What are examples showing that Victor Hugo's language in Les Misérables has depth?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Victor Hugo's language in Les Misérables most certainly has depth. Among other things, it is not only rich with imagery, it is rich with symbolism.

One example of rich imagery can be seen in his description of Jean Valjean being sentenced as a galley-slave on a chain gang. Valjean was sent to prison merely because he broke into a store to steal a loaf of bread for his seven starving nephews and nieces. Hugo vividly paints the injustice of his sentence with the imagery he uses to describe Valjean's imprisonment, images such as "iron collar", "heavy blows from the hammer," as well of the images of Valjean weeping, as we see in the sentence:

While the bolt of his iron collar was being riveted behind his head with heavy blows from the hammer, he wept, his tears stifled him, they impeded his speech. (Vol. 1, Bk. 2, Ch. 6)

In addition, the image of Valjean raising his right hand and lowering it "gradually seven times" to depict the seven starving children is also a very poignant image and very vividly depicts both his suffering and the injustice.  

Hugo's language is especially rich with symbolism. We especially see Hugo make use of the candlestick as a symbol with respect to Valjean. While staying the night in the Bishop of Digne's home, Valjean is overcome by instincts of survival and decides to steal the the Bishop's silver. Hugo describes Valjean as removing a heavy, black object from his knapsack, which is the kind of iron candlestick prisoners use when they are mining. In contrast, the Bishop of Digne's silver candlesticks are gleaming and beautiful. Since candlesticks usually contain candles that burn flames, the flames symbolize spiritual awakening, while the candlesticks themselves symbolize the state of the soul. Valjean's candlestick is black and iron, showing us that his soul has become black and hardened due to so many years of mistreatment. The Bishop of Digne offers Valjean a new soul, as he says, "It is your soul that I buy from you" (Vol. 1, Bk. 2, Ch. 12). The new soul the Bishop is offering is redeemed, purified, and gleaming, as symbolized by the gleaming, silver candlestick.


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