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Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Symbols


Silver Candlesticks

A blessing from Monseigneur Bienvenu, the candles symbolize the spiritual light that will guide Jean Valjean. The bishop calls him "brother" and says "you no longer belong to evil, but to the good ... I withdraw [your soul] from dark thoughts." Thus, while Jean Valjean sells the silver service, he holds on to the candlesticks to remind himself of his promise to become a righteous man. The candlesticks are on his mantle in Montreuil-sur-mer, and then he buries them with his money when he is on the run. Years later they comfort him at the Rue de l'Homme-Armé, after he is abandoned by Cosette and Marius. In the evening as Jean Valjean pines for his daughter, he lights the tapers in the candlesticks, and when she comes, he thanks God he has not been abandoned. The candlesticks are a constant reminder his life is informed by the grace of God. He bequeaths the candlesticks to Cosette and Marius, saying for him they are more than silver—more than gold or diamonds; they are consecrated. He says, "I do not know whether the one who gave them to me is satisfied with me in heaven. I have done what I could."

Yellow Passport

Jean Valjean's status as a pariah and outsider is symbolized by his yellow passport. While he is technically free from jail, the yellow passport says otherwise. He must present it whenever he goes to a new town, declaring himself to be "dangerous." Thus the passport automatically puts him outside free society and ensures people will turn him away for basic services and that it will be difficult for him to find work. The passport is a symbol of his disenfranchisement; his identity card says he belongs to the tribe of les misérables. Jean Valjean, fortified by his blessing from the bishop, rejects society's assessment of him and begins a new life as Madeleine.

The Garden

The garden symbolizes beauty, love, compassion, and the life force. Jean Valjean starts life as a pruner, a man who works with trees. The bishop has a garden he lovingly tends, just as he cultivates the people in his care. When Jean Valjean takes on the identity of Madeleine, he does the same, becoming a philanthropist who builds hospitals and schools, helping individuals, and giving advice to people from miles around. Both the bishop's and Jean Valjean's gardens are beautiful, and they grow when they are fed with love and compassion and the enormous life force that both men possess. Later Jean Valjean tends the garden at the convent of Petit-Picpus, just as he continues to care for Cosette.

Cosette's and Marius's love begins in a wild garden. Together they will learn to tame the garden of their love, and it has the promise of including a wider circle of people. They have a garden at Grandfather Gillenormand's house and offer to share it with Jean Valjean at the end of the novel, but it is too late. Cosette has failed to tend her relationship with her father, while Marius has not even bothered to begin cultivating one. They realize their error too late, and Jean Valjean dies before these two learn to become better gardeners.

The Barricade

Whenever France has another revolution, the people raise the barricade, a symbol of revolt. Revolution is a double-edged sword that destroys and kills even as it hastens progress. The barricade separates the old regime from the new, the monarchy from the Republic, the subject from the citizen. Revolution, like the barricade, is spontaneous, and it is created by the people. It is the first line of defense against the status quo and a vantage point from which to shoot and kill tyranny. Unfortunately, the blood of human beings is always spilled in a revolution, and sometimes the outcome of revolution is unexpected. Sometimes it is hard to know which side of the barricade to stand on, as Victor Hugo learned in 1848.

Cosette's Mourning Clothes

Jean Valjean carries with him, from place to place, a valise Cosette calls "the inseparable." At the end of the novel, the reader learns the hero has saved the black mourning clothes he brought to the child Cosette when he rescued her from the clutches of the Thénardiers. These clothes are precious to him because they signify his entry into fatherhood and love—in which he bound himself to another human being and put her needs above his own. While the bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, has delivered Jean Valjean from evil and put him on a righteous path, it is Cosette who makes him fully human by bringing him into the community of love. Jean Valjean's promise to be a good man may have become a dry crust of bread, but when Cosette enters his life it becomes nourishment that can keep feeding him—because now he has a being other than himself to live for.

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