At several points in the novel, the narrator claims that the whole thrust of the book is from social evil to social good, proving that progress, while slow and complex, is inevitable. One way this movement is symbolized is through the progression from darkness into light. Darkness symbolizes the various kinds of evil that are enacted, consciously or unconsciously, in society: the abandonment of children, the despicable treatment of women, and the lack of mercy shown to those who have broken society’s rules (like convicts). Light, on the other hand, comes to stand for knowledge, truth, mercy, and goodness—those who have “seen the light” no longer blindly follow society’s judgmental assertions and assumptions.
The narrator often uses the language of light and darkness to imply this progress from social backwardness into a progressive society. But light and darkness, in turn, also fill the scenes of the novel, allowing the reader to associate certain characters and places with evil or with good. The members of the Patron-Minette criminal gang in Paris, for instance, only ever go out at night, in the darkness, while the Bishop of D— is often described as lit up in his very demeanor. Other characters pass through darkness on their way to the light. Cosette’s moment of greatest despair comes as she wanders through the black forest at night to fetch water for the Thenardiers, while Valjean’s greatest challenge is to carry Marius, whom he hates for taking Cosette away from him, through the ominous, gloomy, underground sewers of Paris. This journey from darkness to light, however, is considered necessary—the only way to achieve mercy and goodness.
Light and Darkness Quotes in Les Miserables
“The guilty one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person who has created the shadow.”
Only, as he was five and fifty, and Cosette eight years of age, all that might have been love in the whole course of his life flowed together into a sort of ineffable light. It was the second white apparition which he had encountered. The Bishop had caused the dawn of virtue to rise on his horizon; Cosette caused the dawn of love to rise.
Happy, even in the midst of anguish, is he to whom God has given a soul worthy of love and of unhappiness! He who has not viewed the things of this world and the heart of man under this double light has seen nothing and knows nothing of the true.
Slang is language turned convict. That the thinking principle of man be thrust down ever so low, that it can be dragged and pinioned there by obscure tyrannies of fatality, that it can be bound by no one knows what fetters in that abyss, is sufficient to create consternation. Oh, poor thought of miserable wretches! Alas! Will no one come to the succor of the human soul in that darkness?
As he emerged from the water, he came in contact with a stone and fell upon his knees. He reflected that this was but just, and he remained there for some time, with his soul absorbed in words addressed to God. He rose to his feet, shivering, chilled, foul-smelling, bowed beneath the dying man whom he was dragging after him, all dripping with slime, and his soul filled with a strange light.
His supreme anguish was the loss of certainty. He felt that he had been uprooted […] A whole new world was dawning on his soul: kindness accepted and repaid, devotion, mercy, indulgence, violences committed by pity on austerity, respect for persons, no more definitive condemnation, no more conviction, the possibility of a tear in the eye of the law, no one knows what justice according to God, running in inverse sense to justice according to men. He perceived amid the shadows the terrible rising of an unknown moral sun: it horrified and dazzled him.