BORN: 1802, Besançon, France
DIED: 1885, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)
Les Misérables (1862)
Victor Hugo is considered one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in French literature. Although chiefly known outside France for the novels Les misérables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), he is famous in France for his revolutionary and controversial style as a poet.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Family and Early Years Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, 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 Napoléon Bonaparte.
Victor-Marie Hugo was the third son of Sophie Trébuchet, daughter of royalist sympathizers, and Joseph Hugo, member of the military under Napoléon. 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 Napoléon 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 Napoléon, 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 Napoléon's exile, as well as from French writer François-René de Chateau-briand and other literary figures. He published his first volume of poetry, Odes et poésies diverses in 1822, which earned him a pension from Louis XVIII and enabled him to marry his childhood sweetheart, Adèle 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 Théophile 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 Académie française 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 Napoléon's dictatorial ambitions, he was forced to leave France following
Napoléon'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 Léopoldine. 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 misérables After publishing several other volumes of poetry, Hugo published Les misérables (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 misérables 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 Panthéon in Paris, an honor reserved for only the most significant figures in French history and art.
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 Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. 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 poésies 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.
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.
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.
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 misérables 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 misérables, or the wretches, the wretched. In the preface to the novel, Hugo writes that Les misérables 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.
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.
DonÁlvaro (1835), a play byÁngelde Saavedra. Spanish lovers
DonÁlvaro and Leonor de Vargas are caught by her father as they are about to elope, and her father is accidentally killed. DonÁlvaro 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.
Responses to Literature
- 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.
- 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 misérables?
- Hugo's novel Les misérables was adapted to the musical Les Misérables 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Vicomte Victor Marie Hugo
Vicomte Victor Marie Hugo
The French author Victor Marie, Vicomte Hugo (1802-1885), was the supreme poet of French romanticism. He is noted for the breadth of his creation, the versatility that made him as much at ease in the novel as in the short lyric, and the mystical grandeur of his vision.
Victor Hugo had a nomadic and anxious childhood. He was erratically schooled, a fact which accounts in part for the eclectic and unsystematic aspect of his poetic thought. At age 14 he wrote, "I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing." He had begun to write in every poetic genre—odes, satires, elegies, riddles, epics, madrigals—and to receive recognition while still in his adolescence, never having to fact the long years of obscurity and struggle that are the lot of most poets.
In 1822 Hugo married his childhood sweetheart, Adèle Foucher, one and a half years after the death of his mother, who opposed the match. They later had four children, and their apartment, on the rue Cherche-midi in Paris, became the meeting place for the avant-garde of the romantic movement. In 1822 Hugo also published his first signed book, Odes et poésies diverses. In the preface to this book, which contains many poems celebrating his love for Adèle, the poet wrote, "Poetry is the most intimate of all things."
Hugo's work may be roughly divided into three periods. First in time is the intimate lyrical vein typical of the odes. Second is an involved or committed poetry speaking directly to political and social conditions. The epic novel Les Misérables, for example, fits into this group. (But this vein is also present in the very first volume, where a number of poems praise the throne and the altar; Hugo, who was to end as a staunch republican, began as a royalist.) In the last phase of his career Hugo rose to the heights of mysticism and poetic vision, as in La Fin de Satan.
Development of Romanticism
In 1824 some of Hugo's friends founded a review called Muse française which claimed as its contributors Alfred de Musset, Charles Nodier, and Hugo himself. All were young writers who were beginning to break with neoclassicism. After his visit to Alphonse de Lamartine and his discovery of German balladry, in 1826 Hugo published Odes et ballades, in which his rejection of neoclassicism became increasingly clear.
The years 1826 and 1827 were triumphant ones for the Cénacle, the name given to the young romantics who recognized Hugo as their chief and called him the "prince of poets." What Lamartine and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand had begun, Hugo was dedicated to complete. He ceased writing complimentary odes to King Charles X and began praising Napoleon I instead. With critics like Nodier and Charles Sainte-Beuve to advise him and with the support of geniuses such as the painter Eugène Delacroix and the poets Musset and Gerard de Nerval, Hugo formulated the doctrine of romanticism. This doctrine was expressed in the preface to his unproduced play, Cromwell, published in October 1827. Where classics and neoclassics had repudiated the Middle Ages as "barbaric," Hugo saw richness and beauty in this period, and he called for a new poetry inspired by medieval Christianity. He vindicated the ugly and grotesque as elements of the "new beauty." Poetry, he said, should do as nature does, "mixing in its creations yet without confusion shadow with light, the grotesque with the sublime, in other words, the body with the soul, the bestial with the spiritual." The vivifying sources of this new literature were to be the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare.
Convinced that the new vision must prove itself in the theater, Hugo followed Cromwell with a number of other plays. On Feb. 25, 1830, the famous "battle of Hernani" took place, with Hugo's supporters outshouting the neoclassicists and antiromantics who had come to hiss the play. Hernani was performed 45 times (an unusual success for those days) and brought Hugo the friendship of such notable figures as Dumas père and George Sand.
But Hugo did not confine himself to the drama. In 1831 he published his magnificent novel Notre Dame de Paris, the work for which he is best known in the United States. He was originally inspired by Sir Walter Scott, on whom he hoped to improve by adding "sentiment" and "poetry" to the historical novel. In addition, he wished to convey the true spirit of the late Middle Ages through his evocation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and his characters: Frollo the archdeacon, Quasimodo the hunchback, and Esmeralda the gypsy girl. Hugo wrote the novel nonstop during the fall and early winter of 1830 in order to meet his publisher's deadline. Although some readers were shocked that Frollo (who had taken holy orders) should fall in love with Esmeralda, the tale was an immense success. Théophile Gautier compared it to Homer's Iliad.
Also in 1831 Hugo published one of his most beautiful collections of poetry, Les Feuilles d'automne. Once again, Hugo wrote in the intimate vein: "Poetry speaks to man, to man as a whole…. Revolution changes all things, except the human heart." This volume expressed the sadness of things past as the poet approached his significant thirtieth birthday. The tone was personal and elegiac, sometimes sentimental.
It was not merely the passage of time that accounted for Hugo's melancholy. His wife, tired of bearing children and frustrated by the poet's immense egoism (Ego Hugo was his motto), turned for consolation to the poet's intimate friend, the waspish critic Sainte-Beuve. The sadness of this double betrayal is felt in Feuilles d'automne.
Tormented by his wife's coldness and his own inordinate sexual cravings, Hugo fell in love with the young actress and courtesan Juliette Drouet and took it upon himself to "redeem" her. He paid her debts and forced her to live in poverty, with her whole being focused entirely upon him. For the next 50 years Juliette followed the poet wherever he went. She lived in his shadow, unable to take a step without his permission, confined to a room here, a mere hovel there, but always near the magnificent houses where Hugo settled with his family. She lived henceforth solely for the poet and spent her time writing him letters, of which many thousands are extant.
With the advent of the July Monarchy, which ended the Bourbon succession and brought Louis Philippe of the house of Orléans to power, Hugo achieved wealth and recognition, and for 15 years he was the official poet of France. During this period a host of new works appeared in rapid sequence, including three plays: Le Roi s'amuse (1832), Lucrézia Borgia (1833), and the triumph Ruy Blas (1838).
In 1835 came Chants du crépuscule, which included many love lyrics to Juliette, and in 1837 Les Voix intérieures, an offering to the memory of his father, who had been a Napoleonic general. Les Rayons et les ombres (1840) showed the same variety of inspiration, the same sonorous harmony, the same brilliance of contrasting images. His devotion to Juliette here found its deepest poetic expression in the beautiful poem entitled Tristesse d'Olympio, which directly rivals Lamartine's Le Lac and Alfred de Vigny's Maison du berger. Like these famous poets, Hugo evoked the past, searching for permanence of love; but unlike the pantheistic Lamartine or the skeptical Vigny, Hugo found permanence in memory.
Hugo published no more lyric poetry until 1853. He was now seized with a new ambition: he wished to become a statesman. At first a royalist, then a moderate, Hugo moved steadily toward liberalism. After the July Revolution he wrote in a more stirring vein than he ever had before: "I hate oppression with a profound hatred…. I curse those kings who ride in blood up to the bridle!" Hugo claimed that he had a "crystal soul" that reflected the same evolution as that the French people had gone through: from royalism to opposition to royalism, from the cult of Bonaparte to republicanism.
When Louis Philippe was deposed in the Revolution of 1848, Hugo at first found it hard to identify himself with the provisional government of Lamartine, for he still believed that a constitutional monarchy was the best form of government for France. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be elected a deputy to the Assembly.
When Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the great man Hugo had always idolized, began to achieve notoriety, Hugo supported him. But his enthusiasm for the new president was short-lived. He wrote: "Upon the barricades I defended order. Before dictatorship I defended liberty." He made a stirring plea for freedom of the press and clemency to the rebel elements; at last, in 1849, he broke with Napoleon III with the words, "Because we have had a Great Napoleon must we now have a Little one?"
Louis Napoleon seized power by a coup d'etat on the night of Dec. 2, 1850, and proclaimed himself emperor. Hugo called for armed resistance and, witnessing the ensuing slaughter, Hugo believed the "Little Napoleon" to be a murderer. At great peril to her own life, Juliette saved the poet, found him shelter, and organized his escape to Brussels. From there he went to the British Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
In November 1853 Hugo's fiercely anti-Napoleonic verse volume, Les Châtiments, was published in Belgium. Two different editions—one published under a false name with rows of dots in place of the individuals attacked, and the other, which was complete, with only "Geneva and New York" in place of the author's name—were culled from the 6,000 verses of the original manuscript. Though banned in France, the books were smuggled in (a favorite trick being to stuff them into hollow busts of the Emperor) and widely circulated.
In Les Châtiments Hugo wrote in the same polemical but exalted vein as did Pierre Ronsard in some of his Discours, Agrippa d'Aubigne in his Les Tragiques, André Chénier in his lambs. Comparisons between the Great and the Little Napoleons recur frequently in the poem, and the poet repeatedly calls on Nature to punish the hideous crime against her. Only the vision of an avenging future can placate the poet's hatred of Little Napoleon. The definitive edition of Les Châtiments, with numerous additions, was published in 1870, when Hugo returned to Paris after the fall of Napoleon III.
During his exile Hugo gave vent to the mystical side of his personality. There were many séances in his home, first on Jersey, then in his splendid Hauteville House overlooking the coast of Guernsey. For Hugo, the supernatural was merely the natural. He had always felt premonitions, always heard premonitory sounds and messages during the night. Now, under the influence of a female voyante, he believed that he was communicating with spirits, among them Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, and even Jesus. But the "visit" that touched him most was that of his favorite daughter, Léopoldine, tragically drowned in the Seine with her young husband in 1843.
Indeed, Hugo's family was stricken with multiple tragedies. While exile refreshed and nourished his poetry, his wife and children languished. They longed for their friends and the familiar surroundings of Paris. His daughter, Adèle, retreated into a fantasy world, till at last she ran away in pursuit of an English officer who was already married. Hugo's wife left him to live in Brussels, where she died in 1868. Only Juliette remained loyal during the 17 years the poet spent in Hauteville House.
Hugo continued his experiments with the supernatural until stopped by the threatened insanity of his son, Charles. He never abandoned, however, the syncretic and magical religious views that he reached at this time. He believed that all matter was in progress toward a higher state of being, and that this progress was achieved through suffering, knowledge, and the love that emanates from God. Evil was not absolute but rather a necessary stage toward the Good. Through suffering and the experience of evil, man made progress toward higher states of being.
In 1856 Hugo published Les Contemplations, a work which he described as follows: "Les Contemplations are the memoirs of a soul; they are life itself beginning with the dawn of the cradle and finishing with the dawn of the tomb, they are a spirit which marches from gleam to gleam through youth, love, work, struggle, sorrow, dreams, hope, and which stops distraught on the brink of the infinite. It begins with a smile, continues with a sob, and ends with a trumpet blast from the abyss."
Many of these poems anticipate Hugo's next major work, the epic cycle La Légende des siècles (1859), conceived as part of an enormous uncompleted work whose mission was to "express humanity." Like his heroes Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and his own contemporary Honoréde Balzac, Hugo dreamed of an all-inclusive cosmic poem. It would show the ascent of the universal soul toward the Good, and the emergence of Spirit from Matter.
In 1862 Hugo published Les Misérables, an immense novel, the work of many years. His guiding interest was similar to that of Charles Dickens, a social and humanitarian concern for the downtrodden. The book was meant to show the "threefold problem of the century": the degradation of proletarian man, the fall of woman through hunger, and the destruction of children. The sympathetic portrayal of the waif, Gavroche, and the escaped convict, Jean Valjean, won a vast readership for Hugo. The book was not merely an adventure story but a love story and a mystery as well. It crystallized Hugo's concern for social injustice and once again astounded the reading public with the scope of his literary powers.
When Victor Hugo died on May 22, 1885, it was as a venerable man, crowned with worldwide glory, still robust and emotionally ardent to the last.
The best life of Hugo in English is Matthew Josephson, Victor Hugo: A Realistic Biography of the Great Romantic (1942). Elliott M. Grant, The Career of Victor Hugo (1945), amplifies and complements Josephson with additional details on Hugo's publications and literary career. A partial account of the poet is Adèle Hugo, Victor Hugo, by a Witness of His Life, translated by Charles E. Wilbour (1964). Other studies are André Maurois, Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo (1954; trans. 1956), and Richard B. Grant, The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo (1968). A bibliography of works by and about Hugo is Elliott M. Grant, Victor Hugo: A Select and Critical Bibliography (1967). See also Horatio Smith, Masters of French Literature (1937).
Decaux, Alain, Victor Hugo, Paris: Perrin, 1984.
Ionesco, Eugene, Hugoliad, or, The grotesque and tragic life of Victor Hugo, New York: Grove Press, 1987.
Juin, Hubert, Victor Hugo, Paris: Flammarion, 1980-c1986.
Peyre, Henri, Victor Hugo: philosophy and poetry, University: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Richardson, Joanna, Victor Hugo, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.
Stevens, Philip, Victor Hugo in Jersey, Shopwyke Hall, Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore, 1985. □
The French author Victor Hugo, is regarded by many as the supreme poet of French romanticism (a style in the 1800s that emphasized a free form of writing and expressed strong emotions, experiences of common people, and imaginative expressions and passion). He is known for producing large amounts of work, the ability to easily write poetry or novels, and his incredible vision.
Hugo's early years
Victor Marie Vicomte Hugo was born in Besançon, France, on February 26, 1802, to Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trebuchet. He and his two older brothers, Abel and Eugène, lived with their mother in Paris, France, while their father, a general and the governor of the Italian province of Avellino, lived in Italy. Hugo's mother had a special friendship with General Victor Fanneau Lahorie, who became an enemy of the French government. She let him hide in their house, and it was during this time he became a teacher for the Hugo boys. The boys frequently traveled to see their father and these trips caused breaks in their education. As a young boy, Hugo showed an interest in writing poetry. When he was twelve years old, Victor and his brothers were sent to school at the Pension Cordier. There they studied the sciences and spent their leisure time writing poetry and plays. When Victor was fifteen, he won the poetry contest held by the Académie Française and the next year placed first in the Académie des Jeux Floraux's contest. Victor's reputation as a poet developed early in his life, and he received a royal salary in 1822.
In 1822 Hugo married his childhood sweetheart, Adèle Foucher, one and a half years after the death of his mother, who had opposed their marriage. The couple later had four children. Their apartment in Paris became the meeting place for the ambitious writers of the Romantic Movement. In 1822 Hugo also published his first signed book, Odes et poésies diverses.
Development of romanticism
In 1824 a few of Hugo's friends began a group called Muse française. All were young writers who were beginning to break with neoclassicism (a style of writing that was based on the styles of ancient Greece and Rome in which logical, clear, and well-ordered writing was valued). After his visit to Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869) and his discovery of German balladry (putting stories to music in an artistic way), in 1826 Hugo published Odes et ballades, in which his rejection of neoclassicism was clear.
The years 1826 and 1827 were successful ones for the Cénacle, the name given to a group of young romantics who were supporters of Hugo and his poetry. They called him the "prince of poets." Hugo stopped writing flattering odes (poems that express positive emotions and feelings about people or events) to King Charles X (1757–1836) and instead began praising Napoleon I (1769–1821). With the support and advice of friends, Hugo created the attitude of romanticism. This belief was expressed in the preface to his unproduced play, Cromwell, published in October 1827. He felt that poetry should follow nature, mixing the beautiful and the good with the ugly and the displeasing. The Bible, Homer (c. ninth century b.c.e.), and William Shakespeare (1564–1616) were the inspirational sources of his new literature.
Convinced that romanticism must prove itself in the theater, Hugo followed Cromwell with a number of other plays. On February 25, 1830, the famous "battle of Hernani" took place, with Hugo's supporters out shouting the neoclassicists and antiromantics (people who opposed the romantic movement) who had come to show their disapproval for the play. Hernani was performed forty-five times (an unusual success for those days).
In 1831 Hugo published his novel Notre Dame de Paris, the work for which he is best known in the United States. In this he wished to convey the true spirit of the late Middle Ages through his creation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and his characters: Frollo the archdeacon, Quasimodo the hunchback, and Esmeralda the gypsy girl. Although some readers were shocked that Frollo (who had taken holy orders) should fall in love with Esmeralda, the tale was a huge success.
Also in 1831 Hugo published one of his most beautiful collections of poetry, Les Feuilles d'automne. Once again, Hugo wrote about private topics. This volume expressed the sadness he felt about events in his past as the poet approached his important thirtieth birthday. It was not only the fact that he was aging that made Hugo depressed; his wife, tired of bearing children and frustrated by the poet's immense selfishness, turned for comfort to the poet's friend, the critic Sainte-Beuve. The sadness of this double betrayal is felt in Feuilles d'automne.
Due to Hugo's loneliness from his wife's rejection, he fell in love with the young actress and prostitute (a person who receives money for performing sexual acts) Juliette Drouet. He took it upon himself to save her. He paid her debts and forced her to live in poverty, with her whole life focused entirely upon him. From this time on she lived solely for the poet and spent her time writing him letters, of which many thousands are in existence.
With the arrival of the July Monarchy, Hugo became wealthy and famous, and for fifteen years he was the official poet of France. During this period a large variety of new works appeared, including three plays: Le Roi s'amuse (1832), Lucrézia Borgia (1833), and the triumph Ruy Blas (1838).
In 1835 came Chants du crépuscule, which included many love lyrics (poems telling of emotion or love) to Juliette. In 1837 came Les Voix intérieures, a memorial of his father, who had been a Napoleonic general. Les Rayons et les ombres (1840) was another of his written works that was a statement of his personal emotions.
Hugo was now seized with a new ambition: he wished to become a statesman. When Louis Philippe was defeated in the Revolution of 1848, he allowed himself to be elected a deputy to the Assembly.
When Louis Napoleon began to achieve fame, Hugo supported him. But his enthusiasm for the new president was short-lived. He made a stirring plea for freedom of the press. At last, in 1849, he broke with Napoleon III (1808–1873).
Louis Napoleon seized power on the night of December 2, 1850, and declared himself emperor. Hugo called for the people to fight back, and many were killed in this process. Hugo's involvement in the events put his life in danger. Juliette saved the poet, found him shelter, and organized his escape to Brussels, Belgium. From there he went to the British Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
In November 1853 Hugo's anti-Napoleonic volume, Les Châtiments, was published in Belgium. Though banned in France, the books were smuggled in and widely distributed. The final edition of Les Châtiments, with numerous additions, was published in 1870, when Hugo returned to Paris after the fall of Napoleon III.
During Hugo's long absence from France, he explored the dark side of his personality. There were many séances (meetings of people attempting to contact the dead) in his home. He believed that he was communicating with famous spirits. The "visit" that touched him most was that of his favorite daughter, Léopoldine, who had tragically drowned in the Seine with her young husband in 1843.
Indeed, Hugo's family was doomed with many tragedies. While his life in England energized his poetry, his wife and children became depressed. They longed for their friends and the familiar surroundings of Paris. His daughter, Adèle, withdrew into a fantasy world until at last she ran away from home. Hugo continued his experiments with the supernatural until stopped by the fragile mental state of his son, Charles. Hugo's wife left him to live in Brussels, where she died in 1868. Only Juliette remained loyal during the seventeen years the poet spent in England.
In 1856 Hugo published Les Contemplations, a work described as the progression of life from infancy to its end, complete with all of the emotional experiences that happen to a person during this process. Many of these poems predict Hugo's next major work La Légende des siècles (1859), conceived as part of an enormous uncompleted work whose mission was to "express humanity." Hugo dreamed of an all-inclusive vast poem. It would show that man and his soul were basically good and that the human spirit would come out and away from its concern with material things.
In 1862 Hugo published Les Misérables, a major novel, the work of many years. His guiding interest was a social and humanitarian concern for the disadvantaged. The book was not just an adventure story but a love story and a mystery as well. It solidified Hugo's concern for people who were treated unfairly in society and once again amazed the reading public with the range of his literary powers.
When Victor Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885, he was a time-honored man, crowned with worldwide glory, still enthusiastic and emotionally devoted to the last.
For More Information
Maurois, André. Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo. New York: Harper, 1956.
Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1997.
Smith Dow, Leslie. Adèle Hugo: La Misérable. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 1993.
HUGO, VICTOR (1802–1885), French novelist, poet, and playwright.
The complete works of Victor Hugo are vast and varied. Hugo wrote in all the major genres—poetry, drama, and prose narrative—and transformed each one of them. He was also an accomplished visual artist and an astute literary critic. Engaging fiercely with the social issues of his day, Hugo held writers to the highest standards of aesthetic force and social responsibility.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born in 1802, two years before Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) named himself emperor, having defended Republican France against the coalition of European armies. By the time Hugo turned sixteen, France once again had a Bourbon king. An aspiring poet without inherited wealth (his father had been a captain in Napoleon's army), Hugo wrote odes to Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1824) and received a royal pension in appreciation. By July 1830, when a revolution established the July Monarchy (putting Louis Philippe [r. 1830–1848] on the throne) Hugo had produced two very successful books of poetry, Odes et Ballades (1828; Odes and ballads) and Les Orientales (1829; Orientalia), a work devoted to the Romantic themes of nature and exotic beauty.
Hugo had also begun to write for the theater. The preface to his first play, Cromwell (1827), stridently proclaimed artistic freedom from the conventions of the classical theater—rules that had been in place for centuries, concerning formal structure, appropriate vocabulary and action, and the separation of tragic and comic genres. On a Shakespearian model, The Preface of Cromwell called for a mixture of tragic and comic elements,
of sublime and grotesque, and of common language and high rhetoric. Hernani (1830), which put theory into practice, caused a scandal. Supported by friends in the battle that erupted on opening night, Hugo triumphed, becoming the de facto leader of the young writers known as Romantics.
During the 1830s, Hugo published three major collections of poetry: Les Feuilles d'automne (1831; Autumn leaves), Les Chants du crépuscule (1835; Songs of the half-light), and Les Voix intérieures (1837; Inner voices). Les Rayons et les Ombres (Sunlight and shadows) followed in 1840. Fighting censorship and riposting stern critics, he also produced popular plays, among them Le Roi s'amuse (1832; The king is amused), Lucrèce Borgia (1833), and Ruy Blas (1838). The Hugo family hosted elegant parties at their apartment on the fashionable Place Royale (today the Place des Vosges) even receiving the king's son (the Duc d'Orléans), who became a personal friend. Elected to the Académie Française in 1841, Hugo was named pair de France (peer) in 1845. Monarchist, celebrated lyric poet, popular playwright as well as novelist (Notre Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] appeared in 1831), Hugo was at his peak during the 1840s, poised for a successful career as a conservative politician.
Two events changed his life. The first was personal: the accidental drowning of his daughter Léopoldine in 1843. Devastated by this loss, Hugo stopped writing for a number of years. The second was political: the Revolution of 1848 put an end to the July Monarchy and established the Second Republic. Hugo backed the successful conservative candidate for president, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III, r. 1851–1871), but he aggressively opposed the coup d'état of 2 December 1851, when the newly elected president declared himself emperor as his uncle had done before him. For his opposition Hugo was expelled from France. On the run, he published a violent pamphlet against the emperor, "Napoléon-le-Petit" (Napoleon the Little), thereby sealing the fate of his exile that would last nineteen years. A violent narrative poem, Les Châtiments (1853; Punishments), followed, excoriating the emperor, calling upon the French people to revolt against his tyranny, and invoking divine vengeance upon the usurper.
Hugo experienced exile in the Channel Islands (first Jersey, then Guernsey) as a kind of death in life. He saw himself as "not yet a cadaver, already a ghost." To pass the time he experimented with the new medium of photography, created a brilliant oeuvre of drawings, and explored various forms of mysticism, attempting to communicate with the spirit of Léopoldine. He also militated against the death penalty (having already published two important prose works on this theme, Le dernier jour d'un condamné [The Last Day of a Condemned Man] in 1829 and Claude Gueux in 1834). Once a month he and his family served dinner to a group of poor children from Guernsey. The former royalist had become a republican, a thundering voice of freedom and social justice.
Hugo's writing took on new power, reach and depth. Les Contemplations (1856; Contemplations), perhaps his greatest collection of poems, presents a memoir of the poet's soul. The work is
divided into two parts, a before and after separated by the date of Léopoldine's death. In the second part, a range of haunting poetic voices explores themes of infinity and cosmic truth in poems of striking formal innovation. In parallel with this work, though even more ambitious, La Légende des Siècles (1859; The legend of the ages) presents an epic history of the human soul, tracing the progress of humanity throughout history in verse. Les Chansons des rues et des bois (1865; Songs from street and wood), a collection of short poems about love and nature, confirms that the exiled poet had not lost his light touch and his joy at being alive.
The premier writer of France became a property owner for the first time in the land of exile, purchasing Hauteville House with the proceeds from Les Contemplations. Here he wrote a major work of criticism, William Shakespeare (a lucid analysis of the value and urgency of art, and of relations between aesthetic value and social utility in the nineteenth-century historical context) and many of his greatest novels. He completed Les Misérables (begun much earlier) in 1862. Sentimental tale, allegory of the triumph of good over evil, and searing critical analysis of social conditions during the July Monarchy, this massive novel was a hugely popular success. In Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866; The Toilers of the Sea), inspired by the rugged coast of Guernsey, Hugo places the heroic Gilliatt in epic conflict with the forces of nature at sea. L'Homme qui rit (1869; The Man Who Laughs), a brilliant novel set in seventeenth-century England, returns to themes of social injustice. Kidnapped as a child, its hero Gwynplaine has been grotesquely disfigured, an eerie smile cut into his face. Having discovered his aristocratic identity, he speaks before the House of Lords about the suffering of the oppressed; his impassioned plea for social justice, however, meets with laughter, because the smile cut into his face ironically offsets the force of his words and his tears.
In 1859 Hugo refused an offer of amnesty, declaring that he would return to France only when liberty returned. In 1870, upon the departure of Napoleon III (defeated in the Franco-Prussian War), he did so triumphantly. In 1871 Hugo was elected Deputy, on the Left, in the National Assembly of the Third Republic. His last novel, Quatre-Vingt-Neuf (Ninety-Three), was published in 1874 (the title refers to the year of revolutionary regicide and of counterrevolutionary challenge in the Vendée uprising). The novel tells a story of conflict and reconciliation that carries a contemporary message: amnesty for the Communards, whose rebellion in 1871 was violently suppressed. A poet to the end of his life—Les Quatre Vents de l'esprit (The four winds of the spirit) appeared in 1881, Dieu (God) and La Fin de Satan (The end of Satan), among other works, were published posthumously—Hugo died in 1885. He received a state funeral attended by two million mourning Parisians and was buried in the Panthéon.
Monumental in stature, Hugo fits uneasily into the frames of literary history. Critics who emphasize his early work consider him primarily a Romantic poet who, having introduced sophisticated innovations of tone, vocabulary, rhythm, rhyme, syntax, and theme that left subsequent poets breathless, trying to catch up with him, went out of fashion in the second half of the century. His vast epic novels, symbolic romans poèmes (poem novels) whose action is frequently interrupted by lengthy digressions and whose language is sometimes deceptively simple, remain largely unassimilable by critics more at home in the realist tradition. His magnificent late visionary poems are often neglected in favor of more canonically modern works. Finally, critics are often puzzled in the face of the continuous development of Hugo's immense literary talent on the one hand and the radical turn of his political perspective on the other. The fact that Hugo both dramatized his ideological reversal from royalist to republican and claimed to have been a socialist all along only makes matters more confusing. One thing is clear, however: Hugo believed in the force of the word and the power of ideas. For him, the word is a living being, and form and content are indissolubly linked. His sophisticated conception of language (see "Réponse à un Acte d'Accusation" [Response to an accusation] in Les Contemplations) enabled him to fulfill the dream of modern artists: to be at once radically innovative as an artist and a writer fully engaged in the task of transforming the world.
Bénichou, Paul. Les Mages Romantiques. Paris, 1988.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass., 1984
Falkayn, David. Guide to the Life, Times and Works of Victor Hugo. Honolulu, Hawaii, 2001.
Gaudon, Jean. Victor Hugo, le temps de la Contemplation. Paris, 2003.
Petrey, Sandy. History in the Text: "Quatrevingt-Treize" and the French Revolution. Amsterdam, 1980.
Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo. New York, 1999.
Hugo, Victor (1802-1885)
Hugo, Victor (1802-1885)
The great French romantic novelist. He was keenly interested in Spiritism. He wrote, "To avoid phenomena, to make them bankrupt of the attention to which they have a right, is to make bankrupt truth itself." Hugo left an unpublished manuscript on Spiritism in the possession of Paul Meurice, who died in 1905. It appears that he had his first experiences in table turning in September 1853 at the home of a Mme. de Girardin during his period on the island of Jersey after he was exiled from France by Napoleon III in 1852. Hugo at first refused to attend the séance but was greatly moved when the table spelled out the name of his lost daughter Leopoldine. Soon regular communications were established.
The sitters included General Le Flo, Count Paul Teleki, Charles Hugo, one Vacquerie, and Mme. Hugo. Victor Hugo himself was never at the table, sometimes not even in the room. Many symbolical personages came through, including "the Lion of Androcles," "the Ass of Balaam," and "the Dove of Noah." "The Shadow of the Tomb" expressed itself in verse in the style and language of Victor Hugo, with all the grandiloquence of romantic poetry. Sometimes verse in the same style was signed by "Aeschylus." "Shakespeare" challenged Hugo to a poetic competition. "André Chenier," the guillotined poet, finished the fragmentary poem that was interrupted by his execution. Charles Hugo was the principal medium in all these experiments.
In 1892, seven years after Victor Hugo's death, the spirit of Victor Hugo, or a secondary personality assuming the name, appeared as the control of Hélène Smith, the medium, famous for her pseudo-Martian communication. "Victor" was in exclusive control for five months. After a struggle lasting for a year he was ousted by another control, "Leopold," the so-called spirit of Cagliostro.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.
Ebon, Martin. They Knew the Unknown. New York: New American Library, 1971.
Grillet, Claudius Victor Hugo Spirite. Paris, 1929.
Malo, Henry. Life of Delphine Gray. N.p., 1925.
Sudre, René. "The Case of Victor Hugo and the Collective Psychism." Psychic Research 23 (1971).