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Victor Hugo, one of the titanic figures of nineteenth century literature, produced major works in every genre. He is among the greatest lyric poets in French literature; two of his many novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833) and Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862),...

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Victor Hugo, one of the titanic figures of nineteenth century literature, produced major works in every genre. He is among the greatest lyric poets in French literature; two of his many novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833) and Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862), are classics of world literature; and his remaining works are prodigious in their variety and their ambition, ranging from literary criticism, biography, and philosophical reflection to impassioned polemics on social and political issues—notably capital punishment, against which Hugo was a tireless crusader.


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Victor Hugo is regarded by many critics as the preeminent figure in nineteenth century French literature. As a playwright, he ranks with Alexandre Dumas, père, Alfred de Vigny, and Alfred de Musset as one of the most representative authors of the romantic theater. At least one critic sees him as the essential link between the classical theater of Jean Racine and the modern twentieth century revival. As Molière raised farce to true comedy, so Hugo brought the melodrama to the level of authentic literary drama.

Although Hugo wrote some of the finest plays of the romantic period, especially Hernani and Ruy Blas, he is best appreciated as a theorist of the theater. The preface to Cromwell served as the manifesto of romantic liberation for French drama, calling for the Shakespearean tradition rather than the classical, the abolition of the unities of time and place, and the fusion of the sublime and the grotesque. It is, in fact, for his appreciation and creation of the grotesque that his dramatic theories are best known. He calls for the joyful grotesque of the carnivals, in the manner of Mikhail Bakhtin; the grotesque of the cathedrals; and the revival of the buffoons Scaramouche, Sganarelle, and Harlequin, for “beauty has only one face; ugliness has thousands.” His own theater was to produce several buffoons: Flibbertigibbet, Triboulet, and Don César are among the best.

Because Hugo was a great poet, his theater is essentially lyric. He writes with ease, charm, and poetic beauty. His lines are musical, and the Alexandrine carries the tragic and fatal revenge that marks every play or it expresses the delicate love of Hugo’s young heroes or heroines. Rapidity of dialogue and quick exchange of wit contribute to the poetic schema as well, for the fragmented Alexandrine and the enjambments that he used and abused become the vehicle for the comic theme that Hugo considered indispensable to drama. Even the dramas in prose, such as Lucretia Borgia, Marie Tudor, and Angelo, Tyrant of Padua, have a rhythmic character that makes them unmistakably Hugoesque.

Hugo saw the theater as a vocation and as the best way of influencing the public. In this he resembles Voltaire, although his desire to please makes him the heir of Molière. He was determined to conquer the rigid structure of outdated classical models. He was thwarted by the conservative Restoration government’s censure of Marion de Lorme, although he had triumphed with Hernani. He was thwarted again when The King Amuses Himself was banned under King Louis-Philippe. Hernani is better known for the furor it provoked than for its intrinsic literary merit, which is also great. Hugo installed his friends Théophile Gautier, Honoré de Balzac, Luis-Hector Berlioz, and Prosper Mérimée in the audience among others in informal attire, so their applause would triumph over the conservatives such as Mme Récamier and Chateaubriand. He succeeded, and the thirty-eight repeated performances of Hernani that same year assured the victory of romanticism in the theater.

Essentially a visionary, Hugo saw life in terms of a metaphysical conflict between good and evil. Although a rebel against classicism, he inherited the Greek perception of humanity moving in the grip of destiny. The Burgraves has often been seen as an Aeschylean tragedy, the Titans against the gods. Hugo’s imagination was limitless, and his theatrical images, whether in staged or closet drama, show the realization of his childhood wish to be Chateaubriand ou rien (Chateaubriand or nothing). Although his plots are in many respects dated, his nineteenth century melodramas, his art, and his vision keep alive his immortal heroes and his matchless lyric verse.

Other literary forms

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Victor Hugo (YEW-goh) dominates nineteenth century literature in France both by the length of his writing career and by the diversity of his work. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a literary form Hugo did not employ. Lyric, satiric, and epic poetry; drama in verse and prose; political polemic and social criticism—all are found in his oeuvre. His early plays and poetry made him a leader of the Romantic movement. His political writing included the publication of a newspaper, L’Événement, in 1851, which contributed to his exile from the Second Empire. During his exile, he wrote vehement criticism of Napoleon III as well as visionary works of poetry. His poetic genius ranged from light verse to profound epics; his prose works include accounts of his travels and literary criticism as well as fiction.


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The complete works of Victor Hugo constitute more nearly a legend than an achievement. In poetry, Hugo had become a national institution by the end of his life. He was a member of the Académie Française, an officer of the Légion d’Honneur, and a Peer of France under the monarchy of Louis-Philippe. When he died, he was accorded the singular honor of lying in state beneath Paris’s Arc de Triomphe before his burial in the Panthéon.

During his lifetime, Hugo’s novels accounted for much of his popularity with the public. Both sentimental and dramatic, they were excellent vehicles for spreading his humanitarian ideas among large numbers of people. His two most famous novels are The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables. The former is an example of dramatic historical romance, inspired in France by the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It is said to have created interest in and ensured the architectural preservation of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It is also a study in Romanticism, with its evocation of the dark force of fate and the intricate intertwining of the grotesque and the sublime.

Les Misérables testifies to Hugo’s optimistic faith in humanitarian principles and social progress. The intricate and elaborate plot confronts both social injustice and indifference. It is typical of many nineteenth century attitudes in its emphasis on education, charity, and love as powerful forces in saving the unfortunate creatures of the lower classes from becoming hardened criminals. Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale both in its historical tableaux and as the story of a human soul. Thus, even though Hugo’s achievements in the novel are of a lesser scale than his poetry and drama, they are enduring and worthy monuments to the author and to his century.

Other Literary Forms

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Besides his rather prolific output in the field of poetry, Victor Hugo achieved prominence in two other genres as well. His novels, for which he is best known in the United States, span most of his literary career and include such recognizable titles as Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829; The Last Day of a Condemned, 1840), Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1833), and Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862). Hugo was a successful playwright in his time, but only Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830) has received sustained attention. The preface to his play Cromwell (pb. 1827; English translation, 1896), however, is frequently studied by scholars because of its attack on the three unities, so long observed by French classical writers, and because of Hugo’s elaboration on his theory of the union of the grotesque and the sublime. His other plays are a mise en oeuvre of the dramatic principles found in the Cromwell preface.

Although less well known as an essayist, Hugo did write in the genre. His better-known essay collections include Le Rhin (1842; The Rhine, 1843), William Shakespeare (1864; English translation, 1864), Choses vues (1887; Things Seen, 1887), and En voyage: Alpes et Pyrénées (1890; The Alps and Pyrenees, 1898). Hugo also wrote and delivered a number of political speeches in the Chambre des Pairs. Among these are the “Consolidation et défense du littoral,” which was delivered in the summer of 1846, “La Famille Bonaparte,” which was delivered the following spring, and “Le Pape Pie IX,” which was presented in January, 1848.


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“Ego Hugo”: This was the inscription emblazoned on the Gothic armchair that stood in the dining room in the Hugos’ Guernsey home. Dubbed an ancestral chair by the poet, it remained conspicuously empty at mealtime. For Victor Hugo’s critics, this motto became a symbol of an oversized ego. For his admirers, the empty chair symbolized the greatness of Hugo the poet, if not Hugo the man. Indeed, his place in literature is unquestioned, and no other French poet since has been able to match his production and influence.

Hugo excelled in a wide variety of verse forms: ode, lyric, epic, satire, and heroic narrative. His versatility in mode was matched by variations in tone, from the eloquence and rhetorical precision found in Les Châtiments (the chastisements), for example, to the simplicity and grace of Les Contemplations. Conventions that were in vogue at the time, such as the marvelous and the fantastic, the medieval and the Oriental, were translated by Hugo into verse. The poet also found inspiration in the imagery of dreams, spiritualism, and metempsychosis. His poetry set the tone and the style for Romantic verse; his choice of subjects and his novel uses of stylistic devices influenced the Parnassians and the Symbolists.

The sheer volume of Hugo’s production would have assured him a place in literary history even if the strength and character of the man had not assured his celebrity. Hugo’s resiliency allowed him to overcome personal tragedy and to express his grief in verse. He championed causes such as free, compulsory education, universal suffrage, the right to work, and the abolition of the death penalty, before such political postures were popular. In all, Hugo was a man of deep convictions, of great sensibility, and of tremendous ego whose poetic creation reflected all these aspects of his complex personality.

Discussion Topics

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What features of French classical literature did Victor Hugo oppose most vigorously? What classical elements does he appropriate?

Why is the common title The Hunchback of Notre Dame an inadequate translation of Hugo’s title?

Why is the title Les Misérables usually not translated?

What is Hugo’s sense of the relationship between God and nature?

Trace Hugo’s use of light and dark as symbols in “Olympio’s Sadness” and in other poems.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Victor Hugo. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Essays on all aspects of Hugo’s career—two devoted to Les Misérables. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. A study by one of the most distinguished scholars of modern French literature. See especially the chapter on Les Misérables. Provides detailed notes and bibliography.

Frey, John Andrew. A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. A comprehensive guide in English to the works of Victor Hugo. Includes a foreword, a biography, and a bibliography. Frey addresses Hugo as a leading poet, novelist, artist, and religious and revolutionary thinker of France. The balance of the volume contains alphabetically arranged entries discussing his works, characters, and themes as well as historical persons and places. Includes a general bibliography.

Grossman, Kathryn M. “Les Misérables”: Conversion, Revolution, Redemption. New York: Twayne, 1996. This volume is essential for students of the novel. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Halsall, A. W. Victor Hugo and the Romantic Drama. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1998. A scholarly study of the dramatic works of Hugo. Bibliography and index.

Ionesco, Eugène. Hugoliad: Or, The Grotesque and Tragic Life of Victor Hugo. New York: Grove Press, 1987. This uncompleted work of Ionesco’s youth—written in the 1930’s in Romanian—is a sort of polemical antibiography, intended to dethrone its subject. The reader must take responsibility for separating fact from fiction, to say nothing of judging the aptness of the playwright’s cheerless embellishments of anecdotal material. Postscript by Gelu Ionescu.

Ireson, J. C. Victor Hugo: A Companion Guide to His Poetry. New York: Clarendon Press, 1997. A detailed critical study dealing with Victor Hugo’s verse in its totality, showing how each work was composed, how the themes evolved, and the considerations that dictated the sequence of his publications. Includes bibliographic references.

Maurois, André. Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo. Translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Harper & Row, 1956. Originally published in French in 1954. This is probably as close an approach as possible to an ideal one-volume biography dealing with both the life and the work of a monumental figure such as Hugo. Of the sparse illustrations, several are superb; the bibliography, principally of sources in French, provides a sense of Hugo’s celebrity and influence, which persisted well into the twentieth century.

Maurois, André. Victor Hugo and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1966. The 1956 English translation of Maurois’ text noted above was edited to conform to the format of a series of illustrated books. The result is interesting and intelligible, but rather schematic. In compensation for the vast cuts in text, a chronology and dozens of well-annotated illustrations have been added.

O’Grady, Deidre. Piave, Boito, Pirandello: From Romantic Realism to Modernism. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. A look at the dramatic works of Hugo, Franceso Maria Piave, Arrigo Boito, and Luigi Pirandello. Bibliography and index.

Peyre, Henri. Victor Hugo: Philosophy and Poetry. Translated by Roda P. Roberts. University: University of Alabama Press, 1980. A study of Hugo’s philosophy as evidenced by his poetry. Contains translations of selected poems with an index and bibliography.

Porter, Laurence M. Victor Hugo. New York: Twayne, 1999. A basic biography of Hugo that covers his life and works. Bibliography and index.

Richardson, Joanna. Victor Hugo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976. A well-written, scholarly biography divided into three sections, “The Man,” “The Prophet,” “The Legend.” With detailed notes and extensive bibliography.

Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) Thorough biography of Victor Hugo reveals many previously unknown aspects of his long life and literary career. See Robb’s introduction for a discussion of earlier biographies. Includes detailed notes and bibliography.

Ward, Patricia. The Medievalism of Victor Hugo. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. A study of Hugo’s knowledge and use of medieval history and themes. Includes bibliographic references.

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