Article abstract: Hugo was one of the great authors of the nineteenth century, and by the force of his personality he became one of its great public figures, using his enormous popularity in the service of many political and social causes. His literary career, spanning six of the most turbulent decades in modern European history, encompassed poetry, drama, the novel, and nonfiction writing.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born on February 26, 1802, in Besançon, France, the third son of Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet Hugo. At the time of their marriage in 1797, Joseph Hugo was a rising young Bonapartist soldier imbued with the ideals of the French Revolution; Sophie, the orphaned daughter of a Breton ship’s captain, had been reared by an aunt of pronounced Royalist sympathies. Thus, in his earliest years, the two poles of contemporary French politics became factors in his life.
An early estrangement of Hugo’s parents, the result of personal incompatibilities magnified by the dislocations of his father’s military career, became permanent, and Victor and his brother Eugène went with their mother to live in Paris. Though Victor’s childhood was touched by the color and the upheaval of the Napoleonic era, by the age of seven he was able to read and translate Latin, and by his tenth year his spotty education had been augmented by trips to Italy and Spain.
After 1814, Hugo’s education proceeded along more orthodox lines, but it left him time to write verse and plays; at age twenty, financial and critical recognition of his talent enabled him to wed his childhood playmate, Adèle Foucher, a shy, pious young woman to whom he had pledged his love in the spring of 1819. An early novel, Han d’Islande (1823; Hans of Iceland, 1845), is the feverishly emotional product of Hugo’s courtship of Adèle, but more significant for Hugo’s development at this time were his contributions to the short-lived periodical Muse française, which shows a modification of his Royalist sympathies and a recognition that a poet should play a role in society. Hugo’s ideas of literary form were evolving from a conservative classicism, which had won for him early popularity, toward a forward-looking but less well-defined Romanticism. In 1826, a small book of poems, Odes et ballades, signaled the poet’s embrace of Romanticism by substituting the inspiration of “pictures, dreams, scenes, narratives, superstitious legends, popular traditions” for the authority of literary convention.
Though of somewhat short stature, Hugo was a strikingly attractive man in youth as well as old age. With a high forehead and penetrating eyes, he seemed both austere and engaging, and he had a reputation as an excellent conversationalist. Few nineteenth century personalities were portrayed as often as Hugo was; contemporary drawings and photographs show him as an extraordinarily intense and commanding personality. As early as the 1820’s, the poet’s home had become a magnet for other young authors and artists. Newly married to an attractive wife, he was often host to an informal group of Romantic personalities which included his friend Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the painter Eugène Delacroix, and the sculptor David d’Angers. Known as the cénacle, or brotherhood, Hugo’s circle became not only a source of mutual support for its youthful members, but also a font of the new movement in art, Romanticism. Its ideals can be gauged by reference to Hugo’s La Préface de Cromwell (1827; English translation, 1896), which was celebrated as a manifesto of Romanticism. In this preface to his long play Cromwell (1827; English translation, 1896), Hugo contributes to the redefinition of the three unities of time, place, and action that lie at the heart of French classical literature. He calls for greater realism and freedom in dramatic production, stating that “all that is in nature belongs to art” and arguing for the union of the grotesque and the sublime in the work of literary art. La Préface de Cromwell has been called Hugo’s masterpiece as a literary apprentice; it marks his liberation from the vestiges of eighteenth century ideas and heralds the beginning of a productive decade that brought his work into the mainstream of French culture.
The publication in 1829 of a book of poems, Les Orientales (Les Orientales: Or, Eastern Lyrics, 1879), placed Hugo at the head of the Romantic movement, a role which was confirmed with the appearance of his melodramatic five-act play Hernani (English translation, 1830) in February, 1830. Hernani was a popular sensation and brought much-needed income into the Hugo household, which was strained by nearly a decade of pregnancies and shaky finances. In fact, the artistic success Hugo enjoyed in these years had been invisibly pursued by Adèle’s unhappiness and a growing, secretive love between her and Sainte-Beuve, who was as much a family friend as an artistic colleague. Hugo was deeply shaken by the failure of his imagined, ideal relationship with his wife and the treachery of his friend, but he responded to his misfortune by composing the poems issued in November, 1831, as Les Feuilles d’automne, a collection that far surpassed his earlier verses.
Hugo had signed a contract in 1828 to produce a novel, but the project was displaced by his many other projects and by the July Revolution of 1830, which Hugo and his liberal contemporaries embraced. In September, 1830, he set to work on this novel in earnest, and completed Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1833) within six months. A descriptive tapestry of fifteenth century Paris, the novel embodies the author’s extraordinary visual imagination and his affinity for art and architecture. Hugo had, by this time, shown a related capacity for drawing, and in the years to come his sketches often achieved a mastery of dramatic visual effect and characterization quite beyond his nominally amateur status as an artist.
The theater continued to attract Hugo’s interest. In November, 1832, Le Roi s’amuse (1832; The King Amuses Himself, 1842) was banned by the government following its first performance; yet on November 8, 1838, he achieved another triumph with Ruy Blas (English translation, 1890), widely considered to be his best play. It was also his last success as a dramatist; after the failure of Les Burgraves (The Burgraves, 1896) in 1843, Hugo no longer wrote for the stage. By then, however, he had achieved one of his main objectives in courting public and critical acclaim in the theater: election to the Académie Française, an event which occurred on his fifth attempt, on January 7, 1841. Celebrated as a poet, dramatist, novelist, and critic, Hugo’s role as a youthful, rebellious Romantic had been outgrown. Financially secure, perhaps emotionally battered but artistically more refined, he now pursued his career with determination but with no less passion than before.
Since 1833, Hugo had maintained a liaison with a beautiful actress, Juliette Drouet, who for twelve years followed a cloistered...
(The entire section is 2991 words.)