Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2893
The earliest published full-length fiction by Victor Hugo was Hans of Iceland, begun when he was eighteen years old, although not published until three years later. In part a tribute to Adèle Foucher, who was to become his wife, it is a convoluted gothic romance in which it is not clear where the author is being serious and where he is deliberately creating a parody of the popular gothic genre. It is worthwhile to begin with this youthful work, however, because it contains many themes and images that were to remain important in Hugo’s work throughout his life.
Hans of Iceland
The characters in Hans of Iceland are archetypes rather than psychologically realistic figures. In a sense, it is unfair to criticize Hugo for a lack of complexity in his characterizations, because he is a creator of myths and legends—his genius does not lie in the realm of the realistic novel. This is the reason his talent as a novelist is eclipsed by the other great novelists of his century,Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, andÉmile Zola. Hugo’s last novels were written after Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886) and after Zola’s first naturalistic novels, yet Hugo’s late books remain closer in tone to Hans of Iceland than to any contemporary novel.
It is thus more useful to consider Hans of Iceland as a romance, following the patterns of myths and legends, rather than as a novel with claims to psychological and historical realism. Although tenuously based on historical fact, set in seventeenth century Norway, the plot of Hans of Iceland closely resembles that of the traditional quest. The hero, Ordener Guldenlew (Golden Lion), disguises his noble birth and sets out to rescue his beloved, the pure maiden Ethel, from the evil forces that imprison her with her father, Jean Schumaker, Count Griffenfeld. Ordener’s adventures take him through dark and fearsome settings where he must overcome the monster Hans of Iceland, a mysterious being who, although a man, possesses demoniac powers and beastly desires.
As in traditional romance, the characters in Hans of Iceland are all good or evil, like black and white pieces in a chess game. Ethel’s father is the good former grand chancellor who has been imprisoned for some years after having been unjustly accused of treason. His counterpart is the wicked Count d’Ahlefeld, who, with the treacherous countess, is responsible for Schumaker’s downfall. Their son Frédéric is Ordener’s rival for Ethel’s love. The most treacherous villain is the count’s adviser, Musdoemon, who turns out to be Frédéric’s real father. Opposed to everyone, good or evil, is the man-demon Hans of Iceland, who haunts the land by dark of night, leaving the marks of his clawlike nails on his victims.
Ordener’s quest begins in the morgue, where he seeks a box that had been in the possession of a military officer killed by Hans. The box contains documents proving Schumaker’s innocence. Believing it to be in Hans’s possession, Ordener sets off through storms and danger to recover the box.
As the adventure progresses, Hugo begins to reveal his personal preoccupations and thus to depart from the traditional romance. Hans’s ambiguous nature, grotesque as he is, has some unsettling sympathetic qualities. One begins to feel, as the story progresses and as the social villains become more devious and nefarious, that Hans, the social outcast, is morally superior in spite of his diabolically glowing eyes and his tendency to crunch human bones. Hugo appears to suggest the Romantic noble savage beneath a diabolic exterior. Because Ordener is a strangely passive hero, who fails to slay Hans or even to find the box, the reader’s interest is transferred to Hans. In this monster with redeeming human qualities, it is not difficult...
(The entire section contains 2893 words.)
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