Victor Hugo, a French poet, novelist and dramatist of the Romantic Movement has been one of my favourite French authors. His most well-known novel “Les Miserables” that took him 17 years of research. proved popular enough with the masses that the issues were soon on the agenda of the French National Assembly. Here I discuss his works which brought me closer to myself.
Born on 26 February 1802, he was influenced by the Romantic writer, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand and later became involved in politics and supported Republicianism.
I specially admired his interest in the Catherdral of Notre-Dame, which took centre-stage in his first successful novel “Notre-Dame de Paris”. This novel inspired an appreciation of pre-naissance buildings, which thereafter began to be actively preserved.
Another aspect of Victor Hugo that stayed with me is his description of shock and grief in the poem – A Villequier after the death of his 19 year old daughter in 1843. One of his most famous poems is probably Demain, des l’aube where he describes visiting her grave. The poem is absolutely beautiful and the reader can sense an eagerness with a tinge of sadness in the tone. The particular phrase “je sais que tu m’attends.” (I know you wait for me) nearly had me in tears when I discovered the real reason he wrote the poem. A translation can only do justice to the words.
It is said that Victor Hugo’s first mature work of art is Le dernier jour d’un condamné in 1834, which speaks about the feelings of a man who is about to be executed. The narrator describes his life in prison, his emotions and fears over a period of 5 weeks. The last few chapters left a deep impression on me which talks about his last sleep, his nightmare and to conclude, the visit of his daughter who couldn’t recognize her father. At this point he lost all hope and began thinking of his execution as a spectacle and was expecting someone to come to save him till the last minute. Nobody came.
Victor Hugo wrote this novel to express his feelings that death penalty should be abolished and it had a big influence on later writers like Albert Camus, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
He remains, of course, the greatest word painter in the French language. In Les Misérables no less than in his poetry, he justifies his claim of being “the sonorous echo of the universe.” Victor Hugo was aware of the quality of the novel and in a letter to his publisher wrote “My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks if not the crowning point of my work” Today the novel remain his most well-known work.
The shortest correspondence in history is between Hugo and his publisher Hurst & Blackett in 1862 when Les Miserbles was published. The author telegraphed the single character message “ ? ” to which his publisher replied “ ! ” meaning to say it did extremely well.
Hugo writes with an absolute command of the “mot juste” (exact word), about history, logistics, philosophy, religion, and political morality. Les Misérables is the archetypal representation of eternal human emotions such as love, hate, and abnegation. Its two themes, the struggle between good and evil in the soul of one man and society’s struggle toward a greater good, are skillfully interwoven, In both thought and feeling, Les Misérables is far more profound than Notre Dame de Paris. In writing it, Hugo came to grips with the social problems of his own day, which demanded much reflection upon the nature of society and, therefore, upon the nature of man.
Hugo explained his ambitions for the novel to his Italian publisher:
“I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: “open up, I am here for you.”
After Les Miserables, he wrote a beautiful novel on the toilers of the sea “Les Travailleurs de la mer ” , the story of a young fisherman who fights the sea to salvage a wreck and win the girl he loves, but who gives her up when he learns she prefers another man. Les Travailleurs de la Mer is read chiefly for its magnificent evocations of the sea. Les Travailleurs de la Mer is set just after the Napolenic Wars and deals with the impact of the Industrial Revolutin upon the island. It is seen that Hugo could completely shift from the story of an execution to a man who fights the sea.
Hugo’s Romantic novel L’Homme Qui Rit published in 1869, The Man Who Laughs places its narrative in 17th-century England, where the relationships between the bourgeoisie and aristocracy are complicated by continual distancing from the lower class. The decent and the oppressed doomed to be trampled under the relentless march of the class corruption and social inequality that is so monstrously represented in the novel.
His last novel quatre-vingt-treize (Ninety-Three), published in 1874 was the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. He passed away on 22 May 1885 and is buried in Pantheon, in Paris.
He was credited in removal of the death penalty from the Constitutions of Geneva, Portugal and Colombia. Here was a man who wrote with a mission and achieved it. His vivid description of places takes you there. And his simple words convey the most genuine emotions.
I encourage you to read the translated versions of his novels and enrich yourself with one of the best art of the Romantic Period.
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