Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo Biography

Victor Hugo learned an important lesson—don't criticize Napoleon!—when the writer declared Napoleon III a traitor of France. Hugo was exiled in 1851 and granted amnesty in 1859, but he declined and chose instead to continue living in exile until 1870 when Napoleon III was replaced by the Third Republic. Hugo was somewhat of a chameleon and often changed his political views and religion over the years. He was a prolific writer of plays, poetry, essays, and novels. He is most famous for his novels Les Miserables and Notre-Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo was also a strong political figure in France and was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate upon his return to his homeland.

Facts and Trivia

  • Hugo was very close with his mother and even waited until her death to marry his longtime sweetheart, Adele Foucher. Hugo’s mother disapproved of the match.
  • Hugo’s play Hernani (1830) started a riot between conservative and liberal factions in the audience.
  • The shortest correspondence in history is credited to Hugo and his editor upon the release of Les Miserables. Hugo was on vacation during the time the book was published and was curious as to its success. He telegrammed his editor “?” and was rewarded with the reply “!”
  • Although he never directly attacked the Catholic church, he was critical of its dogma.
  • More than two million people marched in Victor Hugo’s funeral procession through Paris.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2991

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.

Early Life

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,...

(This entire section contains 2991 words.)

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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.

Life’s Work

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 existence relieved only by six-week summer holidays with her lover. Notwithstanding the author’s devotion to Juliette and his increasingly frequent love affairs with other adoring women, he was a devoted father to two sons and daughters. In 1843, Léopoldine, Hugo’s favorite, perished in a boating accident with her husband of six months. His sons, Charles and François-Victor, died prematurely in their middle years, after sharing in many of their father’s trials and successes; his daughter Adèle died in 1915, after a life darkened by madness.

In the 1840’s, Hugo was something of an establishment figure in French letters. In April, 1845, he was raised to the peerage, becoming Viscount Hugo—a circumstance which in July saved him from almost certain prosecution on the complaint of the husband of one of his mistresses. After this perilous event, Hugo remained prudently quiet for several years, but in 1848, with France again in political turmoil, he sought to renew his political influence. Initially supporting France’s “bourgeois king,” Prince Louis-Napoleon, through the newspaper that he had founded with his sons, Hugo soon came to oppose his rule. His sons were imprisoned, and Hugo himself skirted arrest until it seemed absolutely necessary to leave France. He departed for Brussels on December 11, 1851, probably with the unstated tolerance of the authorities.

Hugo’s nineteen-year absence from France, at first a necessity, later became a matter of principle, which conferred upon him the distinction of an exile of conscience. In comfortable circumstances, first in Jersey and, from 1855, in Guernsey, Hugo wrote great quantities of verse and prose, much of it concerned with social and political problems. His popularity as a writer continued to grow. Among the notable volumes of poetry in these years are Les Châtiments (1853), which includes satiric poems aimed at Louis-Napoleon, La Légende des siècles (1859-1883; The Legend of the Centuries, 1894), and a collection of earlier work, Les Contemplations, which earned for him enough money within months of its publication in April, 1856, to buy Hauteville House, where he surrounded himself with his family and admirers. Drouet lived within sight of the house, and by 1867 her relationship with Hugo was acknowledged even by Hugo’s wife. Madame Hugo was to die in her husband’s arms in Brussels the following year, during a family holiday.

Hugo’s prodigious and best-known novel, Les Misérables (English translation, 1862), was published in 1861. It weaves together many of the themes of earlier books and manuscripts as well as historical and autobiographical elements from the author’s youth. It is a singular novel both in Hugo’s career and in the whole of European literature—a sprawling, twelve-hundred-page narrative that overcomes its liabilities by sheer energy. Hugo seeks to show no less than “. . . the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from limbo to God,” and thus the book is in some fashion a religious book. Les Misérables is centered upon an account of the pursuit of a convict, Jean Valjean, by the detective Javert. Valjean, released on parole after nineteen years of imprisonment for a trivial crime, experiences a transformation of character that is repeatedly challenged both by his conscience and by Javert’s detection. Within a vast framework of historical events and human affairs, the two principal characters are shown locked in a social and existential combat that remains compelling even for modern readers who are not conversant with the novel’s political context.

Hugo’s attention never wandered far from the political scene, and in 1870, as a prosperous Germany threatened war with a weakened France, Hugo determined to return to his homeland to aid it in its crisis. He arrived on September 5 to a tumultuous welcome, but by then the military situation was desperate. Paris was soon under full siege and the population was approaching starvation—Hugo himself was said to have been sent bear, deer, and antelope meat from the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes. In late January, 1871, an armistice was concluded and elections called for a National Assembly to make peace with the Germans and to debate the terms of defeat. Hugo ran successfully for the Assembly and traveled to Bordeaux to participate in it, but the rancorous events of the following months soon outpaced the capacities of a seventy-year-old man, and he returned first to Paris and then to Brussels, where, amid much public controversy, the Belgian government expelled him. After a few months in Luxembourg, he returned to Paris, where he was defeated in the elections of January, 1872.

From 1872 until his death in 1885, Hugo lived alternately in Guernsey and in Paris. His last years saw the completion of a major novel of the French Revolution, Quatre-vingt-treize (1874; Ninety-three, 1874), and the revival of several of his major theatrical works. L’Art d’être grand-père (1877), a book about Hugo’s experiences with his two grandchildren, became a sentimental classic with the French public. During the Third Republic—the more liberal political regime which followed the turmoil of 1869-1872—Hugo came to be regarded as a patriarch, and the nation gave him almost limitless affection.

The beginning of Hugo’s eightieth year was celebrated as a national holiday on February 26, 1881, with 600,000 admirers filing past the windows of his apartment on the Avenue Eylau, which was soon renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo. In late summer, he made up his will, in which he stated:

God. The Soul. Responsibility. This threefold idea is sufficient for mankind. It has been sufficient for me. It is the true religion. I have lived in it. Truth, light, justice, conscience: it is God. . . . I leave forty thousand francs to the poor. And I wish to be taken to the cemetery in a pauper’s hearse.

Hugo had suffered a very slight stroke three years earlier, but otherwise his health was remarkably good for a man of seventy-nine. During the next two years, he supervised the publication of the little of his work that remained unpublished, but his creative activity was at an end. Juliette Drouet, who for fifty years had been his devoted friend, died in May, 1883. Hugo lived on until May 22, 1885, when an attack of pneumonia claimed him at the age of eighty-three. His last words were “I see black light.”


Victor Hugo had one of the broadest-ranging, most celebrated public careers of his time. He was a poet, dramatist, novelist, literary and social critic, journalist, politician, and social activist, and often pursued more than one of these roles at a time. Above all a man of feeling, Hugo turned from the ardent Royalism of his childhood and adolescence to an equally passionate Romanticism, in which his natural literary gifts reached their full potential. As a poet, he was a great musician of words, who brought increasingly refined ideas to his work. His legacy as a dramatist is not as great as in other literary forms, but he helped effect a transition from classicism to Romanticism, and he held contemporary audiences spellbound on more than one occasion.

The contributions made by Hugo to fiction were diverse and influential. Some novels, such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, are notable for their descriptive power; others, such as the early Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (1829; The Last Day of a Condemned, 1840), combine adventurous narrative devices with a profound concern for social justice. Les Misérables, despite its unwieldy length, combines much of what is best in Hugo’s craft and his philosophy, and after a century is still read as a living masterpiece. Other books, suffering perhaps from the miscalculation that can attend unbounded productivity, embody his poetic craft more than his sense of narrative substance.

In his life as well as in his work, Hugo was a spokesman for the common man against the power of the state; his long association with the political Left, however, was more a matter of human compassion than of social theory. He had experienced a range of political regimes, which made him a shrewd political observer, but increasingly he applied his genius to projects which transcended the affairs of his own historical epoch, creating an imaginative world of mythic dimensions.


Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. The author of this sophisticated, scholarly study of Hugo’s novels became a dedicated “Hugolian” in 1940 as a teenager, during the German Occupation. His method of analysis is to combine the resources of modernist formal criticism with an “intricate network of aesthetic, social, political, psychological, and ethical preoccupations.” Twenty-seven remarkable drawings by Hugo are reproduced.

Grant, Elliott M. The Career of Victor Hugo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1945. This scholarly but very readable book is principally a survey of Hugo’s literary production, although it deals of necessity with the circumstances of his life.

Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. The author, who is the son of Hugo scholar Elliott Grant, defines the essential motif of Hugo’s narrative works as the myth of the heroic quest toward an ideal. Isolating his discussion as much as possible from biographical detail, he argues the view that the novels, the main plays, and narrative poems can be viewed as self-contained artistic unities.

Ionesco, Eugène. Hugoliad: Or, The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo. New York: Grove Press, 1987. This uncompleted work of Ionesco’s youth—written in the 1930’s in Romanian—is a sort of polemical antibiography, intended to dethrone its subject. The reader must take responsibility for separating fact from fiction, to say nothing of judging the aptness of the playwright’s cheerless embellishments of anecdotal material. Postscript by Gelu Ionescu.

Maurois, André. Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo. Translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Harper & Row, 1956. Originally published in French in 1954. This is probably as close an approach as possible to an ideal one-volume biography dealing with both the life and the work of a monumental figure such as Hugo. Of the sparse illustrations, several are superb; the bibliography, principally of sources in French, provides a sense of Hugo’s celebrity and influence, which persisted well into the twentieth century.

Maurois, André. Victor Hugo and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1966. The 1956 English translation of Maurois’ text noted above was edited to conform to the format of a series of illustrated books. The result is interesting and intelligible, but rather schematic. In compensation for the vast cuts in text, a chronology and dozens of well-annotated illustrations have been added.

Richardson, Joanna. Victor Hugo. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976. Richardson’s aim was to produce a comprehensive account of Hugo’s life and work in the context of her specialty, the study of nineteenth century European culture. Her book is complementary to Maurois’ account of Hugo and is somewhat more efficient as well as being agreeably less literary in style. There is an excellent biography and reproductions of several classic Hugo family photographs.


Critical Essays