Victor Hugo

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo

Novelist, poet, playwright, dramatist, essayist and statesman, Victor-Marie Hugo (February 26, 1802May 22, 1885) is recognized as one of the most influential French Romantic writers of the 19th century. His most well-known works are the novels Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Though conservative in his youth, he later became a passionate supporter of republicanism, and his work touches upon many of the major political and social issues and artistic trends of his time.


Early life and influences

Victor Hugo was the youngest son of Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1773–1828) and Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821). He was born in 1802 in Besançon (in the region of Franche-Comté) and lived in France for the majority of his life. However, he was forced to go into exile during the reign of Napoleon III — he lived briefly in Brussels during 1851; in Jersey from 1852 to 1855; and in Guernsey from 1855 until his return to France in 1870.

Victor Hugo as a young man
Victor Hugo as a young man

Hugo's early childhood was turbulent. The century prior to his birth saw the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty in the French Revolution, the rise and fall of the First Republic, and the rise of the First French Empire and dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor two years after Hugo's birth, and the Bourbon Monarchy was restored before his eighteenth birthday. The opposing political and religious views of Hugo's parents reflected the forces that would battle for supremacy in France throughout his life: Hugo's father was a high-ranking officer in Napoleon's army, an atheist republican who considered Napoleon a hero; his mother was a staunch Catholic Royalist who is suspected of taking as her lover General Victor Lahorie, who was executed in 1812 for plotting against Napoleon.

Sophie followed her husband to posts in Italy (where Léopold served as a governor of a province near Naples) and Spain (where he took charge of three Spanish provinces). Weary of the constant moving required by military life, and at odds with her unfaithful husband, Sophie separated permanently from Léopold in 1803 and settled in Paris. Thereafter she dominated Hugo's education and upbringing. As a result, Hugo's early work in poetry and fiction reflect a passionate devotion to both King and Faith. It was only later, during the events leading up to France's 1848 Revolution, that he would begin to rebel against his Catholic Royalist education and instead champion Republicanism and Freethought.

Early poetry and fiction

Like many young writers of his generation, Hugo was profoundly influenced by François-René de Chateaubriand, the founder of Romanticism and France’s preeminent literary figure duing the early 1800s. In his youth, Hugo resolved to be “Chateaubriand or nothing,” and his life would come to parallel that of his predecessor’s in many ways. Like Chateaubriand, Hugo would further the cause of Romanticism, become involved in politics as a champion of Republicanism, and be forced into exile due to his political stances.

The precocious passion and eloquence of Hugo's early work brought success and fame at an early age. His first collection of poetry (Nouvelles Odes et Poesies Diverses) was published in 1824, when Hugo was only twenty two years old, and earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII. Though the poems were admired for their spontaneous fervor and fluency, it was the collection that followed two years later in 1826 (Odes et Ballades) that revealed Hugo to be a great poet, a natural master of lyric and creative song.

Against his mother's wishes, young Victor fell in love and became secretly engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Adèle Foucher (1803-1868). Unusually close to his mother, it was only after her death in 1821 that he felt free to marry Adèle (in 1822). He published his first novel the following year (Han d'Islande, 1823), and his second three years later (Bug-Jargal, 1826). Between 1829 and 1840 he would publish five more volumes of poetry (Les Orientales, 1829; Les Feuilles d'automne, 1831; Les Chants du crépuscule, 1835; Les Voix intérieures, 1837; and Les Rayons et les ombres, 1840), cementing his reputation as one of the greatest eligiac and lyric poets of his time.

Theatrical work

Hugo did not achieve such quick success with his works for the stage. In 1827, he published the never-staged verse drama Cromwell, which became more famous for the author's preface than its own worth (the play's unweildy length was considered "unfit for acting"). In his introduction to the work, Hugo urged his fellow artists to free themselves from the restrictions imposed by the French classical style of theatre, and thus sparked a fierce debate between French Classicism and Romanticism that would rage for many years. Cromwell was followed in 1828 by the disastrous Amy Robsart, an experimental play from his youth based on the Walter Scott novel Kenilworth, which was produced under the name of his brother-in-law Paul Foucher and managed to survive only one performance before a less-than-appreciative audience.

Contemporary illustration of "The Battle of Hernani" (1930)
Contemporary illustration of "The Battle of Hernani" (1930)

The first play of Hugo's to be accepted for production under his own name was Marion de Lorme. Though initially banned by the censors for its unflattering portrayal of the French monarchy, it was eventually allowed to premiere uncensored in 1829, but without success. However, the play that Hugo produced the following year -- Hernani -- would prove to be one of the most successful and groundbreaking events of 19th century French theatre, the opening night of which became known as the "Battle of Hernani". Today the work is largely forgotten, except as the basis for the Verdi opera of the same name. However, at the time, performances of the work sparked near-riots between opposing camps of French letters and society: Classicists vs Romantics, Liberals vs Conformists, and Republicans vs Royalists. The play was largely condemned by the press, but played to full houses night after night, and all but crowned Hugo as the preeminent leader of French Romanticism. It also signalled that Hugo's concept of Romanticism was growing increasingly politicized: Just as Liberalism in politics would free the country from the tyranny of monarchy and dictatorship, Romanticism would liberate the arts from the constraints of Classicism.

Actress Juliette Drouet, Hugo‘s life-long mistress
Actress Juliette Drouet, Hugo‘s life-long mistress

In 1832 Hugo followed the success of Hernani with Le roi s'amuse (The King Takes His Amusement). The play was promptly banned by the censors after only one performance, due to its overt mockery of the French nobility, but then went on to be very popular in printed form. Incensed by the ban, Hugo wrote his next play, Lucréce Borgia (see: Lucrezia Borgia), in only fourteen days. It subsequently appeared on the stage in 1833, to great success. Mademoiselle George (former mistress of Napoleon) was cast in the main role, and an actress named Juliette Drouet played a subordinate part. However, Drouet would go on to play a major role in Hugo’s personal life, becoming his life-long mistress and muse. While Hugo had many romantic escapades throughout his life, Drouet was recognized even by his wife to have a unique relationship with the writer, and was treated almost as family. In Hugo’s next play (Marie Tudor, 1833), Drouet played Lady Jane Grey to George’s Queen Mary. However, she was not considered adequate to the role, and was replaced by another actress after opening night. It would be her last role on the French stage; thereafter she devoted her life to Hugo. Supported by a small pension, she became his unpaid secretary and travelling companion for the next fifty years.

Hugo’s Angelo premiered in 1835, to great success. Soon after, the Duke of New Orleans (brother of King Louis-Philippe, and an admirer of Hugo’s work) founded a new theatre to support new plays. Théâtre de la Renaissance opened in November 1838 with the premiere of Ruy Blas. Though considered by many to be Hugo’s best drama, at the time it met with only average success. Hugo did not produce another play until 1843. The Burgraves played for only 33 nights, losing audiences to a competing drama, and it would be his last work written for the theatre. Though he would later write the short verse drama Torquemada in 1869, it was not published until a few years before his death in 1882, and was never intended for the stage. However, Hugo's interest in the theatre continued, and in 1864 he published a well-received essay on William Shakespeare, whose style he tried to emulate in his own dramas.

Mature fiction

Scene from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, by illustrator Alfred Barbou (1831)
Scene from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, by illustrator Alfred Barbou (1831)

Victor Hugo's first mature work of fiction appeared in 1829, and reflected the the acute social conscience that would infuse his later work. Le Dernier jour d'un condamné (Last Days of a Condemned Man) would have a profound influence on later writers such as Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Claude Gueux, a documentary short story about a real-life murderer who had been executed France, appeared in 1834, and was later considered by Hugo himself to be a precursor to his great work on social injustice, Les Miserables. But Hugo’s first full-length novel would be the enormously successful Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), which was published in 1831 and quickly translated into other languages across Europe. One of the effects of the novel was to shame the City of Paris to undertake a restoration of the much-neglected Cathedral of Notre Dame, which was now attracting thousands of tourists who had read the popular novel. The book also inspired a renewed appreciation for pre-renaissance buildings, which thereafter began to be actively preserved.

Portrait of "Cossette" by Emile Bayard, original illustrator of Les Miserables (1862)
Portrait of "Cossette" by Emile Bayard, original illustrator of Les Miserables (1862)

Hugo began planning a major novel about social misery and injustice as early as the 1830s, but it would take a full 17 years for his greatest work, Les Miserables, to be realized and finally published in 1862. The author was acutely aware of the quality of the novel and publication of the work went to the highest bidder. The Belgian publishing house Lacroix and Verboeckhoven undertook a marketing campaign unusual for the time, issuing press releases about the work a full six months before the launch. It also initially published only the first part of the novel (“Fantine”), which was launched simultaneously in major cities. Installments of the book sold out within hours, and had enormous impact on French society. Response ranged from wild enthusiasm to intense condemnation, but the issues highlighted in Les Miserables were soon on the agenda of the French National Assembly. Today the novel is considered a literary masterpiece, adapted for cinema, television and musical stage to an extent equaled by few other works of literature.

Hugo turned away from social/political issues in his next novel, Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea), published in 1866. Nonetheless, the book was well received, perhaps due to the previous success of Les Miserables. Dedicated to the channel island of Guernsey where he spent 15 years of exile, Hugo’s depiction of Man’s battle with the sea and the horrible creatures lurking beneath its depths spawned an unusual fad in Paris: Squids. From squid dishes and exhibitions, to squid hats and parties, Parisiennes became fascinated by these unusual sea creatures, which at the time were still considered by many to be mythical.

Hugo returned to political and social issues in his next novel, L'Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs), which was published in 1869 and painted a critical picture of the aristocracy. However, the novel was not as successful as his previous efforts, and Hugo himself began to comment on the growing distance between himself and literary contemporaries such as Flaubert and Zola, whose naturalist novels were now exceeding the popularity of his own work. His last novel, Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three), published in 1874, dealt with a subject that Hugo had previously avoided: the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. Though Hugo’s popularity was on the decline at the time of its publication, many now consider Ninety-Three to be a powerful work on par with Hugo’s more well known novels.

Political life and exile

Victor Hugo Among the Rocks on Jersey (1853-55); Photograph taken by son Charles Hugo
Victor Hugo Among the Rocks on Jersey (1853-55); Photograph taken by son Charles Hugo

After three unsuccessful attempts, Hugo was finally elected to the Académie Francaise in 1841, solidifying his position in the world of French arts and letters. Thereafter he became increasingly involved in French politics as a supporter of the Republican form of government. He was elevated to the peerage by King Louis-Philippe in 1941 and entered the Higher Chamber as a Pair de France, where he spoke against the death penalty and social injustice, and in favour of freedom of the press and of self-government for Poland. He was later elected to the Legislative Assembly and the Constitutional Assembly, following the 1848 Revolution and the formation of the Second Republic.

When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized complete power in 1851, establishing an anti-parliamentary constitution, Hugo openly declared him a traitor of France. Fearing for his life, he fled to Brussels, then Jersey, and finally settled with his family on the channel island of Guernsey, where he would live in exile until 1870.

While in exile, Hugo published his famous political pamphlets against Napoleon III, Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d'un Crime. The pamphlets were banned in France, but nonetheless had a strong impact there. He also composed some of his best work during his period in Guernsey, including Les Miserables, and three widely praised collections of poetry (Les Châtiments, 1853; Les Contemplations, 1856; and La Légende des siècles, 1859).

Although Napoleon III granted an amnesty to all political exiles in 1859, Hugo declined, as it meant he would have to curtail his criticisms of the government. It was only after the unpopular Napoleon III fell from power and the Third Republic was proclaimed that Hugo finally returned to his homeland in 1870, where he was promptly elected to the National Assembly and the Senate.

Religious views

Hugo during his "Spiritualist" period. (1853-55)
Hugo during his "Spiritualist" period. (1853-55)

Although raised by his mother as a strict Catholic, Hugo later become extremely anti-clerical and fiercely rejected any connection to the Church. On the deaths of his sons Charles and François-Victor, he insisted that they buried without cross or priest, and in his will made the same stipulation about his own death and funeral.

Due in large part to the Church's indifference to the plight of the working class under the monarchy, which crushed their opposition, Hugo evolved from non-practicing Catholic to a Rationalist Deism. When a census-taker asked him in 1872 if he was a Catholic, Hugo replied, "No. A Freethinker." He also dabbled in Spiritualism when in exile.

Hugo's Rationalism can be found in poems such as Torquemada (1869, about religious fanaticism), The Pope (1878, violently anti-clerical), Religions and Religion (1880, denying the usefulness of churches) and, published posthumously, The End of Satan and God (1886 and 1891 respectively, in which he represents Christianity as a griffin and Rationalism as an angel). He predicted that Christianity would eventually disappear, but people would still believe in "God, Soul, and Responsibility."

Declining years and death

When Hugo returned to Paris in 1870, the country hailed him as a national hero. He went on to weather, within a brief period, the Siege of Paris, a mild stroke, his daughter Adèle’s commitment to an insane asylum, and the death of his two sons. (His other daughter, Léopoldine, had drowned in a boating accident in 1833; his wife Adele passed away in 1868; and his faithful mistress, Juliette Drouet, died in 1883, only two years before his own death.) Despite his personal loss, Hugo remained committed to political change.

Victor Hugo's death on May 22, 1885, at the age of 83, generated intense national mourning. He was not only revered as a towering figure in French literature, but also internationally acknowledged as a statesman who helped to preserve and shape the Third Republic and democracy in France. More than two million people joined his funeral procession in Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to the Panthéon, where he was buried.


"Setting Sun" (1853-1855)
"Setting Sun" (1853-1855)

Many are not aware that Hugo was almost as prolific an artist as he was a writer, producing about 4,000 drawings in his lifetime.

Originally pursued as a casual hobby, drawing became more important to Hugo shortly before his exile, when he made the decision to stop writing in order to devote himself to politics. Drawing became his exclusive creative outlet during the period 1848-1851.

"Octopus With the Initials V.H." (1866)
"Octopus With the Initials V.H." (1866)

Hugo worked only on paper, and on a small scale; usually in dark brown or black pen-and-ink wash, sometimes with touches of white, and rarely with color. The surviving drawings are surprisingly accomplished and “modern” in their style and execution, foreshadowing the experimental techniques of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

He would not hesitate to use his children's stencils, ink blots, puddles and stains, lace impressions, "pliage" or folding (i.e. Rorschach blots), "grattage" or rubbing, often using the charcoal from match sticks or his fingers instead of pen or brush. Sometimes he would even toss in coffee or soot to get the effects he wanted. It is reported that Hugo often drew with his left hand or without looking at the page, or during Spiritualist seances, in order to access his unconscious mind, a concept only later popularized by Sigmund Freud.

"Town With Tumbledown Bridge" (1847)
"Town With Tumbledown Bridge" (1847)

Hugo kept his artwork out of the public eye, fearing it would overshadow his literary work. However, he enjoyed sharing his drawings with his family and friends, often in the form of ornately handmade calling cards, many of which were given as gifts to visitors when he was in political exile. Some of his work was shown to, and appreciated by, contemporary artists such as van Gogh and Delacroix; the latter expressed the opinion that if Hugo had decided to become a painter instead of a writer, he would have outshone the artists of their century.

Reproductions of Hugo’s striking and often brooding drawings can be viewed on the internet at ArtNet and on the website of artist Misha Bittleston.

Contemporary Caricatures of Hugo

Caricature by De Barray, depicting "The Romantics" (Hugo, Dumas, and Frédérick-Lemaître) being "driven out of Comédie-Française towards the Theatre of Rebirth". (1838)
Caricature by De Barray, depicting "The Romantics" (Hugo, Dumas, and Frédérick-Lemaître) being "driven out of Comédie-Française towards the Theatre of Rebirth". (1838)
Caricature by Honore Daumier, describing Hugo (at the pinnacle of his political career) as "the darkest of all the great serious men". (1849)
Caricature by Honore Daumier, describing Hugo (at the pinnacle of his political career) as "the darkest of all the great serious men". (1849)
Caricature by Andre Gill, touting the elderly Hugo as France's "symbol of political courage". (1878)
Caricature by Andre Gill, touting the elderly Hugo as France's "symbol of political courage". (1878)
Cariacature showing young Zola trying to pull Hugo off his pedestal. (1879)
Cariacature showing young Zola trying to pull Hugo off his pedestal. (1879)


Online references

  • Afran, Charles (1997). “Victor Hugo: French Dramatist”. Website: Discover France. (Originally published in Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1997, v.9.0.1.) Retrieved November 2005.
  • Bates, Alan (1906). “Victor Hugo”. Website: Theatre History. (Originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 9. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 11-13.) Retrieved November 2005.
  • Bates, Alfred (1906). “Hernani”. Website: Threatre History. (Originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 9. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 20-23.) Retrieved November 2005.
  • Bates, Alfred (1906). “Hugo’s Cromwell”. Website: Theatre History. (Originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 9. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 18-19.) Retrieved November 2005.
  • Bittleston, Misha (uncited date). "Drawings of Victor Hugo". Website: Misha Bittleston. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Burnham, I.G. (1896). “Amy Robsart”. Website: Theatre History. (Originally published in Victor Hugo: Dramas. Philadelphia: The Rittenhouse Press, 1896. pp. 203-6, 401-2.) Retrieved November 2005.
  • Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2001-05). “Hugo, Victor Marie, Vicomte”. Website: Bartleby, Great Books Online. Retrieved November 2005. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Fram-Cohen, Michelle (2002). “Romanticism is Dead! Long Live Romanticism!”. The New Individualist, An Objectivist Review of Politics and Culture. Website: The Objectivist Center. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Haine, W. Scott (1997). “Victor Hugo”. Encyclopedia of 1848 Revolutions. Website: Ohio University. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Illi, Peter (2001-2004). “Victor Hugo: Plays”. Website: The Victor Hugo Website. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Karlins, N.F. (1998). "Octopus With the Initials V.H." Website: ArtNet. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Liukkonen, Petri (2000). “Victor Hugo (1802-1885)”. Books and Writers. Website: Pegasos: A Literature Related Resource Site. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Meyer, Ronald Bruce (date not cited). “Victor Hugo”. Website: Ronald Bruce Meyer. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Robb, Graham (1997). “A Sabre in the Night”. Website: New York Times (Books). (Exerpt from Graham, Robb (1997). Victor Hugo: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.) Retrieved November 2005.
  • Roche, Isabel (2005). “Victor Hugo: Biography”. Meet the Writers. Website: Barnes & Noble. (From the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 2005.) Retrieved November 2005.
  • Uncited Author. “Victor Hugo”. Website: Spartacus Educational. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Uncited Author. “Timeline of Victor Hugo”. Website: BBC. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Uncited Author. (2000-2005). “Victor Hugo”. Website: The Literature Network. Retrieved November 2005.
  • Uncited Author. "Hugo Caricature". Website: Présence de la Littérature a l’école. Retrieved November 2005.

Further reading

  • Barbou, Alfred (1882). Victor Hugo and His Times. University Press of the Pacific: 2001 paper back edition. ISBN 089875478X.
  • Brombert, Victor H. (1984). Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Boston: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674935500.
  • Davidson, A.F. (1912). Victor Hugo: His Life and Work. University Press of the Pacific: 2003 paperback edition. ISBN 1410207781.
  • Dow, Leslie Smith (1993). Adele Hugo: La Miserable. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions. ISBN 0864921683.
  • Falkayn, David (2001). Guide to the Life, Times, and Works of Victor Hugo. University Press of the Pacific. ISBN 0898754658.
  • Frey, John Andrew (1999). A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313298963.
  • Grant, Elliot (1946). The Career of Victor Hugo. Harvard University Press. Out of print.
  • Halsall, A.W. et al (1998). Victor Hugo and the Romantic Drama. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0802043224.
  • Hart, Simon Allen (2004). Lady in the Shadows : The Life and Times of Julie Drouet, Mistress, Companion and Muse to Victor Hugo. Publish American. ISBN 1413711332.
  • Houston, John Porter (1975). Victor Hugo. New York: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0805724435.
  • Ireson, J.C. (1997). Victor Hugo: A Companion to His Poetry. Clarendon Press. ISBN 0198157991.
  • Maurois, Andre (1966). Victor Hugo and His World. London: Thames and Hudson. Out of print.
  • Robb, Graham (1997). Victor Hugo: A Biography. W.W. Norton & Company: 1999 paperback edition. ISBN: 0393318990.(description/reviews)

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:


Published during Hugo's lifetime

Published posthumously

  • Théâtre en liberté (1886)
  • La fin de Satan (1886)
  • Choses vues - 1re série (1887)
  • Toute la lyre (1888)
  • Alpes et Pyrénées (1890)
  • Dieu (1891)
  • France et Belgique (1892)
  • Toute la lyre - nouvelle série (1893)
  • Correspondances - Tome I (1896)
  • Correspondances - Tome II (1898)
  • Les années funestes (1898)
  • Choses vues - 2e série (1900)
  • Post-scriptum de ma vie (1901)
  • Dernière Gerbe (1902)
  • Mille francs de récompense (1934)
  • Océan. Tas de pierres (1942)
  • Pierres (1951)

Online texts

Preceded by:
Népomucène Lemercier
Seat 14
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Charles Leconte de Lisle
Personal tools