Victor Hugo Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Victor Hugo Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 to see the prefiguration of later grotesques such as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The social commentary that is constant in Hugo’snarratives has its beginning here in the figure of Musdoemon, the true evil figure of the work. This adviser to the aristocracy, whose name reveals that he has the soul of a rat, betrays everyone until he is at last himself betrayed and hanged. The executioner turns out to be his brother, delighted to have revenge for Musdoemon’s treachery toward him years before.

At one point, Musdoemon tricks a group of miners (the good common people) into rebelling against the king in Schumaker’s name. Ordener finds himself in the midst of the angry mob as they battle the king’s troops. Hans attacks both sides, increasing the confusion and slaughter. Later, at the trial of the rebels on charges of treason, Ordener takes full responsibility, thus diverting blame from Schumaker. Given the choice of execution or marriage to the daughter of the wicked d’Ahlefeld, he chooses death. He and Ethel are married in his cell and are saved by the chance discovery of the documents. Hans gives himself up and dies by his own hand.

By comparing Hans of Iceland with another early novel, The Noble Rival, the reader can trace the preoccupations that led to The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables. The Noble Rival is the story of a slave revolt in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The hero of the title is a slave as well as the spiritually noble leader of his people. The Romantic hero is Léopold, a Frenchman visiting his uncle’s plantation. Like Ordener, Léopold is pure but essentially passive. The heroic energy belongs to the outcast from society, Bug-Jargal. In both novels, Hugo’s sympathy for the “people” is apparent. The miners and the slaves point directly to the commoners of Paris in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

At the center of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the theme of fatality, a word that the author imagines to have been inscribed on the wall of one of the cathedral towers as the Greek anankè. The cathedral is the focus of the novel, as it was the heart of medieval Paris. It is a spiritual center with an ambiguous demoniac-grotesque spirit within. Claude Frollo, the priest, is consumed by lust for a Gypsy girl, Esmeralda. Quasimodo, the bell ringer, a hunchback frighteningly deformed, is elevated by his pure love for Esmeralda, whom he attempts to save from the pernicious Frollo. In an image central to the novel and to Hugo’s entire work, Frollo watches a spider and a fly caught in its web. The web, however, stretches across a pane of glass so that even if the fly should manage to escape, it will only hurl itself against the invisible barrier in its flight toward the sun. The priest will be the spider to Esmeralda but also the fly, caught in the trap of his own consuming desire. All the characters risk entrapment in the web prepared for them by fate. Even if they somehow break free of the web, the glass will block escape until death releases them from earthly concerns.


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