Les Miserables

Les Miserables Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Silver Candlestick (Symbol)

After Valjean is dragged back to Bishop Myriel's house after the theft of the silver, Myriel rebukes him for forgetting part of the gift and gives him his silver candlesticks. It is this incredible act of generosity that inspires Valjean to give up his criminal past and embark on a new life. Valjean sells the rest of the silver to start a lucrative business enterprise, but he keeps the silver candlesticks on his mantle as a reminder of his new purpose in life.

During the Champmathieu affair, Valjean is seizes with terror that he will be discovered in his new life as Monsieur Madeleine, and melts the silver candlesticks into the fire. He hears a mysterious voice that urges him not to abandon his duty, and he goes to Arras so assist Champmathieu.

The candlesticks are a potent symbol of Valjean's new life, and they appear at the beginning of this life, and they also have a prominent role when it is challenged. Their significance as a symbol is informed by their practical function: like a candlestick, Valjean is meant to shed light in a darkened world.

The Guillotine (Symbol)

Bishop Myriel is haunted by the execution of a condemned criminal by guillotine, and this prompts him to consider the death policy more generally. The author writes "We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. [...] The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name in vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. [...] All social questions achieve their finality around the blade" (pg. 32).

Focusing on the horror of the guillotine and connecting it with vengeance raises the question of what revenge is really worth. The greatest heroes in Les Misérables are those who have suffered deeply but have foresworn vengeance and instead focus themselves on bettering the lives of others Hugo cites the guillotine as the object around which "all social questions achieve their finality," which is no small statement in a novel that is primary about social questions.

Children (Motif)

Children are symbols of purity and goodness, perhaps because of their innocence. They are frequently messengers in Les Misérables, and herald changes in the narrative. Valjean steals a coin from a little boy, which is the last straw that convinces him to abandon his life of crime and embark on a more righteous life. Cosette, terribly mistreated by the Thénardiers, inspires Valjean to even greater heights of moral goodness. Gavroche, the spunky street urchin, is one of the most memorable and likable characters in the novel. For the author Victor Hugo, the mistreatment of a child is the greatest form of wickedness and anything that benefits a child is the highest good.

Nettles (Symbol)

On page 160, Valjean/Madeleine ponders the similarities between nettles and human beings. Nettles are a tough and useful weed, often considered a pest but actually essential to a number of industries, including cloth-making, dye manufacture, and farming. He ends this meditation by concluding, "With very little trouble nettles can be put to use; being neglected they become obnoxious and are therefore destroyed. How many men share the fate of the nettle!"

This indicates how evolved Valjean's sense of compassion has become, that nettles can lead him to meditate on the human condition. Comparing human beings to this particular plant (a prickly, pest-like, but very useful one) indicates a particular vision of the human condition: human beings, like nettles, have to be cultivated in the right way if they are to demonstrate their usefulness.

The Journey of the Soul (Allegory)

Jean Valjean's personal journey from angry ex-convict to beloved adopted father mirrors the journey of the soul from bitterness to grace. Some aspects of his story mirror that of Jesus: for example, he agonizes about what to do in the case of Champmathieu just as Jesus agonized about his crucifixion. Significantly, both men accepted suffering to benefit others. Victor Hugo suggests that suffering might be a catalyst towards greater personal purity, and that the soul must move from darkness and hatred toward light and love.

Bastille Elephant (Symbol)

The urchin Gavroche takes shelter in a massive statue of an elephant by the Bastille. The elephant is described thus: it is "forty feet high, constructed of wood and plaster, with a tower the size of a house on its back. [...] Outlined against the stars at night, in that open space, with its huge body and trunk, its crenellated tower, its four legs like temple columns, it was an astonishing and impressive spectacle" (pg. 822).

France at this time is recovering from the derailed greatness of Napoleon, expressed by the magnificence of the elephant in both is size and the grand materials of its construction. The elephant is a symbol of the potential of France.