Victor Hugo Biography

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.


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111201556-Hugo.jpg Victor Hugo (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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, 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...

(The entire section is 2991 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Although he became a virtual cultural icon in France during the early years of the Third Republic (1871-1885) due primarily to the fame of such novels as Les Miserables (1862), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), and The Toilers of the Sea (1865), Hugo suffered for his political views earlier in his career. He began his political life as a peer under the monarchy of Louis Philippe, but transferred his support to the republicans during 1848 and was elected as a deputy to the constituent assembly that was created shortly after the overthrow of Louis Philippe and establishment of the Second Republic that same year.

Although Hugo originally welcomed the future Napoleon III to France and supported the latter’s successful bid for the presidency of the Second Republic in December, 1848, he gradually alienated himself from the Bonapartist camp by his outspoken opposition to the government’s policy toward the papacy and uncompromising republicanism. This process was complete by the time Napoleon III launched his coup d’état of December, 1851. Fearing arrest, Hugo went into hiding immediately after the event and was officially sentenced to exile shortly thereafter. He moved first to Belgium (where he stayed for only a few months) and then to the Channel Islands off the coast of France, first Jersey, then Guernsey, where he lived for eighteen years.

While in exile, Hugo wrote a number of works attacking...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Born in Besançon, France, quand le siècle avait deux ans (when the century was two years old), on February 26, 1802, Victor-Marie Hugo was one of three sons of a future general, Joseph-Leopold-Sigisbert Hugo, and a temperamental mother of Breton origin, Sophie-Françoise Trébuchet. His early years were marked by parental incompatibility and travels to Italy and Spain. His childhood memories of Spain were deep and lasting, and names such as Hernani, Torquemada, and Elespuru originate in this trip, as do the inspirations of many plays and poems. His first verses go back to his early school days in Paris in a private pension from 1815 to 1818, and he began his dramatic experimentations with classical tragedies, comic...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besançon, France, in 1802, the third son of Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie-Françoise Trébuchet. His father had been born in Nancy and his mother in Nantes. They met in the Vendée, where Léopold Hugo was serving in the Napoleonic army. His military career kept the family on the move, and it was during Major Hugo’s tour of duty with the Army of the Rhine that Victor-Marie was born in Besançon.

Léopold and Sophie did not have a happy marriage, and after the birth of their third son, they were frequently separated. By 1808, Léopold had been promoted to general and was made a count in Napoleon I’s empire. During one reunion of Hugo’s parents, Victor and his brothers...

(The entire section is 2677 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Victor-Marie Hugo was born at Besançon, the third son of Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet. His father, a career military man, served with distinction in the postrevolutionary army. He later became a general and viscount, as well as a close associate of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. Though gifted with military tenacity, the elder Hugo unfortunately was not capable of such steadfastness on the home front. Madame Hugo soon tired of his lusty nature and infidelities, finding relief in the arms of General Victor Fanneau LaHorie, an opponent of Napoleon, who was Victor Hugo’s godfather. Shortly after Hugo’s birth, Madame Hugo moved her children to Paris to be near LaHorie. After LaHorie became an enemy...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Victor-Marie Hugo (HYEW-goh) was the third son of Major Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trebuchet Hugo. He was born in Besançon, in eastern France, on February 26, 1802, in the third year of Napoleon I’s First Republic. He was a slight, somewhat misshapen child, who at birth seemed to the doctor to have little chance for survival. No omen could have been more false, as Hugo became a titan of strength and energy, living during one period of his life with the equivalent of three marriage partners and, as an octogenarian, outliving all five of his children.

Hugo’s parents quarreled much and separated frequently, gaining legal separation in 1818. His father distinguished himself in a military career, serving...

(The entire section is 1333 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Viewing philosophy as, in the words of his character Jean Valjean, “the microscope of thought,” Victor Hugo chose lyric poetry, the verse drama, and the novel to produce his macroscopic depiction of human feeling. He is the consummate Romantic, for whom the dark reaches of the emotions hold more truth than do the logic and science of the Enlightenment. “Science,” he wrote, “has the first word on everything, the last word on nothing”; and he urged artists always to oppose “shadow to light” and “invisible truth to visible fact.”

The three r’s evident in Hugo’s life and work are revolution, Romanticism, and religion; and, in his writing, each is implicit with his apprehension of the female...

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In France, the fame of Victor Hugo (yew-goh) rests chiefly on his enormous output of romantic poetry; in the United States, he is known best for two novels. Although he was a successful playwright in his time, only Hernani is now remembered outside scholarly circles.

Victor Marie Hugo was born in Besançon to Joseph Hugo and Sophie Trebuchet. His father was a crude and lusty officer in Napoleon’s army; his mother, of a more reserved disposition, rather quickly tired of her amorous husband. While her husband was stationed in Germany, Italy, and Spain, she entered into a liaison with LaHorie, a general opposed to Napoleon. Victor and his two older brothers spent some time with their father in Elba, and later,...

(The entire section is 1013 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Epics for Students)

As a novelist, poet, political activist, and painter, Victor Hugo was a central figure in the Romantic movement of nineteenth-century France....

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Victor Hugo Biography

(Novels for Students)

Victor Hugo was one of the most influential of early French Romantic writers, a man who so dominated French literature that the French refer...

(The entire section is 484 words.)