Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
VICTOR MARIE HUGO, the most dominating figure in French literature in the nineteenth century, was born at Besançon on February 26, 1802. His father was a general under Napoleon, and the demands of the military life kept the family wandering through the poets childhood. After three years in Corsica, two in Paris, and some time in southern Italy, Hugo began his school days in Spain, whence he was driven with his parents by Wellington in 1812. His education, never very thorough, was continued at Paris; and by the age of seventeen he had entered on the profession of letters. His first publication of note was a volume of Odes issued when he was twenty, and written under the influence of the classical school; and it was followed a year later by his first novel Han dIslande, the story of a Norse robber. The romantic movement was now well under way in France, and Hugo stepped into the leadership of it by his second volume of Odes (1826) and by his drama of Cromwell (1827). The preface to this play formed the manifesto of French romanticism. The publication of his poems on eastern themes, Orientales, and the triumphant production of his play Hernani in 1829 confirmed him in the first place in the new school. The years from 1831 to 1841 were filled with writings which continually raised his reputation, until he reached the French Academy at the age of thirty-nine. In poetry the chief works were Les Feuilles dAutomne, Chants du Crépuscule, Les Voix Intérieures, and Les Rayons et les Ombres; in fiction, Notre Dame de Paris (1831); in the drama, Le Roi sAmuse, Lucrèce Borgia, Marie Tudor, Angelo, and Les Burgraves.
During the next decade, 18411851, Hugo wrote little and became immersed in politics. He had begun as a Royalist, but on abandoning classicism he had become a Liberal with strong Napoleonic sentiments. He supported the constitutional monarchy under Louis Philippe; and was created a Peer of France in 1845; but with the revolution of 1848 he turned Republican and favored the election of Louis Napoleon as president. His opposition to the setting up of the empire led to his banishment, and for nearly twenty years he lived in the Channel Islands, first in Jersey, and then in Guernsey. His years of exile were very productive. During this period were written his vast novel, Les Misérables, the work which has done most for his fame outside of France, Les Travailleurs de la Mer, an impressive picture of the struggle between the human will and the forces of nature; and LHomme Qui Rit; La Légende des Siècles, a series of scenes from the various epochs in the history of the world, containing some of his most splendid poetry; some violent invectives in prose and verse against Napoleon III; and William Shakespeare, ostensibly a criticism of the dramatist, but really a glorifying of the poet as prophet, with a fairly clear implication that he himself filled the rôle.
On the downfall of the empire, Hugo returned to France, went through the Siege of Paris, and made a final and unsuccessful attempt to take part in politics. The rest of his life was spent in Paris. His last novel, Quatre-Vingt-Treize, appeared in 1874; and Les Quatre Vents dEsprit, 1881, showed that his poetical genius had suffered no diminution. These last years brought him a rich reward of fame. He was elected a perpetual senator, and enjoyed a position of the highest distinction. When he died on May 22, 1885, he was buried with splendid ceremony in the Panthéon after lying in state under the Arc de Triomphe.
Hugos literary production falls into three main classes, drama, poetry, and fiction. Of these the first is likely to be the most short-lived. In the first heat of his revolt against classicism, he discarded all the old rules; and though his plays contain striking scenes and splendid declamation, he never brought himself to take the pains to acquire the technique necessary to insure a long acting life for a drama.
It is as a poet that Hugo is now chiefly esteemed by his own countrymen. Here also he threw over the classical rules, and both in versification and in language violated all that had been regarded as most essential in French poetry. But in place of the old conventions he brought an astonishing command of rich and varied rhythms, and a wealth of vocabulary almost unparalleled in literature. Further, he possessed, as no French poet had ever possessed, the power of rousing and transporting, and with all his strength and violence, a capacity for pathos and tenderness. The splendor of his epic style and the brilliance of his lyric are hardly to be surpassed, and he will remain one of the chief glories of French poetry.
Among foreigners, he is chiefly known by his prose fiction. Here as elsewhere he is characteristically romantic. He chose picturesque and sometimes remote themes, but always such as gave opportunity for violent contrasts. His love for antithesis was such that it led him into exaggeration so gross as to become grotesque caricature. His creations are vivid and striking, but they are drawn from the outside, and there is often no attempt at a psychological explanation, expressed or implied, of their behavior. At times he over-loaded his novels with technical details, apparently the result of special reading undertaken to obtain local color. The terminology of oceanography and meteorology almost drowns the story in some chapters of Les Travailleurs de la Mer; and the architecture and history of the middle ages intrude in Notre Dame far beyond what is necessary to give the required color and atmosphere. As a work of art this novel would only be improved by the omission of the chapters on the topography of Paris and the architecture of the cathedral. Yet it cannot be denied that in Notre Dame he has written a story of tremendous force and enthralling interest. Once started it carries the reader breathlessly on; and it abounds in scenes that stamp themselves on the imagination and in figures that haunt the memory.
Victor Hugos great lack was the sense of measure and proportiona lack of which appears equally in his tremendously exaggerated sense of his own importance as a thinker, and in the absence of restraint and of humor in his writing. For he was not in the first rank in point of intellectual power. Neither in politics nor in literary movements did he really lead: the new idea had always made some headway before he adopted it; and the theories of social regeneration which he took so seriously have left little permanent mark. Yet he had a colossal imagination and a style of vast range and power, and by means of these he is likely always to rank high among the writers who can stir mens souls.