Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
M. Myriel’s candlesticks are the most prominent symbol of compassion in Les Misérables, and they shed a light that always brings love and hope. At the beginning of the novel, Hugo uses the contrast between light and darkness to underscore the differences between Myriel, an upstanding citizen, and Valjean, a dark, brooding figure seemingly incapable of love. When Myriel gives Valjean his silver candlesticks, Myriel is literally passing on this light as he tells Valjean he must promise to become an honest man. Subsequently, the candlesticks reappear frequently to remind Valjean of his duty. When Valjean dies, the candlesticks shine brightly across his face, a symbolic affirmation that he has attained his goal of love and compassion.
When describing the novel’s main characters, Hugo uses animal imagery to accentuate these characters’ qualities of good and evil. The orphaned figures of Cosette and Gavroche are frequently referred to as creatures of flight: Cosette as a lark and Gavroche as a fly. The Thénardiers, on the other hand, are described as snakes, and Cosette’s time among them is likened to living with beetles. These opposing symbols suggest that whereas Cosette and Gavroche can rise above their miserable circumstances, the Thénardiers are rooted in their immoral pursuits. They are creatures of the earth, which means that they are not as free as Cosette or Gavroche, who can fly wherever they please.