Victor Hugo, one of the titanic figures of nineteenth century literature, produced major works in every genre. He is among the greatest lyric poets in French literature; two of his many novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833) and Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862), are classics of world literature; and his remaining works are prodigious in their variety and their ambition, ranging from literary criticism, biography, and philosophical reflection to impassioned polemics on social and political issues—notably capital punishment, against which Hugo was a tireless crusader.
Victor Hugo is regarded by many critics as the preeminent figure in nineteenth century French literature. As a playwright, he ranks with Alexandre Dumas, père, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset as one of the most representative authors of the romantic theater. At least one critic sees him as the essential link between the classical theater of Jean Racine and the modern twentieth century revival. As Molière raised farce to true comedy, so Hugo brought the melodrama to the level of authentic literary drama.
Although Hugo wrote some of the finest plays of the romantic period, especially Hernani and Ruy Blas, he is best appreciated as a theorist of the theater. The preface to Cromwell served as the manifesto of romantic liberation for French drama, calling for the Shakespearean tradition rather than the classical, the abolition of the unities of time and place, and the fusion of the sublime and the grotesque. It is, in fact, for his appreciation and creation of the grotesque that his dramatic theories are best known. He calls for the joyful grotesque of the carnivals, in the manner of Mikhail Bakhtin; the grotesque of the cathedrals; and the revival of the buffoons Scaramouche, Sganarelle, and Harlequin, for “beauty has only one face; ugliness has thousands.” His own theater was to produce several buffoons: Flibbertigibbet, Triboulet, and Don César are among the best.
Because Hugo was a great poet, his theater is essentially lyric. He...
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Victor Hugo (YEW-goh) dominates nineteenth century literature in France both by the length of his writing career and by the diversity of his work. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a literary form Hugo did not employ. Lyric, satiric, and epic poetry; drama in verse and prose; political polemic and social criticism—all are found in his oeuvre. His early plays and poetry made him a leader of the Romantic movement. His political writing included the publication of a newspaper, L’Événement, in 1851, which contributed to his exile from the Second Empire. During his exile, he wrote vehement criticism of Napoleon III as well as visionary works of poetry. His poetic genius ranged from light verse to profound epics; his prose works include accounts of his travels and literary criticism as well as fiction.
The complete works of Victor Hugo constitute more nearly a legend than an achievement. In poetry, Hugo had become a national institution by the end of his life. He was a member of the Académie Française, an officer of the Légion d’Honneur, and a Peer of France under the monarchy of Louis-Philippe. When he died, he was accorded the singular honor of lying in state beneath Paris’s Arc de Triomphe before his burial in the Panthéon.
During his lifetime, Hugo’s novels accounted for much of his popularity with the public. Both sentimental and dramatic, they were excellent vehicles for spreading his humanitarian ideas among large numbers of people. His two most famous novels are The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables. The former is an example of dramatic historical romance, inspired in France by the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It is said to have created interest in and ensured the architectural preservation of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It is also a study in Romanticism, with its evocation of the dark force of fate and the intricate intertwining of the grotesque and the sublime.
Les Misérables testifies to Hugo’s optimistic faith in humanitarian principles and social progress. The intricate and elaborate plot confronts both social injustice and indifference. It is typical of many nineteenth century attitudes in its emphasis on education, charity, and love as powerful forces in saving the unfortunate creatures of the lower classes from becoming hardened criminals. Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale both in its historical tableaux and as the story of a human soul. Thus, even though Hugo’s achievements in the novel are of a lesser scale than his poetry and drama, they are enduring and worthy monuments to the author and to his century.
Besides his rather prolific output in the field of poetry, Victor Hugo achieved prominence in two other genres as well. His novels, for which he is best known in the United States, span most of his literary career and include such recognizable titles as Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829; The Last Day of a Condemned, 1840), Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833), and Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862). Hugo was a successful playwright in his time, but only Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830) has received sustained attention. The preface to his play Cromwell (pb. 1827; English translation, 1896), however, is frequently studied by scholars because of its attack on the three unities, so long observed by French classical writers, and because of Hugo’s elaboration on his theory of the union of the grotesque and the sublime. His other plays are a mise en oeuvre of the dramatic principles found in the Cromwell preface.
Although less well known as an essayist, Hugo did write in the genre. His better-known essay collections include Le Rhin (1842; The Rhine, 1843), William Shakespeare (1864; English translation, 1864), Choses vues (1887; Things Seen, 1887), and En voyage: Alpes et Pyrénées (1890; The Alps and Pyrenees, 1898). Hugo also wrote and delivered a number of political speeches in the Chambre des Pairs. Among these are the “Consolidation et défense du littoral,” which was delivered in the summer of 1846, “La Famille Bonaparte,” which was delivered the following spring, and “Le Pape Pie IX,” which was presented in January, 1848.
“Ego Hugo”: This was the inscription emblazoned on the Gothic armchair that stood in the dining room in the Hugos’ Guernsey home. Dubbed an ancestral chair by the poet, it remained conspicuously empty at mealtime. For Victor Hugo’s critics, this motto became a symbol of an oversized ego. For his admirers, the empty chair symbolized the greatness of Hugo the poet, if not Hugo the man. Indeed, his place in literature is unquestioned, and no other French poet since has been able to match his production and influence.
Hugo excelled in a wide variety of verse forms: ode, lyric, epic, satire, and heroic narrative. His versatility in mode was matched by variations in tone, from the eloquence and rhetorical precision...
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What features of French classical literature did Victor Hugo oppose most vigorously? What classical elements does he appropriate?
Why is the common title The Hunchback of Notre Dame an inadequate translation of Hugo’s title?
Why is the title Les Misérables usually not translated?
What is Hugo’s sense of the relationship between God and nature?
Trace Hugo’s use of light and dark as symbols in “Olympio’s Sadness” and in other poems.
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Bloom, Harold, ed. Victor Hugo. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Essays on all aspects of Hugo’s career—two devoted to Les Misérables. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. A study by one of the most distinguished scholars of modern French literature. See especially the chapter on Les Misérables. Provides detailed notes and bibliography.
Frey, John Andrew. A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A comprehensive guide in English to the works of Victor Hugo. Includes a foreword, a biography, and a bibliography. Frey...
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