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...
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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.
Esmeralda believes she can “fly to the sun” in the person of the handsome military captain Phoebus, but he is interested in her only in an earthly way. Frollo’s destructive passion leads him to set a trap for Esmeralda. For a fee, Phoebus agrees to hide Frollo where he can watch a rendezvous between Phoebus and Esmeralda. Unable to contain himself, the priest leaves his hiding place, stabs Phoebus, and leaves. Esmeralda is, of course, accused of the crime.
Quasimodo saves her from execution and gives her sanctuary in the cathedral, but she is betrayed again by Frollo, who orders her to choose between him and the gallows. Like the fly, Esmeralda tears herself away from the priest to collapse at the foot of the gibbet. Phoebus, who did not die of his wound, remains indifferent to her plight, but Quasimodo pushes Frollo to his death from the tower of Notre Dame as the priest gloats over Esmeralda’s execution. Quasimodo, the grotesque, gains in moral stature throughout the novel, just as Frollo falls from grace. Two years later, a deformed skeleton is found in a burial vault beside that of the virtuous Esmeralda.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables are justly Hugo’s most famous novels because they combine theexposition of his social ideas with an aesthetically unified structure. By contrast, The Last Day of a Condemned, written in 1829, is basically a social treatise on the horrors of prison life. In the same way, Claude Gueux, a short work of 1834, protests against the death penalty. In both works, the writer speaks out against society’s injustice to man, but it was with Les Misérables that the reformer’s voice spoke most effectively.
Les Misérables tells of the spiritual journey of Jean Valjean, a poor but honorable man, driven in desperation to steal a loaf of bread to feed his widowed sister and her children. Sent to prison, he becomes an embittered, morally deformed creature, until he is redeemed by his love for the orphan girl Cosette. The plot of the novel is quite complex, as Jean rises to respectability and descends again several times. This is true because, as a convict, he must live under an assumed name. His spiritual voyage will not end until he can stand once more as Jean Valjean. His name suggests the French verb valoir, “to be worth.” Jean must become worthy of Jean; he cannot have value under a counterfeit name.
His first reappearance as a respectable bourgeois is as Monsieur Madeleine, Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. He is soon called upon, however, to reveal his true identity in order to save another from life imprisonment for having been identified as Jean Valjean, parole breaker. He descends into society’s underworld, eluding capture by his nemesis, the policeman Javert. In Hugo’s works, the way down is always the way up to salvation. Just as Ordener descended into the mines, Jean must now pass through a valley (Val) in order to save Jean. Here, as in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, moral superiority is to be found among the lowly.
In order to save himself, Jean must be the savior of others. He begins by rescuing Cosette from her wicked foster parents. Later, he will save Javert from insurrectionists. His greatest test, however, will be that of saving Marius, the man Cosette loves and who will separate Jean from the girl who is his paradise. This episode is the famous flight through the sewers of Paris, a true descent into the underworld, whence Jean Valjean is reborn, his soul transfigured, clear, and serene. He still has one more trial to endure, that of regaining his own name, which, through a misunderstanding, brings a painful estrangement from Cosette and Marius. He begins to die but is reconciled with his children at the last moment and leaves this life with a soul radiantly transformed.
The Toilers of the Sea
Les Misérables was written partly in exile, and certain episodes begin to show a preference for images of water. The Toilers of the Sea, written on Guernsey in 1864 and 1865, is a novel dominated by the sea. The text originally included an introductory section titled “L’Archipel de la Manche” (“The Archipelago of the English Channel”), which Hugo’s editor persuaded him to publish separately at a later date (1883). The two parts reveal that Hugo has separated sociology from fiction. It would seem that, at odds with the predominant novelistic style of his time, Hugo preferred not to communicate his social philosophy through the imagery and structure of his novels. Thus, the prologue contains Hugo’s doctrine of social progress and his analysis of the geology, customs, and language of the Channel Islands. The larger section that became the published novel is once again the story of a solitary quest.
The hero, Gilliatt, is a fisherman who lives a simple, rather ordinary life with his elderly mother on the island of Guernsey. In their house, they keep a marriage chest containing a trousseau for Gilliatt’s future bride. Gilliatt loves Déruchette, niece of Mess Lethierry, inventor of the steamboat Durande, with which he has made his fortune in commerce. When the villain, Clubin, steals Lethierry’s money and wrecks his steamer, Gilliatt’s adventures begin.
Like the king of myth or legend, Lethierry offers his niece’s hand in marriage to whomever can salvage the Durande. Gilliatt sets out upon the sea. Ominously missing are the magical beasts or mysterious beings who normally appear to assist the hero as he sets off. Even Ordener, for example, had a guide, Benignus Spiagudry, at the beginning of his quest. It is entirely unaided that Gilliatt leaves shore.
He now faces nature and the unknown, completely cut off from human society. He survives a titanic struggle for the ship against the hurricane forces of nature, but he must still descend into an underwater grotto, where he is seized by a hideous octopus. Gilliatt is, in Hugo’s words, “the fly of that spider.” The language of the passage makes it clear that in freeing himself from the octopus, Gilliatt frees himself from evil.
Exhausted, Gilliatt prays, then sleeps. When he wakes, the sea is calm. He returns to land a savior, bringing the engine of the ship as well as the stolen money. When he learns that Déruchette wishes to marry another, he gives her his own marriage chest and leaves to die in the rising tide. The Toilers of the Sea is considered by many to be the finest and purest expression of Hugo’s mythic vision.
The Man Who Laughs
Almost immediately after The Toilers of the Sea, Hugo turned his attention back to history. In 1866, he began work on the first novel of what he intended to be a trilogy focusing in turn on aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy. The first, The Man Who Laughs, is set in England after 1688; the second would have taken place in prerevolutionary France; and the third is Ninety-three, a vision of France after 1789. The role of fate is diminished in these last two novels because Hugo wished to emphasize man’s conscience and free will in a social and political context.
In The Man Who Laughs, the disfigured hero, Gwynplaine, chooses to leave his humble earthly paradise when he learns that he had been born to the aristocracy. Predictably, the way up leads to Gwynplaine’s downfall. Noble society is a hellish labyrinth (another type of web) from which Gwynplaine barely manages to escape. A wolf named Homo helps him find his lost love again, a blind girl named Déa. When she dies, Gwynplaine finds salvation by letting himself sink beneath the water of the Thames.
Hugo’s vivid portrayal of a demoniac aristocratic society justified the cause of the French Revolution in 1789, preparing the way for his vision of an egalitarian future as described in his last novel, Ninety-three. By choosing to write about 1793 instead of the fall of the Bastille, Hugo was attempting to deal with the Terror, which he considered to have deformed the original ideals of the Revolution.
Rather than the familiar love interest, Hugo places the characters Michelle Fléchard and her three children at the center of the novel. In Hugo’s works, kindness to children can redeem almost any amount of wickedness. The monstrous Hans of Iceland, for example, is partially excused because he was avenging the death of his son. It is therefore not surprising to find in Ninety-three that each faction in the Revolution is tested and judged according to its treatment of Michelle and her children.
The extreme positions in the violent political clash are represented by the Marquis de Lantenac, the Royalist leader, and his counterpart, Cimourdain, a former priest and fanatic revolutionary. Both men are inflexible and coldly logical in their courageous devotion to their beliefs. The violent excesses of both sides are depicted as demoniac no matter how noble the cause. Human charity and benign moderation are represented in Gauvain, a general in the revolutionary army. He is Lantenac’s nephew and the former pupil of Cimourdain. He is clearly also the spokesman for Hugo’s point of view.
In the course of events, Lantenac redeems his inhumanity by rescuing Michelle’s children from a burning tower. He is now Gauvain’s prisoner and should be sent to the guillotine. Gauvain’s humanity, however, responds to Lantenac’s act of self-sacrifice, and Gauvain arranges for him to escape. It is now Cimourdain’s turn, but he remains loyal to his principles, condemning to death his beloved disciple. Before his execution, Gauvain expounds his (Hugo’s) idealistic social philosophy in a dialogue with Cimourdin’s pragmatic view of a disciplined society based on strict justice.
In this final novel, Hugo’s desire to express his visionary ideology overwhelms his talents as a novelist. At the age of seventy, he had become the prophet of a transfigured social order of the future. He would create no more of his compelling fictional worlds. It was time for Hugo the creator of legends to assume the legendary stature of his final decade.