Victor Hugo World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3757

Hugo’s literary artistry has as its base a definitive Romanticism, a religious sensibility, and a constant regard for the oppressed; its superstructure—a huge corpus of lyric poetry, an important group of verse dramas, and a soaring succession of novels—rises like a Gothic cathedral above the less excessive and more orderly...

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Hugo’s literary artistry has as its base a definitive Romanticism, a religious sensibility, and a constant regard for the oppressed; its superstructure—a huge corpus of lyric poetry, an important group of verse dramas, and a soaring succession of novels—rises like a Gothic cathedral above the less excessive and more orderly monuments of nineteenth century French literature. For Hugo, excess confirmed and did not suppress greatness: “Heaven,” he wrote, “is excess.” His religious sensibility was nurtured by his sense of the divine, both in all things, in accordance with pagan depths of imagination, and above all things, in keeping with the Judeo-Christian concept of a deity of creation and succor. His regard for the oppressed is evident in his novels, with their pageantry of victimized innocence, and in his political tracts in favor of revolutionary changes to better the lot of workers and the poor.

To select from his works those most patently representative of the respective constituents of his literary artistry’s base, one would perhaps choose the play Hernani, which ensured the victory of Romanticism for an entire generation, the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its personification of God as human expression and female force, and the novel Les Misérables, with a christological pilgrim of immortality as its hero.

For the inner Hugo, the subjective Olympio, one may turn to the Romanticism of his deeply subjective lyric poems. While the lyrics are replete with Romantic excess and concern for the downtrodden, they offer the reader the religious insight and the sense of personal triumph that Hugo experienced in the complex dimensions of human sadness. His Romantic melancholy is born of a joy in life and nature that reacts poignantly to its own curtailment by its own realization of the brevity and imperfection of human life before the lasting grandeur and magnificent beauty of nature.

In his 1856 collection of poems, Les Contemplations, his attitude toward poetic composition is most explicit. The collection is divided into six books, inclusive of 156 poems written during the period from 1830 to 1856, along with preface, prefatory poem, and long eight-part valedictory poem addressed “A celle qui est restée en France” (“To Her Who Has Remained in France”), that is, his daughter Léopoldine, who had died in 1843 and whose spirit pervades the second half of the collection. In the first book, “Aurore,” the seventh poem, “Réponse à un acte d’accusation” (“Answer to an Accusation”), written in 1834, constitutes his ars poetica. He pleads guilty to trampling upon good taste and traditional French verse, to saying “Let there be darkness” in the manner of God saying “Let there be light,” and to ravaging the “old A B C D.” He asserts his disregard of Aristotelian limitations and his declaration of the equality, independence, and maturity of words. He sees himself as a revolutionary force taking art by the neck and standing as the instigator of a revolution of words.

In his declaration of the independence of words, he is like Jacques Derrida and the twentieth century deconstructionists who see words as Protean in their resistance to inflexible denotation and lexical boundaries. Just as the deconstructionists came to see words as objects, and objects as words, Hugo, in “À Propos d’Horace” (“Apropos of Horace”), had seen nature as “alphabet des grandes lettres d’ombre” (the alphabet of the great literature of darkness). Darkness or shadow, in Hugo’s perspective, is where the truth lies: Light is the mask of Apollo, the disguise of darkness.

“Suite” (“Continuation”), a poem written in 1855 on the island of Jersey, is placed directly after “Answer to an Accusation” in “Aurore.” It personifies the word (le mot) as a creative entity. The word says “My name is FIAT LUX”—let there be light. The word, antedating its speaker, is like writing, which for Derrida antedates and creates language (and speech, which is the use of language). For both writers, what is posited is the Logos. “Continuation” concludes with “le mot, c’est le Verbe, et le Verbe, c’est Dieu” (the word is the Logos, and the Logos is God).

Hugo lyrically identifies himself with artistic expression by Romantically revolutionizing artistic expression, which in turn is Divinity itself. Prior to the publication of Les Contemplations, Hugo had begun work on two theological poems, the unfinished La Fin de Satan (1886; the end of Satan) and the never completed Dieu (1891; God); both long fragments were published posthumously. Oriented from Christianity, Hugo’s religious sensibility found its tentative expression in a post-Christian spiritualism, not unrelated to the occultism of seances, which stabilized his belief in his personal immortality.

His unorthodox Christianity is discernible in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which architecture is seen as a form of writing (one might say, with the deconstructionists, a statement of Writing, or Logos), and in which Notre Dame (Our Lady) is not only the actual cathedral in Paris but also the spirit of the Virgin Mary, for whom the cathedral is named, as well as the virgin Esmeralda, who takes sanctuary within it. Hugo has in this novel already objectified his trinity of God, Soul, and Responsibility: God is the Logos expressed in the architecture, Soul is the female force of Our Lady, and Responsibility is the sanctuary given to “our lady” Esmeralda.

The magisterial Les Misérables is a prose parallel to La Fin de Satan and very much of a piece with the spiritualism of his 1850’s poetry. The theological directions of the novel are apparent in the valley of the shadow—the life of danger, flight, concealment, injustice, and violence—through which the Christlike figure of Jean Valjean passes and in which he is witness to truth. The name “Valjean” itself means “John of the Valley.”

Images of the valley of the shadow, of the world of truth in darkness or of dark truths, are dominant in Hugo’s work. True light is the spiritual radiance experienced in the darkness, which is the shadow of God; it is the understanding provided by the shadow of the Logos, by “Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre” (what the mouth of shadow says). Conjunctive with his theological apprehension of true light in the darkness of shadow is his aesthetic notion of beauty in the grotesque. In his La Préface de Cromwell (1827; English translation, 1896), he speaks of the grotesque as one of the supreme beauties of drama. His own mastery of the grotesque can be seen in his Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame. Grotesquerie appears in tandem with theological shadow in Ninety-Three, his last novel, in which the sun rises over a stone monster, the Tourgue (a prison), and a wooden monster, the guillotine. Characteristically, he calls the building a “dogma” and the machine an “idea”; and he adds, “The Tourgue was the monarchy, the guillotine the revolution.”

In general, Hugo probes deeply the paradoxes of religion and lyric Romanticism and expresses these as a divine happiness situated in human sadness.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

First published: Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831 (English translation, 1833)

Type of work: Novel

A beautiful young woman, reared by gypsies, becomes the beloved of an ineffectual poet, a lecherous priest, and a grotesquely deformed bell ringer.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo’s second novel, emphasizes the theme of anank, the Greek word for fate or necessity. Anank appears in the novel chiefly as inevitable transition; stylistically, the transition is from classicism to Romanticism and, ultimately, from the human to the divine. The cathedral of Notre-Dame is the embodiment of what must be recognized as the permanence of transition. In origin a Gallo-Roman temple to the classical deity Jupiter, it became a Christian basilica and, later, in the twelfth century, a Romanesque cathedral; as its construction continued into the thirteenth century, the Gothic style overtook and succeeded the Romanesque configuration; and the cathedral, completed in 1345, stood as the architectural scripture of its own history. The novel is about this cathedral as a statement of anank more than it is about any particular one of its many characters. In that sense, to translate the title, Notre-Dame de Paris, into The Hunchback of Notre Dame is seriously to delimit the magnitude of the novel.

The action of the novel begins on January 6, 1482, and ends in July of the same year, with an epilogistic chapter disclosing the fate of Quasimodo, the hunchback, dated to mid-1484. Esmeralda, a sixteen-year-old woman, identified as a gypsy and dancing in the company of her trained goat, catches the eye of Archdeacon Frollo, who orders his misshapen ward, Quasimodo, to kidnap her. Gringoire, a poet, fails in his efforts to intervene, but Esmeralda is rescued by Captain Phoebus and falls in love with him. She becomes the “bride” of Gringoire in a mock ceremony produced by a “court” of beggars. She later becomes the “bride” of Captain Phoebus, who promises marital commitment in his seduction of her but is murdered by Frollo before he can consummate his desire. Frollo frames her for the murder of Phoebus and offers to save her life if she will yield to his desire. She refuses and is then temporarily saved from execution by Quasimodo, who engineers sanctuary for her in the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Quasimodo also loves her and ultimately, after her actual execution, embraces her in death as his “bride” and achieves burial with her.

Esmeralda, loving the one man who does not really love her and being loved by three men whom she does not love, remains a virgin through three “marriages,” as Hugo reconstructs the Christian Trinity through Our Lady: Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit. Esmeralda is the point at which virginity, motherhood, and divinity intersect. Esmeralda, issuing from the womb of Our Lady (the cathedral that had been her sanctuary) is executed in an analogue to crucifixion. By the same spiritual geometry, Notre-Dame, the cathedral of the Mother Church, with its eponymous Virgin Mary as divine Mother, is the temporal-spatial point at which ancient, medieval, and modern architectural logoi (words) intersect in permanent transition. The transition is marked by the fifteenth century invention that will supersede the Logos of architecture: the printing press, which will prevail as the new Writing of humankind. The printed book is identified, in a chapter titled “Ceci tuera cela” (this will kill that), as the killer of architectural scripture and as the new representation of the human mind.

The narrative integrates some of the standard devices of ancient romance—such as the switching of infants, with the gypsy-infant Quasimodo substituted for Agnes, the daughter of Paquette la Chantefleurie, and the infant’s shoe by which the mother sixteen years later recognizes Esmeralda as her daughter—and Hugo’s Romanticism, in which truth reposes in darkness and grotesquerie. The true depth of the human spirit is sounded in the emotions of the shadow-concealed, deformed, one-eyed Quasimodo. The falsity of exterior light is explicit in the shallow, shining-knightlike Captain Phoebus, whose name is a metonym of the sun.

Les Misérables

First published: 1862 (English translation, 1862)

Type of work: Novel

A saintly fugitive from justice improves the lives of those whom he befriends and loves, achieves ascendance over his relentless pursuers, and redeems himself.

The title Les Misérables is Hugo’s revision of his original title, “Les Misères.” The choice is affinitive with Hugo’s Romanticism, as it indicates a preference of the concrete (the wretched ones) to the abstract (miseries), of persons to situations. The full connotative strength of neither title can be retained in literal English translation, and it is good that English translations of the novel appear under the French title. The word misérables supports the double sense of “those who are wretched” and “those who are to be pitied.” The second sense implies the possibility or presence of pitiers. The readers of the novel, then, may participate in the narrative as those who pity the pitiable. Pity is, etymologically, an act of pietas (piety). It is in this subjective inclusion of the reader in the artwork that Romanticism differs from classicism. With regard to Les Misérables, the reader’s pity is an experience of piety; and piety, in the full Latin sense of pietas (devotion, dedication, commiseration), is as much the theme of the novel as it is a manifestation of Hugo’s deep religious sensibility.

The story begins with an account of the exemplary piety of a Christian bishop, Monseigneur Myriel Bienvenu, who selects as the most beautiful name of God not Creator, Liberty, Light, Providence, not even God or Father, but the name given by Solomon, Miséricorde (compassion or pity). He is contrasted with men who dig for gold: He is one who digs for pity. To this seventy-five-year-old bishop, in the year 1815, comes Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who has spent nineteen years in prison. He is seeking lodging for the night, and no room has been found for him at the inns of the town. The priest offers him food, lodging, and trust. Valjean had been sentenced to prison, first for the theft of bread to feed his widowed sister and her seven children, and subsequently for four unsuccessful attempts to escape. Hardened by imprisonment and the reception given him by those who had either despised or exploited the former convict, he is capable now of crime for its own sake, as well as for survival. Checking his movement to murder the bishop as he sleeps, Valjean settles for stealing the household silverware. Apprehended and returned to the bishop, he is released, as the bishop, insisting the silverware was not stolen, adds a pair of candlesticks to the “gift.” Valjean’s receipt of mercy restores him to piety, the showing of mercy to others, although the first stage on his new journey involves his reflex theft of a coin from a boy, in his tearful remorse for which he undergoes repentance: He awakens to see a semblance of “Satan in the light of Paradise,” returns to the door of Monseigneur Bienvenu, and prays in the predawn darkness.

Valjean’s life of altruism takes the forms of various personas after his moment of truth in the shadow. The first of these is that of the good mayor of a town; his appropriate pseudonym is Père Madeleine (translatable as Father Magdalene, that is, a priestlike layman converted from wrongdoing). He intercedes with a police inspector, Javert, to save a woman, Fantine, from a six-month prison sentence. Then, learning from Javert that another man had been arrested as Valjean in connection with the goods stolen from the bishop, Valjean turns himself in. Later, he escapes from prison and becomes the protector of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. Living under cover in Paris, he rears Cosette as his daughter and becomes devoted to her. Eventually, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a political activist, toward whom Valjean will bear a paternal resentment; he is once again a “father,” and Cosette addresses him as such. Marius is wounded in the republican uprising of 1832; Valjean rescues him and carries him to safety through the labyrinthine Parisian sewers. The strictly honorable Javert, who finally discovers his unceasing pursuit of Valjean to have been unjust, commits suicide. Cosette and Marius are wed. Valjean, vindicated and at last content, dies in peace in the light of candles held by the “gift” candlesticks.

The novel incorporates a number of subplots and a great variety of characters. All of its narrative elements contribute in the manner of an epic, which it is, to a broad perspective of the Napoleonic era. The Emperor Napoleon I himself appears in the long episode devoted to the Battle of Waterloo. Marius’s father is an officer in Napoleon’s army whose life is saved by Thénardier, to whom accordingly Marius is in debt and by whom Valjean comes also to be pursued. The history of postrevolutionary France, its changing social institutions, the persistence of its religious customs, and its political turmoil, along with realistic depictions of Parisian life and converse, much of which is embodied in the character of a street-smart boy named Gavroche, are interstitial to the vast fabric of Hugo’s tale. To his Romantic tale Hugo adapts much of the machinery of classical epic.

Hugo includes two parenthetical disquisitions: one on the Convent as an abstract idea and as historical fact (part 2, book 7) and one on argot, or slang (part 4, book 7). These slow down the narrative but greatly intensify its substance. The Convent, according to Hugo, is abstractly right in its nurture of religious sensibility but concretely wrong in its preservation of outmoded ritual and dogma. Argot is la langue des ténébreux (the language of the shadows). It is the language mainly of wrongdoers (those abominated by society), like “cant” in Henry Fielding’s The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743, 1754) and “nadsat” in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), but it is also the language of poverty and is, in its rebelliousness and poetic turn, a language of true life.

Rebelliousness, religious sensibility, and poetic concretion make Les Misérables an epical testament to Romanticism. In its five parts, comprising forty-eight books, themselves comprising 361 chapters, the novel discloses the failure of rationalism and of rigidly organized religion. The first two chapters of the first book in part 1 are significantly titled “Un Juste” (a just man) and “La Chute” (the fall). The just man is Monseigneur Bienvenu; the fall is that of Jean Valjean, but it is a fall, not from, but into, grace as he becomes the bishop’s successor in justness. His passage through crime and, climactically, through the Dantesque hell of the sewers of Paris is a pilgrimage of redemption, a movement not toward a paradisiacal light but into the true light at the core of darkness. The last chapter of the concluding book is titled “Suprème Ombre, Suprème Aurore” (supreme darkness, supreme dawn). The supreme darkness is the life that Valjean has fully lived; the supreme dawn is his death.


First published: “Extase,” 1829 (collected in Les Orientales: Or, Eastern Lyrics, 1879)

Type of work: Poem

The poet expresses an affinity with nature.

The “Ecstasy” that Hugo describes in this twelve-line poem is his experience of himself in nature as nature identifies itself with God. The poem reads, in prose translation, as follows:I was standing alone by the waves on a starry night, under a cloudless sky and by a sea unbothered by sails. My eyes saw more than the material world; and the woods and mountains and all of nature seemed to question, in mingled murmur, the waves of the sea and the fires of heaven. And the countless legions of golden stars were answering, in voices raised and lowered in a host of harmonies; and the blue waves, which nothing controls or hinders, were saying, as their crest foamed back in an arc, “It is the Lord, the Lord God!”

The solitary stance of the individual in an almost but not quite pantheistic communion with nature is a characteristic posture of nineteenth century Romantic poets in Germany and England, as well as in France. During the eighteenth century, “nature” was “human nature,” which could be improved by rationalism and enlightenment, and ecstasy was as suspect an irrational quality as it had been to Plato. With Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, and Hugo, however, “nature” was the terrestrial and physical universe with which an individual could establish a subjective relationship that was predispositional to spiritual gratification and religious satisfaction. Hugo intones that relationship in this short lyric, in which ecstasy and the night transcend reason and daylight.

“Olympio’s Sadness”

First published: “Tristesse d’Olympio,” 1840 (collected in The Literary Life and Poetical Works of Victor Hugo, 1883)

Type of work: Poem

The poet makes a solitary retreat to the valley in which he and his mistress began their love affair.

“Olympio’s Sadness” is Hugo’s realization that nature, endlessly beautiful, can be seen as cruel to human beings, whose beauty, in love and as part of nature, is fleeting and cannot, or will not, be sustained by nature: “How little time it takes for you, Nature, with your unwrinkled brow, to change everything, disregardingly, and, in your acts of transformation, to snap the mysterious threads that bind our hearts.” Hugo saw himself as an Olympian, both in his unorthodox religiousness, which was closer to Greek paganism than to Christianity, and in his sense of personal greatness. For him, sadness was not the opposite of happiness but the comprehension of happiness, even as he considered the true light of the religious soul to be implicit in the darkness and not external to it.

The poem was composed in October, 1837, and is rich in autumnal resonance; but the day is bright with light, and the sky is unvaryingly clear. The external light brings the poet no joy. Joy is to be remembered only in the natural things—birds, streams, the sky, lakes, and such—that have no remembrance but are themselves remembered and, in being remembered, are for lovers “the shadow of love itself.” The thirty-eighth, and last, stanza locates the soul in a pitch-black night, where the holiness of memory, the essence of human happiness, sleeps in the shadow.

In making this sentimental journey to the scene of his early days of love with his mistress Juliette Drouet, Hugo is following the examples of his fellow Romantic poets Alphonse de Lamartine and Alfred de Musset, each of whom had written superb poems about such retreats.

The first eight stanzas of the poem, each consisting of a pair of two and a half Alexandrine verses, is a third-person narrative of the poet’s return to the scene of his love: the pond, the garden, the orchard, the chestnut tree where the poet and his mistress held trysts and which they used as a repository for love letters. These stanzas are followed by thirty Alexandrine quatrains in which the poet recounts in direct statement his reactions to the loss of subjective syntony over a three-year passage of time.

The poem opens with “The fields were no longer dark,” and, in the smiling autumn light, the poet finds the sadness of his soul. The poem closes with “this night which no light spangles,” in which in darkness his soul senses the pulsation of memory. The progression of the day from light to darkness defines the progression of the soul from melancholy to the bliss enclosed in what Wordsworth calls “the still sad music of humanity.”

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Victor Hugo Poetry Analysis


Hugo, Victor