BORN: 1802, Besangon, France
DIED: 1885, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)
Les Miserables (1862)
Victor Hugo. Mansell / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
Victor Hugo is considered one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in French literature. Although chiefly known outside France for the novels Les miserables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), he is famous in France for his revolutionary and controversial style as a poet.
Victor Hugo. Hugo, Victor, after 1860, photo by Pierre Petit. Giraudon / Art Resource, NY.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Family and Early Years. Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besangon, France, on February 26, 1802, less than fifteen years after the French Revolution. The French Revolution had been a revolt of the working class against the rule and power of the nobility and the clergy. Royalists, who supported the nobility and former king who had been overthrown, were stripped of much of their power and wealth, and control of the country was eventually taken by the military leader Napoleon Bonaparte.
Victor-Marie Hugo was the third son of Sophie Trebuchet, daughter of royalist sympathizers, and Joseph Hugo, member of the military under Napoleon. Hugo traveled extensively during his childhood until, when he was twelve years old, his parents separated, and he moved to Paris with his mother.
When Napoleon was forced into exile in 1814, Madame Hugo rejoiced; her lover had been executed because he had plotted to overthrow the military leader. Her reaction might account for Victor’s early hatred of Napoleon, his preoccupation with the death penalty, and the fascination with exile that appeared so often in his works.
First Works and the Beginnings of Romanticism. Hugo gained literary recognition at a young age from Louis XVIII, who ruled France after Napoleon’s exile, as well as from French writer Franyois-Rene de Chateaubriand and other literary figures. He published his first volume of poetry, Odes et poesies diverses in 1822, which earned him a pension from Louis XVIII and enabled him to marry his childhood sweetheart, Adele Foucher. They would have five children together.
Hugo’s home became a center of intellectual activity, and he counted among his friends the writer and critic Charles Sainte-Beuve and writer Theophile Gautier. During this period, Hugo wrote several novels and volumes of poetry that foreshadow his Romantic tendencies.
His 1826 poetry collection Odes et ballades was received with great enthusiasm. Though the royalist and Catholic press, disappointed with not seeing church and throne exalted, condemned the poems, they were loudly praised by the youthful Romantic school for their extravagance.
Hugo’s dramatic work began with the publication of the controversial preface to his lengthy and unstageable verse drama Cromwell (1827). This preface sought to establish a new set of dramatic principles that were to become the manifesto of the Romantic movement. Hugo demanded a new form of verse drama that abandoned the formal rules of classical tragedy. One of his most important principles concerns the necessity of portraying the grotesque as well as the beautiful. Since both are found in nature, and since all that is in nature should be in art, both should be presented in a play.
These precepts were put to the test in 1830, with the production of Hugo’s Hernani (1830). Its debut was referred to as the ‘‘battle of Hernani” because of the heated reaction of the theatergoers. Groups of Romantic writers and artists attended performances to demonstrate support for Hugo's revolutionary use of language and innovative dramatic techniques; traditionalists tended to denounce Hugo's disregard of the classic precepts of drama, including unity of time, place, and action.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Further Success. Hoping to benefit from this publicity, Hugo’s publisher pressed him for a novel. Hugo returned to a novel he had begun researching in the late 1820s about Parisian life during the Middle Ages and completed the book in January 1831. It was published as Notre-Dame de Paris (the English title became The Hunchback of Notre Dame) that March.
The novel, set in Paris in 1482, recounts three men’s love and one woman's hatred for a young Gypsy dancer, who in turn loves a fourth man. Completed in the months immediately following the July Revolution of 1830, in which King Louis X was overthrown by his cousin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame also illustrates Hugo's views on numerous social and political issues, particularly the development of the common people as a significant political force.
During the production of Hernani, Hugo's friend Sainte-Beuve had begun a lengthy affair with Hugo's wife, and Hugo in turn began a series of affairs. His most lasting relationship began in 1833 with the actress Juliette Drouet; although he was unfaithful to her, their relationship continued until death.
From 1834 until 1862, Hugo concentrated on the theater, poetry, and politics. Hugo was very successful in the theater during the 1830s, focusing on historical drama. While certain themes—fate, virginity, death, and class conflict—recur in his plays, Hugo’s dramas differ from his novels through their emphasis on political power.
Hugo’s literary achievement was recognized in 1841 by his election to the Academie franyaise and in 1845 by his elevation to the peerage. During the latter half of that decade, he devoted most of his time to politics, delivering a number of political speeches condemning the legal system and society's persecution of the poor.
In 1849, he was elected to the National Assembly. Because of his opposition to Louis Napoleon’s dictatorial ambitions, he was forced to leave France following Napoleon’s coup d’etat of 1851. He initially fled to Belgium but finally settled on the British island of Guernsey.
Les Contemplations. While exiled, Hugo published Les Contemplations (1856), poems centered around the 1843 death of his daughter Leopoldine. The volume contrasted lighthearted, lyrical works in one section called Autrefois (Before) and more pessimistic, philosophical works in the other part, Aujourd’hui (Today). Both question the poet’s relation with others and God. This collection is often considered his poetic masterpiece.
Les miserable. After publishing several other volumes of poetry, Hugo published Les miserables (1862), which was an amazing financial success. It is the story of a released convict, Jean Valjean, who faces repeated hardships despite his efforts to reform. Valjean’s tragic history is a condemnation of unfair legal penalties, and his life in the underworld of Paris illustrates Hugo’s conviction that social evils are created and fostered by existing laws and customs. Les miserables was influential in the movement for legal and social reform in nineteenth-century France.
Upon his return to France in 1870, Hugo received widespread public recognition. Though nominated for public office, he took little further interest in national affairs. His death from pneumonia on May 22, 1885, warranted national mourning. He was buried in the Pantheon in Paris, an honor reserved for only the most significant figures in French history and art.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Hugo's famous contemporaries include:
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870): French writer best known for his historical novels, including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886): Hungarian Romantic composer and pianist, famous for his prodigious output and virtuosic technique.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867): French poet and critic. Baudelaire was famous for Les fleurs du mal (1857), a volume of poetry that was controversial because of its themes of sex and death.
Flora Tristan (1803-1844): French feminist, activist, and writer. Tristan argued that women's rights would also benefit men and the working class.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Italian Romantic composer specializing in opera. His Rigoletto (1851) is based on a play by Hugo.
Works in Literary Context
Some say that Victor Hugo had no ‘‘followers.’’ More specifically, French poet Charles Baudelaire once announced that what influence Hugo had was harmful, sapping the originality of those who came too close. Certainly Hugo never created a new aesthetic, such as the one begun by Baudelaire and continued by Stephane Mallarme and Paul Valery. He may have simply lived too long: by the time he died, those who would have taken up where he left off were already dead or had been left behind.
A Stylistic Revolution in Poetry. Hugo’s 1826 poetry collection Odes et ballades marked a stylistic revolution. The ballad form freed Hugo from the constrictions of classical lyric and allowed him to articulate the poetics announced in Odes et poesies diverses, one based not on form but on idea. In this regard, he may be considered the precursor of both Surrealism and Symbolism, movements that opposed Realism and Naturalism in their attempt to portray the particular and the true, not through description and specifics but through symbolic imagery.
The Dark Power in Hugo’s Dramatic Poetry. Although critical attention to Hugo’s work diminished shortly after his death, he has always been distinguished as an outstanding poet whose technical virtuosity advanced French poetry. In fact, in 1855, a critic for the North American Review suggested that Hugo’s dramatic poetry ‘‘inaugurated a new era in French literature’’ because of his intensity and break with convention. Hugo sought to express ‘‘the real’’ in drama and embraced characters and themes that were grotesque or sublime, an unusual practice that disgusted much of the literary public. He saw beauty in what was traditionally considered dark and disturbed. This interest in exposing truths normally hidden spilled through his other writings, from his political commentary about the Revolution of 1848 to his well-known prose.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Romantic movement in the 1820s examined exceptional individuals and their struggles. Here are some works by other major European Romantic writers.
The Betrothed (1827), a novel by Alessandro Manzoni. Two young lovers, Lucia and Renzo, struggle to be together in seventeenth-century Italy during the Thirty Years' War.
The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Frenchman Edmund Dantes is betrayed by a friend and imprisoned. Upon his escape from jail, he vows to dedicate his life to revenge.
Don Alvaro (1835), a play by Angel de Saavedra. Spanish lovers Don Alvaro and Leonor de Vargas are caught by her father as they are about to elope, and her father is accidentally killed. Don Alvaro flees and becomes a soldier, and then a monk, until Leonor's vengeful brother discovers him.
Eugene Onegin (1831), a novel in verse by Aleksandr Pushkin. Eugene Onegin is a bored Russian nobleman who rejects a young woman, only to fall in love with her and be rejected in turn several years later when she has become more cosmopolitan.
The Red and the Black (1831), a novel by Stendhal. Julien, ambitious but born into the working class, uses hypocrisy to rise in French society, but he is undone by an impulsive act of violence.
Works in Critical Context
It has often been claimed that Hugo’s works are fantastic and that they fail to achieve the psychological or descriptive truth characteristic of the novel. Richard B. Grant, writing about Hugo’s early books, argues that roman should be translated as ‘‘romance,’’ not ‘‘novel.’’ While the novel tries to represent ‘‘real people’’ through the analysis, description, and evolution of character, the romance deals in archetypes and tends toward myth. Hugo sought to represent a general, archetypal reality, more similar to myth than to modern novels.
Desire and Disgust in Hugo’s Prose. Hugo’s deviation from French dramatic and literary tradition challenged critics and readers alike. His predilection for violent, gritty language, often considered a form of ‘‘bestiality,’’ as noted by a reviewer for the Edinburgh Review in 1865, confronted conventional literary standards and morality. But this same style also intrigued and excited readers, and a few years before Les miserables was even published, public gossip proclaimed that Hugo’s new novel would ‘‘sap the foundations of Imperialism, and shake society to its very centre.’’ Hugo’s work was the proverbial forbidden fruit, and everyone wanted a taste. The novel’s title alone alluded to the deviance within; the entire book was about les miserables, or the wretches, the wretched. In the preface to the novel, Hugo writes that Les miserables reflects the way contemporary ‘‘laws and customs’’ create a ‘‘social damnation’’ that leads to ‘‘artificial hells in the middle of civilization.’’
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Contemporary French reviewers were generally unimpressed by this novel when it was published. Max Bach has attributed this to the partisan concerns of various groups of critics, including those who objected to the absence of religion in the novel and those who believed that Hugo had slighted the middle class. Critics agree that it is not the plot, but the evocation of the Middle Ages that constitutes the center of the novel’s interest, and the statement that the cathedral is its main character is of great validity.
Les Contemplations. A lyric meditation on mortality, love, and the fate of humankind, this collection was characterized by Suzanne Nash as an allegory of evolving spiritual awareness, each book disclosing a new level of metaphysical insight, progressing from nature, love, and social awareness to suffering, duty, and prophetic clairvoyance. Other scholars— John Frey, for example—dispute this assessment, arguing that since there is no clear resolution to the problems posed by the poems in the collection, if Les Contemplations is an allegory, then it is of failure, not of progress. All agree Les Contemplations combines passion and faith in an intensely personal drama of loss and salvation.
Responses to Literature
1. In his outline of Romanticism, Hugo stated that the ‘‘grotesque’’ must be treated alongside the beautiful. Look up grotesque in a dictionary. Using the definition, write a paragraph exploring what you think he meant by that statement.
2. With your classmates, discuss characterization: When you read a book or watch a movie, are you interested in realistic characters who seem true to life, or do you prefer archetypes—that is, characters who symbolize a particular type of person, such as the Hero, the Misunderstood Genius, and so forth? How do you view the characters in Hugo’s Les miserables?
3. Hugo’s novel Les miserables was adapted to the musical Les Miserables in the 1980s. It has been hugely successful, being translated into twenty-one languages and playing almost continuously since then. Using resources at your library or on the Internet, research the musical. Create a poster or electronic presentation that describes the popularity of this adaptation. Why do you think it has struck such a chord with the public?
4. Some musicians and celebrities, like U2’s Bono, Wyclef Jean, and Angelina Jolie, are publicly involved in social issues. Does their opinion on issues influence you? Does it depend on who the celebrity is? Write a short essay outlining your views, giving specific reasons for your opinions.
5. Victor Hugo was strongly opposed to the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision about the death penalty in the case Baze v. Rees in April 2008. Using sources from your library or the Internet, research their decision and write a report that presents the case. At the end of the report, include a paragraph in which you offer your personal opinions about the Court’s decision.
Baudelaire, Charles P. ‘‘Victor Hugo.’’ In Baudelaire, as a Literary Critic. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964.
Bloom, Harold. ‘‘The Breaking of Form.’’ In Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Seabury, 1979.
Brombert, V. H. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968.
Josephson, Matthew. Victor Hugo: A Realistic Biography of the Great Romantic. New York: Doubleday, 1942.
Nash, Suzanne. “Les Contemplations’’ of Victor Hugo: An Allegory of the Creative Process. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Brombert, Victor. ‘‘Victor Hugo’s Condemned Man: Laughter of Revolution.’’ Romanic Review 70 (1979): 119-32.
Cooper, Barbara T. ‘‘Parodying Hugo.’’ European Romantic Review 2, no. 1 (1991): 23-38.
Haig, Stirling. ‘‘From Cathedral to Book, from Stone to Press: Hugo’s Portrait of the Artist in Notre-Dame de Paris.’’ Stanford French Review 3 (Winter 1979): 343-50.
Holdheim, W. Wolfgang. ‘‘The History of Art in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.’’ Nineteenth-Century French Studies 5 (Fall/Winter 1976/1977): 58-70.
Nash, Suzanne. ‘‘Writing a Building: Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris’ French Forum 8 (May 1983): 122-23.
States of Guernsey Tourist Board. Guernsey’s Official Victor Hugo Website. Retrieved May 14, 2008, from http://www.victorhugo.gg.
Victor Hugo Online. The Life and Work of Victor Hugo. Retrieved May 14, 2008, from http://www.hugo-online.org/index.html. Last updated on May 17, 2007.