Les Miserables: Metaphor Analysis
The Bishop's Silver Candlesticks
The story of Jean Valjean is one of transformation. The candlesticks that the bishop gives to the newly released convict symbolize Jean Valjean's redemption and connect his life as a hardened convict with his life as one who struggles to do good in the world. The candlesticks are among the first things mentioned in the story and they are present when Jean Valjean dies at story's end. When the bishop gives them to Jean Valjean he assures more than the man's freedom. He says "It is your soul I am buying for you." Jean Valjean is transformed at that moment and the candlesticks are the means. As such they come to represent the enduring moral influence of the bishop. Jean Valjean recognizes their importance when he nearly follows through with his resolution to destroy them in order to sever the last ties to anything that could connect his identity as Father Madeleine to his true past. After destroying his old clothing he comes to the candlesticks and thinks that they must be destroyed because "All of Jean Valjean is contained in them." Indeed, throughout all his trials he retains the candlesticks and on his deathbed Hugo writes that "the light from the candlesticks fell across him; his white face looked up toward heaven." This cements the connection between the candlesticks and Jean Valjean's salvation.
The Parisian sewer is described in exhaustive detail and is used as a symbol for the collective conscience of the city. The narrator relates that everything that the inhabitants of the city wish to keep secret or otherwise discard from their lives find its way into the network of polluted streams that flowed under their feet. The narrator remarks that in the sewer "Each thing had its real form, or at least its definitive form." As such, when Jean Valjean drops into the sewer with Marius he is in a sense physically struggling through the city's conscience, looking for a way out, in much the same way that he mentally struggles with his own conscience during the episodes involving the Champmathieu trial and Cosette's marriage.
Cosette's Mourning Clothes
The set of child's mourning clothes which Jean Valjean takes to the Thenardiers in order to clothe Cosette for the trip to Paris come to symbolize the time in their lives when all they had was each other and she depended on him for her happiness. As such the clothes become precious to him and he carries them through all his tribulations. He keeps them in a small locked valise and Cosette remarks that she is jealous of it and calls it his "inseparable." Near the end of his life, Jean Valjean evokes memories of happier times when he removes the clothes from the valise and spreads them on the bed in his lonely apartment. Their symbolic connection to his relationship with Cosette is so strong that the sight of them reduces the once strong man to tears.
While practically all the characters in the story can be said to symbolize some aspect of the human condition, Javert stands apart as the most obviously symbolic character in the story. The concept that he embodies, namely the unyielding structure of society and its intolerance for anything or any one who transgresses its dictums, so defines his character that he eventually chooses to end his life because he cannot change his outlook. He is portrayed as the perfect tool of the power structure and seeks to assert its authority and maintain the rule of law at every turn. Like Jean Valjean he believes himself outside of society but as its protector rather than its transgressor. Javert's hatred of the gypsy race, to which he belongs, causes him to decide early in his life that two avenues are available to him. "He noticed that society irrevocably closes its doors on two classes of men," remarks the narrator, "those who attack it and those who guard it." Javert chooses the latter path and his haughty attitude while prisoner of the revolutionaries demonstrates the extent of his loyalty to the status quo. Javert is so defined by his symbolic role that, unlike Jean Valjean who is transformed by the bishop's act of kindness, Javert is unable to assimilate Jean Valjean's act of kindness (when he spares Javert's life in the barricade) and his existence is rendered meaningless.