in the Book of Exodus, we learn the principle of reciprocal justice, “an eye for an eye”) is also more impulsive than the invitation to turn the other cheek Jesus taught during the Sermon of the Mount: why engaging with wrongdoing instead of practicing a kindness that can be healing for everyone, most and foremost for the victim, who doesn’t feel trapped in a senseless, distracting escalation?

The tensions between retributive justice and forgiveness are very present in classical mythology and the Abrahamic tradition, with legendary archetypes and events feeling trapped or liberated by transgression and its consequences. When seeking universal examples to shape the rule of law, philosophers have sensed the influence of old systems influenced by Roman law, custom, and beliefs (myths, religion), though not even natural or “universal” law has been able to define unequivocally when to apply measures of retribution or forgiveness when somebody suffers a transgression.

This struggle to determine which reactions (and actions of restoration) should be applied in a given conflict explains the enduring appeal of some of the most popular serialized novels from the nineteenth century, at a time when written fiction written in sequential pieces was the most-popular entertainment format: the first one, The Count of Monte Cristo, is a legendary tale of vengeance, making us wonder why avenging unsympathetic wrongdoers makes such a satisfying read; the second one, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, is celebrated as an example of how magnanimity and forgiveness can help transform a troubled character, the convict Jean Valjean, into a force for good around him to the point of repaying society several times over for his early mistakes.

Dantès becoming Monte Cristo vs. Jean Valjean’s agency

Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo appeared as a page-turning “feuilleton” from 1844 to 1846, depicting an extraordinary story of a simple sailor, Edmond Dantès, is falsely accused and imprisoned before becoming the mysterious, highly sophisticated Count of Monte Cristo, who unrolls a carefully planned vengeance on those who had conspired to destroy him.

As for Les Misérables, several writers and philosophers recognized its importance and future influence early on. Victor Hugo, already a towering figure in French literature when the book was published in 1862, had been politically active for decades and lived in a self-imposed exile in Guernsey (English channel), from where he would find peace of mind and family life that would allow him to finish the long-planned book about Freedom (capital “F”): could modern societies aim at a day when reform would change blame and retributive justice for forgiveness and reinsertion into society of most wrongdoers?

Hugo had never been afraid to back social reform even when his ideas weren’t popular among the public and legislators across the several regimes he endured; three decades prior, he had written The Last Day of a Condemned Man, a highly experimental novella in which a man condemned to die recounts his thoughts. Les Misérables was a way more ambitious work, and Jean Valjean would come to represent what individuals can achieve to amend their mistakes:

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

The Monte Cristo and Valjean of real life

Edmond Dantès (Monte Cristo) and Jean Valjean both make a credible case for vengeance and forgiveness, as well as an enriching, unforgettable read that has transformed readers’ perspectives for generations.

The high-stakes injustice depicted in Monte Cristo reminds us of the perils of uncritically granting outright forgiveness (regardless of considerations such as the attitudes of victim/s and perpetrator/s). Being too eager to forgive could signify a lack of self-care, self-respect, or even the byproduct of mental illness. Aristotle states in his Nicomachean Ethics that anybody “unlikely to defend himself” and willing to “endure being insulted” could be making a fool of himself.

An instinct of self-preservation can turn very easily into levels of anger and hatred that are difficult to manage, whereas self-control and forgiveness demand a bigger discipline and becomes appropriate magnanimity when it liberates the victim from an undesired bond established by the wrongdoer. To Alexander Pope, “to err is human; to forgive, divine.” Hannah Arendt goes beyond: “forgiveness is the key to action and freedom.” To Arendt, when we forgive, we offer a person suffering the consequences of his actions the opportunity to evolve, acknowledging that a mistake doesn’t equal having a permanent or fixed character.

Revenge and forgiveness arise in both our most instinctive and rational emotions, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the two characters depicting both conscious actions, Edmond Dantès/Monte Cristo and Jean Valjean, were inspired by real stories: the incredible written by Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo was inspired in Pierre Picaud‘s biography, a Nîmes shoemaker, whereas famous ex-convict Jean Valjean is based on the life of ex-convict Eugène François Vidocq.

Real-life people inspiring two influential stories

Like the fictional character of Edmond Dantès, Pierre Picaud (who was engaged to marry a woman) was framed by friends who wrongly accused him of being a spy; as a consequence, he was imprisoned for seven years in the Fenestrelle Fort, where he became the beloved servant of a rich Italian cleric, an experience he used to carefully plan an act of revenge. But before he had time to recover a hidden treasure that a wealthy priest he had befriended told him about. But, instead of seeking magnanimity and dedicating the rest of his life to accomplishing philanthropic deeds, Picaud used his new wealth and connections to obliterate his former friends and their families, who ended up either killed, arrested or left impoverished.

Picaud stabbed one friend using a dagger with the words “Number One” printed, poisoned a second friend, and lured the children of the third accuser —who had married Picaud’s old fiancée— into crime and prostitution, to finally stabbing him. Alexandre Dumas managed to transform Picaud’s cruel revenge and lack of magnanimity into a much more nuanced portrait: for example, Monte Cristo will respect and secretly help his old fiancée’s (Mercedes) children.

Victor Hugo was certainly impacted by the lack of magnanimity of the penal system when former malefactors overcome their limitations and become positive forces of society despite the odds: ex-convict Eugène François Vidocq didn’t only inspire Jean Valjean but also Claude Gueux (the man waiting to be executed in the short story The Last Day of a Condemned Man. A strong man, Vidocq became a detective, then a successful businessman engaged in philanthropy; and, like the famous episode in Les Misérables in which Valjean saves one of his workers showing incredible force, Vidocq had done the same by lifting a heavy cart on his shoulders to release one of his factory’s paper workers. Yet other episodes in Les Misérables were inspired by Victor Hugo’s own experience and interactions: in 1841, he saved a prostitute from arrest and used the episode as inspiration for depicting the harshest experiences that Fantine endures in his book; he also witnessed the arrest of a bread thief, one of the several life episodes that brought Gavroche to life.

Philosophy has tried to bring some light to the polarity expressed by our reaction to perceived wrongdoing: is revenge liberating, or it deepens the bond between the victim and the wrongdoer? Is forgiveness an act of cowardice or the best way to move past a moral transgression both for the victim and the wrongdoer? Our reaction to such situations, and the interpretation we make, has cultural echoes with deep roots. Feeling engaged with such stories reflects how emotionally contradictory they present themselves to us, no matter how rational and cool-blooded one believes to be.

Hubris and Nemesis

Ancient mythology and religion are full of revengeful characters that seem to be at the expense of emotions even with the constraints of morality: like mortals themselves, the Greek gods succumb to the spell of Nemesis, the goddess who punishes those falling prey to hubris behaving badly or arrogantly before the gods. In Abrahamic religions, the violent reality in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant may have influenced the violent and often arbitrary God of the Old Testament, irrationally eager to seek vengeance against his “chosen people.”

Coming from orality, Greek epic stories tell the heroic journey, both in character and in geography, of extraordinary characters facing superhuman deeds and incredible adventures, but also subject to wrongdoings and feelings of vengeance after human passions have played their part in a given situation.

Heavily influenced by Antiquity, Renaissance artists and poets would depict religious and mythological allegories of the so-called four primary passions directly derived from ancient philosophy’s theories of emotions (or passions): pleasure, pain, hope, and fear. Such passions weren’t bad in and on themselves though experiencing any of them in excess showed an imbalance that could be corrected by acting rationally (hence with virtue, according to Aristotle or the Stoics, among others).

In the Bible, human imperfection and our most instinctive drives are more controversial, and according to critics like Nietzsche (On the Genealogy of Morality), such reality has conditioned our culture and behavior. The Old Testament implies that humanity is guilt-ridden from the moment of conception because of the original sin of the primal ancestor: if old philosophical virtues are positive (or proactively created for human improvement), the cardinal sins are “natural” or negative (according to the Old Testament, inherent in us as “sinful” beings in origin). Guilt and bad conscience are, according to Nietzsche’s analysis, a byproduct of Christianity (how to “repay” the generosity of Jesus sacrificing himself for the “guilt” of humanity?).

Liberation from resentment

But no matter the interpreter of our complex relationship with the Old Testament God and how it shaped the perception of morality, anybody will agree on one interpretation: emotions are more powerful than reason. And, when secularism expanded, cultivating virtuosity or avoiding cardinal sin stopped being a deterrent. As the Enlightenment saw the publication of influential treatises of morality, art and literature also depicted the experimentation of transgressors.

Contrary to what pop culture suggests, how we react to bad faith actions or wrongdoings defines more who we are than our consumer taste; it may also affect our mental well-being and overall health. Revenge is an impulsive behavioral reaction wired in our own sense of worth and survival, while forgiveness requires a conscious, rational effort to counter immediate anger.

In complex societies, retributive justice is monopolized by institutions, so suppressing any instinct of revenge without seeking any alternative, such as our ability to forgive (and, ultimately, to close an episode) can lead to negative emotions such as resentment. A wronged person feeling resentment carries the double burden of being incapable of stopping his anger and unable to turn the page and move on.

Victor Hugo clearly made a difference between revenge and forgiveness in his own life: he did not bend to any intent to suppress his political and social engagements and preferred to remain exiled when it would have been more convenient to return to France with high honors. In his personal life, though, he practiced conscientious forgiveness, aware that forgiving those who make a mistake neutralizes destructive, negative emotions.

French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who had suffered Jewish prosecution during WWII, would claim, as if inspired by precedent intellectuals such as Hugo, that “forgiveness acts upon the past, somehow repeats the event, purifying it.”