History of Literature

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo


Victor Hugo

French writer
in full Victor-Marie Hugo

born Feb. 26, 1802, Besançon, Fr.
died May 22, 1885, Paris

poet, novelist, and dramatist who was the most important of the French Romantic writers. Though regarded in France as one of that country’s greatest poets, he is better known abroad for such novels as Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862).

Early years (1802–30)
Victor was the third son of Joseph-Léopold-Sigisbert Hugo, a major and, later, general in Napoleon’s army. His childhood was coloured by his father’s constant traveling with the imperial army and by the disagreements that soon alienated his parents from one another. His mother’s royalism and his father’s loyalty to successive governments—the Convention, the Empire, the Restoration—reflected their deeper incompatibility. It was a chaotic time for Victor, continually uprooted from Paris to set out for Elba or Naples or Madrid, yet always returning to Paris with his mother, whose royalist opinions he initially adopted. The fall of the empire gave him, from 1815 to 1818, a time of uninterrupted study at the Pension Cordier and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, after which he graduated from the law faculty at Paris, where his studies seem to have been purposeless and irregular. Memories of his life as a poor student later inspired the figure of Marius in his novel Les Misérables.

From 1816, at least, Hugo had conceived ambitions other than the law. He was already filling notebooks with verses, translations—particularly from Virgil—two tragedies, a play, and elegies. Encouraged by his mother, Hugo founded a review, the Conservateur Littéraire (1819–21), in which his own articles on the poets Alphonse de Lamartine and André de Chénier stand out. His mother died in 1821, and a year later Victor married a childhood friend, Adèle Foucher, with whom he had five children. In that same year he published his first book of poems, Odes et poésies diverses, whose royalist sentiments earned him a pension from Louis XVIII. Behind Hugo’s concern for classical form and his political inspiration, it is possible to recognize in these poems a personal voice and his own particular vein of fantasy.

In 1823 he published his first novel, Han d’Islande, which in 1825 appeared in an English translation as Hans of Iceland. The journalist Charles Nodier was enthusiastic about it and drew Hugo into the group of friends, all devotees of Romanticism, who met regularly at the Bibliothèque de L’Arsenal. While frequenting this literary circle, which was called the Cénacle, Hugo shared in launching a new review of moderate tendencies, the Muse Française (1823–24). In 1824 he published a new verse collection, Nouvelles Odes, and followed it two years later with an exotic romance, Bug-Jargal (Eng. trans. The Slave King). In 1826 he also published Odes et ballades, an enlarged edition of his previously printed verse, the latest of these poems being brilliant variations on the fashionable Romantic modes of mirth and terror. The youthful vigour of these poems was also characteristic of another collection, Les Orientales (1829), which appealed to the Romantic taste for Oriental local colour. In these poems Hugo, while skillfully employing a great variety of metres in his verse and using ardent and brilliant imagery, was also gradually shedding the legitimist royalism of his youth. It may be noted, too, that “Le Feu du ciel,” a visionary poem, forecast those he was to write 25 years later. The fusion of the contemporary with the apocalyptic was always a particular mark of Hugo’s genius.

Hugo emerged as a true Romantic, however, with the publication in 1827 of his verse drama Cromwell. The subject of this play, with its near-contemporary overtones, is that of a national leader risen from the people who seeks to be crowned king. But the play’s reputation rested largely on the long, elaborate preface, in which Hugo proposed a doctrine of Romanticism that for all its intellectual moderation was extremely provocative. He demanded a verse drama in which the contradictions of human existence—good and evil, beauty and ugliness, tears and laughter—would be resolved by the inclusion of both tragic and comic elements in a single play. Such a type of drama would abandon the formal rules of classical tragedy for the freedom and truth to be found in the plays of William Shakespeare. Cromwell itself, though immensely long and almost impossible to stage, was written in verse of great force and originality. In fact, the preface to Cromwell, as an important statement of the tenets of Romanticism, has proved far more important than the play itself.

Success (1830–51)
The defense of freedom and the cult of an idealized Napoleon in such poems as the ode “À la Colonne” and “Lui” brought Hugo into touch with the liberal group of writers on the newspaper Le Globe, and his move toward liberalism was strengthened by the French king Charles X’s restrictions on the liberty of the press as well as by the censor’s prohibiting the stage performance of his play Marion de Lorme (1829), which portrays the character of Louis XIII unfavourably. Hugo immediately retorted with Hernani, the first performance of which, on Feb. 25, 1830, gained victory for the young Romantics over the Classicists in what came to be known as the battle of Hernani. In this play Hugo extolled the Romantic hero in the form of a noble outlaw at war with society, dedicated to a passionate love and driven on by inexorable fate. The actual impact of the play owed less to the plot than to the sound and beat of the verse, which was softened only in the elegiac passages spoken by Hernani and Doña Sol.

While Hugo had derived his early renown from his plays, he gained wider fame in 1831 with his historical novel Notre-Dame de Paris (Eng. trans. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), an evocation of life in medieval Paris during the reign of Louis XI. The novel condemns a society that, in the persons of Frollo the archdeacon and Phoebus the soldier, heaps misery on the hunchback Quasimodo and the gypsy girl Esmeralda. The theme touched the public consciousness more deeply than had that of his previous novel, Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829; The Last Days of a Condemned), the story of a condemned man’s last day, in which Hugo launched a humanitarian protest against the death penalty. While Notre-Dame was being written, Louis-Philippe, a constitutional king, had been brought to power by the July Revolution. Hugo composed a poem in honour of this event, Dicté aprés juillet 1830. It was a forerunner of much of his political verse.

Four books of poems came from Hugo in the period of the July Monarchy: Les Feuilles d’automne (1831; “Autumn Leaves”), intimate and personal in inspiration; Les Chants du crépuscule (1835; Songs of Twilight), overtly political; Les Voix intérieures (1837; “Inner Voices”), both personal and philosophical; and Les Rayons et les ombres (1840; “Sunlight and Shadows”), in which the poet, renewing these different themes, indulges his gift for colour and picturesque detail. But Hugo was not content merely to express personal emotions; he wanted to be what he called the “sonorous echo” of his time. In his verse political and philosophical problems were integrated with the religious and social disquiet of the period; one poem evoked the misery of the workers, another praised the efficacy of prayer. He addressed many poems to the glory of Napoleon, though he shared with his contemporaries the reversion to republican ideals. Hugo restated the problems of his century and the great and eternal human questions, and he spoke with a warmhearted eloquence and reasonableness that moved people’s souls.

So intense was Hugo’s creative activity during these years that he also continued to pour out plays. There were two motives for this: first, he needed a platform for his political and social ideas, and, second, he wished to write parts for a young and beautiful actress, Juliette Drouet, with whom he had begun a liaison in 1833. Juliette had little talent and soon renounced the stage in order to devote herself exclusively to him, becoming the discreet and faithful companion she was to remain until her death in 1883. The first of these plays was another verse drama, Le Roi s’amuse (1832; Eng. trans. The King’s Fool), set in Renaissance France and depicting the frivolous love affairs of Francis I while revealing the noble character of his court jester. This play was at first banned but was later used by Giuseppe Verdi as the libretto of his opera Rigoletto. Three prose plays followed: Lucrèce Borgia and Marie Tudor in 1833 and Angelo, tyran de Padoue (“Angelo, Tyrant of Padua”) in 1835. Ruy Blas, a play in verse, appeared in 1838 and was followed by Les Burgraves in 1843.

Hugo’s literary achievement was recognized in 1841 by his election, after three unsuccessful attempts, to the French Academy and by his nomination in 1845 to the Chamber of Peers. From this time he almost ceased to publish, partly because of the demands of society and political life but also as a result of personal loss: his daughter Léopoldine, recently married, was accidentally drowned with her husband in September 1843. Hugo’s intense grief found some mitigation in poems that later appeared in Les Contemplations, a volume that he divided into “Autrefois” and “Aujourd’hui,” the moment of his daughter’s death being the mark between yesterday and today. He found relief above all in working on a new novel, which became Les Misérables, published in 1862 after work on it had been set aside for a time and then resumed.

With the Revolution of 1848, Hugo was elected a deputy for Paris in the Constituent Assembly and later in the Legislative Assembly. He supported the successful candidacy of Prince Louis-Napoléon for the presidency that year. The more the president evolved toward an authoritarianism of the right, however, the more Hugo moved toward the assembly’s left. When in December 1851 a coup d’état took place, which eventually resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III, Hugo made one attempt at resistance and then fled to Brussels.

Exile (1851–70)
Hugo’s exile lasted until the return of liberty and the reconstitution of the republic in 1870. Enforced at the beginning, exile later became a voluntary gesture and, after the amnesty of 1859, an act of pride. He remained in Brussels for a year until, foreseeing expulsion, he took refuge on British territory. He first established himself on the island of Jersey, in the English Channel, where he remained from 1852 to 1855. When he was expelled from there, he moved to the neighbouring island of Guernsey. During this exile of nearly 20 years he produced the most extensive part of all his writings and the most original.

Immersed in politics as he was, Hugo devoted the first writings of his exile to satire and recent history: Napoléon le Petit (1852), an indictment of Napoleon III, and Histoire d’un crime, a day-by-day account of Louis Bonaparte’s coup. Hugo’s return to poetry was an explosion of wrath: Les Châtiments (1853; “The Punishments”). This collection of poems unleashed his anger against the new emperor and, on a technical level, freed him from his remaining classical prejudices and enabled him to achieve the full mastery of his poetic powers. Les Châtiments ranks among the most powerful satirical poems in the French language. All Hugo’s future verse profited from this release of his imagination: the tone of this collection of poems is sometimes lyrical, sometimes epic, sometimes moving, but most often virulent, containing an undertone of national and personal frustration.

Despite the satisfaction he derived from his political poetry, Hugo wearied of its limitations and, turning back to the unpublished poems of 1840–50, set to work on the volume of poetry entitled Les Contemplations (1856). This work contains the purest of his poetry—the most moving because the memory of his dead daughter is at the centre of the book, the most disquieting, also, because it transmits the haunted world of a thinker. In poems such as “Pleurs dans la nuit” and “La Bouche d’ombre,” he reveals a tormented mind that struggles between doubt and faith in its lonely search for meaning and significance.

Hugo’s apocalyptic approach to reality was the source of two epic or metaphysical poems, La Fin de Satan (“The End of Satan”) and Dieu (“God”), both of them confrontations of the problem of evil. Written between 1854 and 1860, they were not published until after his death because his publisher preferred the little epics based on history and legend contained in the first installment (1859) of the gigantic epic poem La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Centuries), whose second and third installments appeared in 1877 and 1883, respectively. The many poems that make up this epic display all his spiritual power without sacrificing his exuberant capacity to tell a story. Hugo’s personal mythology of the human struggle between good and evil lies behind each of the legends: Eve’s motherhood is exalted in “Le Sacre de la femme”; mankind liberating itself from all religions in order to attain divine truth is the theme of “Le Satyre”; and “Plein Ciel” proclaims, through utopian prediction of men’s conquest of the air, the poet’s conviction of indefinite progress toward the final unity of science with moral awareness.

After the publication of three long books of poetry, Hugo returned to prose and took up his abandoned novel, Les Misérables. Its extraordinary success with readers of every type when it was published in 1862 brought him instant popularity in his own country, and its speedy translation into many languages won him fame abroad. The novel’s name means “the wretched,” or “the outcasts,” but English translations generally carry the French title. The story centres on the convict Jean Valjean, a victim of society who has been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. A hardened and astute criminal upon his release, he eventually softens and reforms, becoming a successful industrialist and mayor of a northern town. Yet he is stalked obsessively by the detective Javert for an impulsive, regretted former crime, and Jean Valjean eventually sacrifices himself for the sake of his adopted daughter, Cosette, and her husband, Marius. Les Misérables is a vast panorama of Parisian society and its underworld, and it contains many famous episodes and passages, among them a chapter on the Battle of Waterloo and the description of Jean Valjean’s rescue of Marius by means of a flight through the sewers of Paris. The story line of Les Misérables is basically that of a detective story, but by virtue of its characters, who are sometimes a little larger than life yet always vital and engaging, and by its re-creation of the swarming Parisian underworld, the main theme of humankind’s ceaseless combat with evil clearly emerges.

The remaining works Hugo completed in exile include the essay William Shakespeare (1864) and two novels: Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866; The Toilers of the Sea), dedicated to the island of Guernsey and its sailors; and L’Homme qui rit (1869; The Man Who Laughs), a curious baroque novel about the English people’s fight against feudalism in the 17th century, which takes its title from the perpetual grin of its disfigured hero. Hugo’s last novel, Quatre-vingt-treize (1874; Ninety-three), centred on the tumultuous year 1793 in France and portrayed human justice and charity against the background of the French Revolution.

Last years (1870–85)
The defeat of France in the Franco-German War and the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1871 brought Hugo back to Paris. He became a deputy in the National Assembly (1871) but resigned the following month. Though he still fought for his old ideals, he no longer possessed the same energies. The trials of recent years had aged him, and there were more to come: in 1868 he had lost his wife, Adèle, a profound sadness to him; in 1871 one son died, as did another in 1873. Though increasingly detached from life around him, the poet of L’Année terrible (1872), in which he recounted the siege of Paris during the “terrible year” of 1870, had become a national hero and a living symbol of republicanism in France. In 1878 Hugo was stricken by cerebral congestion, but he lived on for some years in the Avenue d’Eylau, renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo on his 80th birthday. In 1885, two years after the death of his faithful companion Juliette, Hugo died and was given a national funeral. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe and was buried in the Panthéon.

Hugo’s enormous output is unique in French literature; it is said that he wrote each morning 100 lines of verse or 20 pages of prose. “The most powerful mind of the Romantic movement,” as he was described in 1830, laureate and peer of France in 1845, he went on to assume the role of an outlawed sage who, with the easy consciousness of authority, put down his insights and prophetic visions in prose and verse, becoming at last the genial grandfather of popular literary portraiture and the national poet who gave his name to a street in every town in France.

The recognition of Hugo as a great poet at the time of his death was followed by a period of critical neglect. A few of his poems were remembered, and Les Misérables continued to be widely read. The generosity of his ideas and the warmth of their expression still moved the public mind, for Hugo was a poet of the common man and knew how to write with simplicity and power of common joys and sorrows. But there was another side to him—what Paul Claudel called his “panic contemplation” of the universe, the numinous fear that penetrates his sombre poems La Fin de Satan and Dieu. Hugo’s knowledge of the resources of French verse and his technical virtuosity in metre and rhyme, moreover, rescued French poetry from the sterility of the 18th century. Hugo is one of those rare writers who excites both popular and academic audiences alike.

Jean-Bertrand Barrère



The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Victor Hugo


Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris \s a historical novel in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. It presents a vivid tableau of life in fifteenth century Paris, a city teeming with noble festivities, grotesque revelries, mob uprisings, and public executions, all of which take place around Notre-Dame de Paris. Hugo devotes two chapters to the description of the gothic church, bringing the reader into the very soul of Notre-Dame. From the dizzying heights of its stony gaze, he offers the reader a subjective view of Paris.The word anankhe {"fate"), etched on one of the walls, reveals the driving force of the gothic plot.
Quasimodo's fate is sealed when he is abandoned at birth by his mother on the steps of Notre-Dame. Adopted by the Archdeacon Claude Frollo, Quasimodo becomes bellringerof the tower, hiding his grotesque, hunchbacked figure away from prying Parisian eyes. Frollo is consumed by forbidden lust for the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, who dances on the square below the cathedral. He convinces Quasimodo to kidnap her, but his attempts are foiled by the captain of the King's Archers, Phoebus, who also falls for Esmeralda. Quasimodo is imprisoned for the crime, and is abused and humiliated by his captors. After a particularly brutal flogging, he is tended to by Esmeralda who gives him water. From this point on, Quasimodo is hopelessly devoted to her. With all three characters under her spell, a dramatic tale of love and deceit ensues. The love obsessed Frollo spies on Phoebus and Esmeralda, stabbing the former in a jealous rage. Esmeralda is arrested and condemned to death for his murder, and despite a brave rescue attempt by Quasimodo is later hanged. Quasimodo, seeing Esmeralda hanging lifeless from the gallows, cries out, "There is all I loved." The theme of redemption through love struck a universal chord.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of plot: Fifteenth century
Locale: France
First published: Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831 (English translation, 1833)


In this masterpiece of romantic writing, Hugo tells of the love of a grotesquely ugly, hunchbacked deaf-mute for a mysteriously beautiful gypsy dancer. The compelling theme of the novel is that God has created in man an imperfect image of Himself, an image fettered with numerous handicaps, but one which has the potential to transcend its limitations and achieve spiritual greatness.


Principal Characters

Quasimodo (ka-ze-mo'do), a bellringer abandoned in infancy at Notre Dame Cathedral on Quasimodo Sunday, and now deaf from the din of the bells he rings. He is also unspeakably ugly, with tusk-like teeth and a wen over one eye, bristling red hair and eyebrows, and a snoutlike nose. Because of his horrible appearance, the Paris crowd selects him King of Fools for the Epiphany celebrations of 1482. During the carnival he sees Esmer-alda, the gypsy who dances before him. When he is later pilloried and beaten, she brings him a drink. From then on he is her devoted slave and on several occasions saves her from Archdeacon Frollo, his benefactor. When she is hanged, through Frollo's scheming, he hurls the priest from the bell tower, then weeps at the death of the only two people he has ever loved. Years later, when the vault of Montfaucon, burial place of criminals, is opened, a skeleton of a woman in white is found in the arms of a misshapen man with a crooked spine. The bones disintegrate into dust when touched.
Esmeralda (ez-ma-ral'da), a lovely and kindhearted gypsy who possesses an amulet by which she hopes to find her family. She and her goat Djali dance to earn their living. Attracted to Captain Phoebus after he saves her from kidnapping, she agrees to a rendezvous in a house on the Pont St. Michel. There the officer is stabbed by Frollo, but Esmeralda is accused of the crime. Under torture, she confesses to everything and is sentenced to be hanged. With Quasimodo's help, however, she escapes while confessing to Frollo and takes sanctuary in the church. Gringoire deceives her into leaving when the mob attacks Notre Dame. For a time she hides in the cell of a madwoman, in reality her mother from whom the gypsies had stolen her. Soldiers of Captain Phoebus' company find her there. Clothed in white, she is hanged at dawn.
Pierre Gringoire (pyar' grarrgwar'), a penniless and stupid Parisian poet who falls in love with Esmeralda. He writes a play to entertain the Flemish ambassadors at the Palace of Justice. Captured later by thugs and threatened with hanging, he is freed when Esmeralda promises to marry him, but the marriage is never consummated. At Frollo's bidding, Gringoire tempts the girl from her sanctuary and she is captured.
Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers (fa-bus' ds sha-to-pers'), loved by Esmeralda. He reveals to Frollo his rendezvous with her and is stabbed by the jealous priest. When Esmeralda is accused of the crime, Phoebus allows her be tried for his attempted murder because he is fearful for his reputation if he appears. Soon he forgets the gypsy and marries his cousin, Fleur-de-Lys.
Claude Frollo (klod fro-yo'), the archdeacon of Notre Dame, once an upright priest but now a student of alchemy and necromancy as well as a pursuer of women. Determined to possess Esmeralda, he sends Quasimodo in disguise to seize her. Her rescue by Captain Phoebus makes him try to kill the officer. When Esmeralda is accused of the crime, he offers to save her if she will give herself to him. Failing to possess her, he shakes with evil laughter as he looks down from Notre Dame at her hanging in the Place de Greve. Here he is found by Quasimodo and hurled to his death on the pavement below.
The Dauphin Charles (do fan' sharl), of France, whose marriage to Margaret of Flanders occasions the celebration at the beginning of the novel.
Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon (sharl', kar-de-nal' da boorbon'), who provides the dramatic entertainment for the visiting Flemish guests.
Tristan (tres-tan'), who directs Captain Phoebus' soldiers in search of Esmeralda.
Jacques Charmolue (zhak shar-mo-lii'), the king's attorney in the Ecclesiastical Court that tries Esmeralda for witchcraft.
Philippe Lheulier (fe-lep' lfl-lya'), the king's Advocate Extraordinary, who accuses her.
Gudule (gu-dul'), an ex-prostitute whose daughter Agnes had been stolen by gypsies. She has gone mad and for fifteen years has lived in a cell. She fondles constantly a shoe that her baby had worn. When Esmer-alda takes refuge there, she produces its companion, and mother and daughter are briefly reunited.


The Story

Louis XI, king of France, was to marry his oldest son to Margaret of Flanders, and in early January, 1482, the king was expecting Flemish ambassadors to his court. The great day arrived, coinciding both with Epiphany and the secular celebration of the Festival of Fools. All day long, raucous Parisians had assembled at the great Palace of Justice to see a morality play and to choose a Prince of Fools. The throng was supposed to await the arrival of the Flemish guests, but when the emissaries were late Gringoire, a penniless and oafish poet, ordered the play to begin. In the middle of the prologue, however, the play came to a standstill as the royal procession passed into the huge palace. After the procession passed, the play was forgotten, and the crowd shouted for the Prince of Fools to be chosen.
The Prince of Fools had to be a man of remarkable physical ugliness. One by one the candidates, eager for this one glory of their disreputable lives, showed their faces in front of a glass window, but the crowd shouted and jeered until a face of such extraordinary hideousness appeared that the people acclaimed this candidate at once as the Prince of Fools. It was Quasimodo, the hunchback bellringer of Notre Dame. Nowhere on earth was there a more grotesque creature. One of his eyes was buried under an enormous wen. His teeth hung over his protruding lower lip like tusks. His eyebrows were red bristles, and his gigantic nose curved over his upper lip like a snout. His long arms protruded from his shoulders, dangling like an ape's. Though he was deaf from long years of ringing Notre Dame's thunderous bells, his eyesight was acute.
Quasimodo sensed that he had been chosen by popular acclaim, and he was at once proud and suspicious of his honor as he allowed the crowd to dress him in ridiculous robes and hoist him above their heads. From this vantage point, he maintained a dignified silence while the parade went through the streets of Paris, stopping only to watch the enchanting dance of a gypsy girl, La Esmeralda, whose grace and charm held her audience spellbound. She had a little trained goat with her that danced to her tambourine. The pair were celebrated throughout Paris, though there were some who thought the girl a witch, so great was her power in captivating her audience.
Late that night the poet Gringoire walked the streets of Paris. He had no shelter, owed money, and was in desperate straits. As the cold night came on, he saw Esmeralda hurrying ahead of him. Then a black-hooded man came out of the shadows and seized the gypsy. At the same time, Gringoire caught sight of the hooded man's partner, Quasimodo, who struck Gringoire a terrible blow. The following moment a horseman came riding from the next street. Catching sight of Esmeralda in the arms of the black-hooded man, the rider demanded that he free the girl or pay with his life. The attackers fled. Esmeralda asked the name of her rescuer. It was Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers. From that moment Esmeralda was hopelessly in love with Phoebus.
Gringoire did not bother to discover the plot behind the frustrated kidnapping, but had he known the truth he might have been more frightened than he was. Quasimodo's hooded companion had been Claude Frollo, archdeacon of Notre Dame, a man who had once been a pillar of righteousness, but who now, because of loneliness and an insatiable thirst for knowledge and experience, had succumbed to the temptations of necromancy and alchemy.
Frollo had befriended Quasimodo when the hunchback had been left at the gates of Notre Dame as an unwanted baby; Quasimodo was slavishly loyal to him. He acted without question when Frollo asked his aid in kidnapping the beautiful gypsy. Frollo, having admired Esmeralda from a distance, planned to carry her off to his small cell in the cathedral, where he could enjoy her charms at his leisure.
As Quasimodo and Frollo hurried back to the cathedral, Gringoire continued on his way and found himself in a disreputable quarter of Paris. Captured by thugs, he was threatened with death if none of the women in the thieves' den would marry him. When no one wanted the pale, thin poet, a noose was lowered about his neck. Suddenly Esmeralda appeared and volunteered to take him, but Gringoire enjoyed no wedding night. Esmeralda's heart belonged to Phoebus; she had rescued the poet only out of pity.
In those days the courts of Paris often picked innocent people from the streets, tried them, and convicted them with little regard for justice. Quasimodo had been seen in his role as the Prince of Fools and had been watched as he stood before the gypsy girl while she danced. There was a rumor that Esmeralda was a witch, and most of Paris suspected that Frollo, Quasimodo's only associate, was a sorcerer. Consequently, Quasimodo was brought into a court, accused of keeping questionable company, and sentenced to a severe flogging and exposure on the pillory. Quasimodo endured his disgrace stoically, but after his misshapen back had been torn by the lash, he was overcome with a terrible thirst. The crowd jeered and threw stones. They hated and feared Quasimodo because of his ugliness.
Presently Esmeralda mounted the scaffold and put her flask to Quasimodo's blackened lips. This act of kindness moved him deeply and he wept. At that same time Frollo had happened upon the scene, caught sight of Quasimodo, and departed quickly. Later Quasimodo was to remember this betrayal.
One day Phoebus was entertaining a lady in a building overlooking the square where Esmeralda was dancing. The gypsy was so smitten with Phoebus that she had taught her goat to spell out his name with alphabet blocks. When she had the animal perform this trick, the lady called her a witch and a sorceress. Phoebus, however, followed the gypsy and arranged for a rendezvous with her for the following night.
Meanwhile, Gringoire happened to meet Frollo, who was jealous of the poet because he was rumored to be Esmeralda's husband. Gringoire, however, explained that Esmeralda did not love him; she had eyes and heart only for Phoebus.
Desperate to preserve Esmeralda for himself, Frollo trailed the young gallant and asked him where he was going. Phoebus said that he had a rendezvous with Esmeralda. The priest offered him money in exchange for an opportunity to conceal himself in the room where this rendezvous was to take place, ostensibly to discover whether Esmeralda was really the girl whose name Phoebus had mentioned. It was a poor ruse at best, but Phoebus was not shy at lovemaking and agreed to the bargain. When he learned that the girl was really Esmeralda, Frollo leaped from concealment and wounded Phoebus with a dagger. Esmeralda could not see her lover's assailant in the darkness, and when she fainted, Frollo escaped. A crowd gathered, murmuring that the sorceress had slain Phoebus. They took the gypsy off to prison.
Now tales of Esmeralda's sorcery began to circulate. At her trial, she was convicted of witchcraft, sentenced to do penance on the great porch of Notre Dame and from there to be taken to a scaffold in the Place de la Greve and publicly hanged.
Captain Phoebus was not dead, but he had kept silent rather than implicate himself in a case of witchcraft. When Esmeralda was on her way to Notre Dame, she caught sight of him riding on his beautiful horse and called out to him, but he ignored her completely. She then felt that she was doomed.
When she came before Frollo to do penance, he offered to save her if she would be his; but she refused. Quasimodo suddenly appeared on the porch, took the girl in his arms, and carried her to sanctuary within the church. Esmeralda was now safe as long as she remained within the cathedral walls.
Quasimodo hid her in his own cell, where there was a mattress and water, and brought her food. He kept the cell door locked so that if her pursuers did break into the sanctuary, they could not reach her. Aware that she would be terrified of him if he stayed with her, he entered her cell only to bring her his own dinner.
Frollo, knowing that the gypsy was near him in the cathedral, secured a key to the chamber and stole in to see Esmeralda one night. She struggled hopelessly, until suddenly Quasimodo entered and dragged the priest from the cell. With smothered rage, he freed the trembling archdeacon and allowed him to run away.
One day a mob gathered and demanded that the sorceress be turned from the cathedral. Frollo was jubilant. Quasimodo, however, barred and bolted the great doors. When the crowd charged the cathedral with a battering ram, Quasimodo threw stones from a tower where builders had been working. When the mob persisted, he poured melted lead upon the crowd below. Then the mob secured ladders and began to mount the fagade, but Quasimodo seized the ladders and pushed them from the wall. Hundreds of dead and wounded lay below him.
The king's guards joined the fray. Looking down, Quasimodo thought that the soldiers had arrived to protect Esmeralda. He went to her cell, but to his amazement, he found the door open and Esmeralda gone.
Frollo had given Gringoire the key to her chamber and had led the poet through the cathedral to her cell. Grin-gorie convinced her that she must fly, since the church was under siege. She followed him trustingly, and he led her to a boat where Frollo was already waiting. Frightened by the violence of the priest, Gringoire fled. Once more, Frollo offered to save Esmeralda if she would be his, but she refused him. Fleeing, she sought refuge in a cell belonging to a madwoman. There the soldiers found her and dragged her away for her execution the next morning at dawn.
Meanwhile, Quasimodo roamed the cathedral searching for Esmeralda. Making his way to the tower which looked down upon the bridge of Notre Dame, Quasimodo came upon Frollo, who stood shaking with laughter as he watched a scene far below. Following the direction of the priest's gaze, Quasimodo saw a gibbet erected in the Place de la Greve and on the platform a woman in white. It was Esmeralda. Quasimodo saw the noose lowered over the girl's head and the platform released. The body swayed in the morning breeze. Then Quasimodo picked up Frollo and thrust him over the wall on which he had been leaning. At that moment, Quasimodo understood everything that the priest had done to ensure the death of Esmeralda. He looked at the crushed body at the foot of the tower and then at the figure in white upon the gallows. He wept.
After the deaths of Esmeralda and Claude Frollo, Quasimodo was not to be found. Then in the reign of Charles VIII, the vault of Montfaucon, in which the bodies of criminals were interred, was opened to locate the remains of a famous prisoner who had been buried there. Among the skeletons were those of a woman who had been clad in white and of a man whose bony arms were wrapped tightly around the woman's body. His spine was crooked, one leg was shorter than the other, and it was evident that he had not been hanged, for his neck was unbroken. When those who discovered these singular remains tried to separate the two bodies, they crumbled into dust.


Critical Evaluation

Victor Hugo, leader of the French Romantic movement, not only could tell a gripping story but also could endow his essentially Romantic characters with a realism so powerful that they have become monumental literary figures. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has every quality of a good novel: an exciting story, a magnificent setting, and deep, lasting characterizations. Perhaps the compelling truth of this novel lies in the idea that God has created in man an imperfect image of Himself, an image fettered by society and by man's own body and soul, but one which, in the last analysis, has the freedom to transcend these limitations and achieve spiritual greatness.
Hugo was inspired to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame when he accidentally discovered the Greek word for "fate" carved into an obscure wall of one of the Notre Dame cathedral's towers. Each personality in the novel is built around a "fixed idea": Claude Frollo embodies the consuming, destructive passion of lust; Esmeralda, virgin beauty and purity; Quasimodo, unshakable devotion and loyalty. Hugo's characters do not develop but simply play out their given natures to their inevitable conclusions.
In analyzing the character of archdeacon Claude Frollo, it is helpful to understand Hugo's theory that the advent of Christianity in Western Europe marked a new era in literature and art. Because Christianity viewed man as a creature half animal and half spirit—the link between beast and angel—writers could present the ugly and lowly as well as the beautiful and sublime. They could attain a new synthesis —more meaningful because realistic—not achieved by writers of antiquity, who only depicted idealized, larger-than-life subjects on the grounds that "art should correct nature." Claude Frollo excludes all human contact from his life and locks himself up with his books; when he has mastered all the legitimate branches of knowledge, he has nowhere to turn in his obsession but to the realm of alchemy and the occult. He is ultimately destroyed, along with those around him, because in denying his animal nature and shutting off all avenues for the release of his natural drives and affections, he falls into the depths of a lustful passion that amounts to madness.
As the novel develops, Quasimodo, the hunchback of the novel's title, is increasingly trapped between his love for the gypsy girl Esmeralda and his love for the archdeacon, his master and protector. These two loyalties finally create an irreconcilable conflict; a choice must be made. When the priest destroys the gypsy, the bell ringer hurls his master from the heights of Notre Dame: a fitting death for Frollo, symbolic of his descent in life from the sublime to the bestial. In Quasimodo, Hugo dramatized his belief that the grotesque and the sublime must coexist in art and literature, as they do in life; the modern writer, he says, "will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful. . . and [he] will ask ... if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation." Esmeralda is the embodiment of innocence and beauty. She is held in reverence even by the criminal population of Paris, who vaguely equate her in their minds with the Virgin Mary. Her beauty, however, is too innocent and pure to exist amid the brutality and sinfulness of her world. Of all the men in the book, only one is worthy of Esmeralda: the hunchbacked Quasimodo, who loves her so totally and unselfishly that he would rather die than go on living after she is executed. Appropriately, it is Esmeralda and Quasimodo who are finally "married" in the charnel-house at Montfaucon; theirs is the perfect union of physical and spiritual beauty.
Almost more than by any of the human characters, the novel is dominated by the presence of the cathedral itself. The hero, Quasimodo, understands Notre Dame: He is in tune with her "life." Like her deformed bell ringer, Notre Dame is both ugly and beautiful, both strong and vulnerable, both destructive and life-giving. Quasimodo's monstrous face hides a loving, faithful spirit, while his twisted body conceals a superhuman strength; Notre Dame's beautiful sanctuary is enclosed by a rough exterior encrusted with gargoyles, while her vulnerable treasures are guarded by doors that six thousand maddened vagrants cannot batter down. The cathedral and the ringer work together, almost as one entity, to protect Esmeralda in her room hundreds of feet above the city; to repulse invaders with hurled stones and molten lead; to dash the blasphemous student Jehan to death against the massive walls; and to cast off the priest whose lustfulness defiles the purity of the place.
Setting was all-important to Hugo. As the foremost French Romanticist of the nineteenth century, he was fascinated by the medieval period and strove to reconstruct it in such a way that it would live again in his novel. Hugo believed that a description built on exact, localized details would recapture the mood of a historical period; he also believed that setting was as crucial as characterization in engraving a "faithful representation of the facts" on the minds of his readers. Early in the novel, therefore, Hugo devotes an entire section to a description of the cathedral and the city of Paris; and throughout the book, he offers brief passages of historical background which add verisimilitude to his narrative.
In the preface to his play Cromwell (1827), Hugo wrote, "The place where this or that catastrophe took place becomes a terrible and inseparable witness thereof; and the absence of silent characters of this sort would make the greatest scenes in history incomplete in the drama." Thus, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, not only does the cathedral live almost as a personality but so also does the Place de la Greve spread its influence over the lives of all the characters. The cathedral and the square are the two focal points not only of the setting but also of the plot and the theme of the novel; the former embodies the spiritual and beautiful, the latter the lowly and cruel. It is the cathedral that enfolds the humble and loyal Quasimodo and the compassionate Esmeralda, while the square, the scene of poverty, suffering, and grisly death, with its Rat-Hole and its gibbet, claims Esmeralda's lunatic mother and Claude Frollo as its victims.



Les Miserables

Victor Hugo


Les Miserables is one of only a few novels that have taken on a vivid afterlife long after their initial publication. There have been (horribly) abridged versions, rewritings, movies, and, of course, the world-famous musical,yet in order to understand the true scale of Victor Hugo's achievement, one must return to the text itself.
Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, this novel is concerned with the way in which individual lives are played out in the context of epoch-defining historical events. What is "History"? Hugo asks us. Who creates "History"? To whom does it happen? What role does the individual play in such events? The character of Jean Valjean is thus the key to Les Miserables, an escaped convict whose desperate need to redeem himself through his adopted daughter, Cosette, lies at the heart of the novel. Valjean Is pursued throughout by the extraordinary Inspector Javert, with whose life his becomes irrevocably entwined, and who is relentless in his determination to uphold the law and to apprehend him.This personal drama of hunter and prey is then cast into the cauldron of revolutionary Paris as Cosette falls in love with the radical idealist Marius and Valjean grapples with the possibility of losing all that he has ever loved. The novel draws the reader into the politics and geography of Paris with a vividness that is unparalleled, and then leads on, incorporating Hugo's characteristic meditations upon the universe, to the battle of Waterloo, and the final, astonishing denouement. There are not many texts that can be termed national classics, but Les Miserables is one, and is a landmark in the development of the historical novel that stands alongside the greatest works of Dickens and Tolstoy. It is also a deeply compelling read.


Type of work: Novel
Author: Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Type of plot: Social chronicle
Time of plot: с 1815-1835
Locale: France
First published: 1862 (English translation, 1862)


In this ultimate "pursuit" novel, Jean Valjean, an essentially innocent man, is tracked relentlessly for most of his lifetime by an implacable, abstract "justice" in the person of the fanatical Inspector Javert. With this action as the spine, Hugo then ranges widely to describe early nineteenth century France with a sweep, power, and concreteness that give the novel epic stature.


Principal Characters

Jean Valjean (zhan' vaTzhan'), a convict of unusual strength, originally sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's starving family. Attempts to escape have kept him in the galleys for nineteen years before he is released in 1815. Police Inspector Javert is sure he will be back for his passport, proclaiming him an ex-convict and preventing him from getting work. He stops at the home of the Bishop of Digne, who treats him well despite Jean's attempts to rob him of some silverware. Eventually, calling himself Father Madeleine, a man with no previous history, he appears in the town of M. sur M. His discovery of a method for making jet for jewelry brings prosperity to the whole village, and the people elect him mayor. Then his conscience forces him to confess his former identity to save a prisoner unjustly arrested. Again he escapes from the galleys and from Inspector Javert, until he is betrayed by a blackmailer. In the end he dies peacefully, surrounded by those he loves and with his entangled past revealed. His final act is to bequeath to Cosette the Bishop's silver candlesticks, which he had kept for years while trying to deserve the Bishop's confidence.
Fantine (fan-ten'), a beautiful girl of Paris whose attempts to find a home for her illegitimate daughter Cosette have put her into the power of money-mad M. The-nardier. Unable to meet his demands for more money after the foreman of Father Madeleine's factory fires her upon learning of her earlier history, she turns prostitute, only to have M. Javert arrest her. By this time she is dying of tuberculosis. Father Madeleine promises to look after eight-year-old Cosette.
Cosette (кб-zeV), Fantine's daughter, who grows up believing herself the daughter of Father Madeleine. She is seen and loved by a young lawyer, Marius Pontmercy; but Valjean, fearing he will be compelled to reveal her story and his own if she marries, plans to take her away. Cosette hears from Pontmercy again as she is about to leave for England with her supposed father. She sends him a note which brings his answer that he is going to seek death at the barricades.
Felix Tholomyes (fa-leks' to-16-туёУ), a carefree, faithless student, Fantine's lover and Cosette's father.
M. Javert (zha-veV), a police inspector with a strong sense of duty that impels him to track down the man whom he considers a depraved criminal. Finally, after Valjean saves his life at the barricades, where the crowd wants to kill him as a police spy, he struggles between his sense of duty and his reluctance to take back to prison a man who could have saved himself by letting the policeman die. His solution is to drown himself in the Seine River.
Marius Pontmercy (ma-ryus' pon'-mer-se'), a young lawyer of good blood, estranged from his aristocratic family because of his liberal views. His father, an army officer under Napoleon, had expressed a deathbed wish that his son try to repay his debt to Sergeant Thenardier, who had saved his life at Waterloo. Marius' struggle between obligations to a rascal and his desire to protect the father of the girl he loves sets M. Javert on Jean Valjean's tracks. A farewell letter from Cosette sends him to die at the barricade during a street revolt. After he has been wounded, Valjean saves him by carrying him underground through the sewers of Paris. Eventually Marius marries Cosette and learns, when the old man is dying, the truth about Jean Valjean.
M. Thenardier (ta-nar-dya'), an unscrupulous, avaricious innkeeper, a veteran of Waterloo, who bleeds Fan-tine of money to pay for the care of Cosette. Later he changes his name to Jondrette and begins a career of begging and blackmail while living in the Gorbeau tenement in Paris. Jean Valjean becomes one of his victims. He even demands money to let Valjean out of the sewers beneath Paris while Valjean is carrying wounded Marius Pontmercy to a place of safety.
Mme. Thenardier, a virago as cruel and ruthless as her husband.
Eponine Thenardier (a-po-nen'), their older daughter, a good-hearted but pathetic girl. Marius Pontmercy first meets her when she delivers one of her father's begging, whining letters. In love with Marius, she saves his life by interposing herself between him and an aimed musket during the fighting at the barricade. Before she dies she gives him a letter telling where Cosette can be found.
Azelma (a-zel-ma'), their younger daughter.
Little Gavroche (ga-vrosh'), the Thenardiers' son, a street gamin. He is killed while assisting the insurgents in the fighting at the barricade.
Charles Francois Bienvenu Myriel (sharl fraii-swa' byaii-vsnu' тётуёТ), Bishop of Digne, a good-hearted, devout churchman who gives hospitality to Jean Valjean after the ex-convict's release from the galleys. When Valjean repays him by stealing some of the Bishop's silverware, the old man tells the police that he had given the valuables to his guest and gives him in addition a pair of silver candlesticks. His saintliness turns Valjean to a life of honesty and sacrifice.
Father Fauchelevent (fosh-b-van'), a bankrupt notary, turned carter, jealous of Father Madeleine's success in M. sur M. One day his horse falls and the old man is pinned beneath his cart. The accident might have proved fatal if Father Madeleine, a man of tremendous strength, had not lifted the vehicle to free the trapped carter. This feat of strength, witnessed by M. Javert, causes the policeman to comment significantly that he had known only one man, a galley slave, capable of doing such a deed. Father Madeleine's act changes Father Fauchelevent from an enemy to an admiring friend. After his accident the old man becomes a gardener at the convent of the Little Picpus in Paris. Jean Valjean and Cosette, fleeing from the police, take refuge in the convent garden. Old Fauchelevent gives them shelter and arranges to have Valjean smuggled out of the convent grounds in the coffin of a dead nun. Later he helps Valjean to get work as a workman at the convent.
Little Gervaise (zher-ves'), a young Savoyard from whom Jean Valjean steals two francs. The deed arouses his conscience, and he weeps because he cannot find the boy to return his money. This is the crime of which Champmathieu is later accused.
Champmathieu (chan-ma-tyoe'), an old man arrested for stealing apples. When he is taken to the departmental prison at Arras a convict there identifies him as Jean Valjean, a former convict, and he is put on trial for the theft of two francs stolen from a Savoyard lad eight years before. After a struggle with his conscience, Jean Valjean appears at the trial and confesses his identity. Champmathieu, convinced that all the world is mad if Father Madeleine is Jean Valjean, is acquitted. Javert arrests Valjean as the real culprit, but his prisoner escapes a few hours later after pulling out a bar of his cell window.
M. Gillenormand (zheTnor-man'), the stern grandfather of Marius Pontmercy. A royalist, the old man never became reconciled with his Bonapartist son-in-law. He and his grandson quarrel because of the young man's political views and reverence for his dead father. Turned out of his grandfather's house, Marius goes to live in the Gorbeau tenement.
Theodule Gillenormand (ta-6-dul'), M. Gillenormand's great-grandnephew, a lieutenant in the lancers. He spies on Marius Pontmercy and learns that his kinsman is a regular visitor at his father's tomb.
Courfeyrac (koor-fa-rak') and Enjolas (iuvzho-la'), friends of Marius Pontmercy and members of the friends of the A.B.C., a society supposed to be interested in the education of children but in reality a revolutionary group. Both are killed in the uprising of the citizens in June, 1832, Courfeyrac at the barricades; Enjolas is in the house where the insurgents make their last stand.
M. Maboef (ma-bcef), an aged churchwarden who had known Marius Pontmercy's father. A lover of mankind and a hater of tyranny, he marches unarmed to the barricades with the young friends of the A.B.C. He is killed during the fighting.


The Story

In 1815. in France, a man named Jean Valjean was released after nineteen years in prison. He had been sentenced to a term of five years because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, but the sentence was later increased because of his attempts to escape. During his imprisonment he astonished others by his exhibitions of unusual physical strength.
Freed at last, he started out on foot for a distant part of the country. Innkeepers refused him food and lodging because his yellow passport revealed that he was a former convict. Finally he came to the house of the Bishop of Digne, a saintly man who treated him graciously, fed him, and gave him a bed. During the night Jean stole the bishop's silverware and fled. He was immediately captured by the police, who returned him and the stolen goods to the bishop. Without any censure, the priest not only gave him what he had stolen but also added his silver candlesticks to the gift. The astonished gendarmes released his silver candlesticks to the gift. The astonished gendarmes released the prisoner. Alone with the bishop, Jean was confounded by the churchman's attitude, for the bishop asked only that he use the silver as a means of living an honest life.
In 1817, a beautiful girl named Fantine lived in Paris. She gave birth to an illegitimate child, Cosette, whom she left with Monsieur and Madame Thenardier to rear with their own children. As time went on, the Thenar-diers demanded more and more money for Cosette's support yet treated the child cruelly and deprived her even of necessities. Meanwhile, Famine had gone to the town
of M------and obtained a job in a glass factory operated
by Father Madeleine, a kind and generous man whose history was known to no one, but whose good deeds and generosity to the poor were public information. He had arrived in M------a poor laborer, and by a lucky invention he was able to start a business of his own. Soon he built a factory and employed many workers. After five years in the city, he was named mayor and was beloved by all the citizens. He was reported to have prodigious strength. Only one man, Javert, a police inspector, seemed to watch him with an air of suspicion. Javert was born in prison. His whole life was influenced by that fact, and his fanatical attitude toward duty made him a man to be feared. He was determined to discover the facts of Father Madeleine's previous life. One day he found a clue while watching Father Madeleine lift a heavy cart to save an old man who had fallen under it. Javert realized that he had known only one man of such prodigious strength, a former convict named Valjean.
Fantine had told no one of Cosette, but knowledge of her illegitimate child spread and caused Fantine to be discharged from the factory without the knowledge of Father Madeleine. Finally Fantine became a prostitute in an effort to pay the increasing demands of the Thenar-diers for Cosette's support. One night Javert arrested her while she was walking the streets. When Father Madeleine heard the details of her plight and learned that she had tuberculosis, he sent Fantine to a hospital and promised to bring Cosette to her. Just before the mayor left to get Cosette, Javert confessed that he had mistakenly reported to the Paris police that he suspected Father Madeleine of being the former convict, Jean Valjean. He said that the real Jean Valjean had been arrested at Arras under an assumed name. The arrested man was to be tried two days later.
That night Father Madeleine struggled with his own conscience, for he was the real Jean Valjean. Unwilling to let an innocent man suffer, he went to Arras for the trial and identified himself as Jean Valjean. After telling the authorities where he could be found, he went to Fantine. Javert came there to arrest him. Fantine was so terrified that she died. After a day in prison, Jean Valjean escaped.
Valjean, some time later, was again imprisoned by Javert. Once more he made his escape. Shortly afterward he was able to take Cosette, a girl of eight, away from the Thenardiers. He grew to love the child greatly, and they lived together happily in the Gorbeau tenement on the outskirts of Paris. When Javert once more tracked them down, Valjean escaped with the child into a convent garden, where they were rescued by Fauchelevant, whose life Valjean had saved when the old peasant fell beneath the cart. Fauchelevant was now the convent gardener. Valjean became his helper, and Cosette was put into the convent school.
Years passed. Valjean left the convent and took Cosette, her schooling finished, to live in a modest house on a side street in Paris. The old man and the young girl were little noticed by their neighbors. Meanwhile the blackguard Thenardier had brought his family to live in the Gorbeau tenement. He now called himself Jondrette. In the next room lived Marius Pontmercy, a young lawyer estranged from his aristocratic grandfather because of his liberal views. Marius was the son of an officer whose life Thenardier had saved at the battle of Waterloo. The father, now dead, had asked his son to repay Thenardier for his deed. Marius never suspected that Jondrette was really his father's benefactor. When the Jondrettes were being evicted from their quarters, however, he paid their rent from his meager resources.
During one of his evening walks, Marius met Cosette and Valjean. He fell in love with the girl as he continued to see her in the company of her white-haired companion. At last he followed her to her home. Valjean, noticing Marius, took Cosette to live in another house.
One morning Marius received an urgent letter delivered by Eponine Jondrette. His neighbors were again asking for help, and he began to wonder about them. Peeping through a hole in the wall, he heard Jondrette speak of a benefactor who would soon arrive. When the man came, Marius recognized him as Cosette's companion. He later learned Cosette's address from Eponine, but before he saw Cosette again he overheard the Jondrettes plotting against the man whom he believed to be Cosette's father. Alarmed, he told the details of the plot to Inspector Javert.
Marius was at the wall watching when Valjean came to give Jondrette money. While they talked, numerous heavily armed men appeared in the room. Jondrette then revealed himself as Thenardier. Horrified, Marius did not know whom to protect, the man his father had requested him to befriend or the father of Cosette. Threatened by Thenardier, Valjean agreed to send to his daughter for more money, but he gave a false address. When this ruse was discovered, the robbers threatened to kill Valjean. Marius threw a note of warning through the hole in the wall as Javert appeared and arrested all but Valjean, who made his escape through a window.
Marius finally located Cosette. One night she told him that she and her father were leaving for England. He tried, unsuccessfully, to get his grandfather's permission to marry Cosette. In despair, he returned to Cosette and found the house where she had lived empty. Eponine met him there and told him that his revolutionary friends had begun a revolt and were waiting for him at the barricades. Because Cosette had disappeared, he gladly followed Eponine to the barricades, where Javert had been seized as a spy and bound. During the fighting Eponine gave her life to save Marius. As she died, she gave him a note which Cosette had given her to deliver. In the note, Co-sette told him where she could be found.
In answer to her note, Marius wrote that his grandfather would not permit his marriage, that he had no money, and that he would be killed at the barricade. Valjean discovered the notes and set out for the barricades. Finding Javert tied up by the revolutionists, he freed the inspector. The barricades fell. In the confusion Valjean came upon the wounded Marius and carried him into the Paris sewers.
After hours of wandering, he reached a locked outlet. There Thenardier, unrecognized in the dark, met him and agreed to open the grating in exchange for money. Outside Valjean met Javert, who took him into custody. Valjean asked only that he be allowed to take Marius to his grandfather's house. Javert agreed to wait at the door, but suddenly he turned and ran toward the river. Tormented by his conscientious regard for duty and his reluctance to return to prison the man who had saved his life, he drowned himself in the Seine.
When Marius recovered, he and Cosette were married. Valjean gave Cosette a generous dowry; and for the first time Cosette learned that Valjean was not her real father. Valjean told Marius only that he was an escaped convict, believed dead, and he begged to be allowed to see Cosette occasionally. Gradually Marius banished him from the house. Then Marius learned from Thenardier that it was Valjean who had rescued Marius at the barricade. Marius and Cosette hurried to Valjean's lodgings, to find him on his deathbed. He died knowing that his children loved him and that all his entangling past was now clear. He bequeathed the bishop's silver candlesticks to Cosette, with his last breath saying that he had spent his life in trying to be worthy of the faith of the Bishop of Digne. He was buried in a grave with no name on the stone.


Critical Evaluation

Essentially a detective story in plot, Les Miserables is a unique combination of melodrama and morality. It is filled with unlikely coincidences, with larger-than-life emotions and giantlike human beings, yet it all manages to ring true and move the reader. An epic of the people of Paris, with a vital and fascinating re-creation of the swarming Parisian underground, the novel suggests the crowded, absorbing novels of Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski. The main theme of man's ceaseless combat with evil clearly emerges from the suspenseful plot, while the book as a whole gives a dramatic picture of the ebb and flow of life.
Victor Hugo claimed that the huge book was a "religious" work, and certainly religion does play an important part in the story. From the very beginning, the struggle between good and evil is foremost in the tale. Another theme which is of equal importance is that of fate or "destiny." However one attempts to chisel the "mysterious block" of which his life is made, Hugo writes, the "black vein of destiny" reappears continually. One can never be certain what fate has in store until the last breath of life disappears. Mortals never are safe from the tricks of destiny, from the seemingly endless struggle.
The breathless pace of the novel probably has accounted for his tremendous popularity. The story is filled with dramatic and surprising action, many of the scenes ending with suspenseful episodes in the tradition of the melodramatic nineteenth century stage for which Hugo also wrote. Despite its digressions, the story moves quickly and excitingly, as the characters race across the countryside and through the narrow streets and alleys of Paris.
The characterizations, while on a grand—even epic— scale, are lifelike and believable. Many of the novel's characters seem possessed by strange obsessions or hatreds, but Hugo makes it clear that they have been warped by society and their earlier lives. Although a Romantic novel, Les Miserables has much in common with the naturalistic school which was to come into being a few decades later.
Perhaps the most terrifying and fascinating of all the characters who flood through the book's pages is Inspector Javert. Javert is clever but not intelligent. He is consumed by the malice that often dwells within the narrow, ignorant individual. He can conceive of no point of view other than his own. Sympathy, mercy, and understanding require an insight that he does not possess. For him there is no such thing as an extenuating circumstance. He clings with mindless, insane tenacity to his belief in "duty." At his hands, justice is warped beyond recognition.
The casual reader can still be moved by the author's search for justice in Les Miserables, and the more sophisticated can admire the novel's complex structure. Like so many of the greatest literary works, Les Miserables can be enjoyed many times by different kinds of readers and on many different levels.
An important, if implied, theme of Les Miserables is the attainment of salvation through good works. Many of the characters of the novel give charity to those less fortunate. The dramatic opening scenes in which the convict Jean Valjean learns of goodness through the charity of the priest establish the importance of this theme. Later, Jean Valjean and Cosette give anonymous charity to others. Marius, in his goodness, gives charity to the disreputable Thenardier family.
Other biblical virtues are dramatized in the novel, but none so effectively as that of love. By love, Hugo means not only romantic love but also love of humanity, the love of a kindhearted human being for another human being, the love that must be connected with genuine charity. Jean Valjean learns what love is during the course of the novel. Hugo makes it clear that a man cannot exist without love, for if he tries, he becomes warped and less than a man. Jean Valjean grows as a person, becomes a good and honorable man after he has found the love of the helpless little girl. By devoting his life to her, he finds the necessity of a meaning outside of his own life. Jean Valjean comes to value his own existence more because the girl is dependent upon him and loves him.
Victor Hugo knew how to write effectively and with simplicity of the joys and sorrows of the average man and woman. His poetry and fiction have always been popular with the common people, although they have at times been out of critical favor. The public mind was much moved by the generosity of his ideas and the warmth of their expression; more than a century after its publication, Les Miserables is still a favorite book with many people around the world. Much of Hugo's poetry and drama is no longer read or produced, but Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) will endure as long as people read.
The novel covers a time span of more than twenty years—from the fall of the first Napoleon to the revolts of a generation later. The most exciting scenes, described with breathless precision and dramatic flair, are those at the barricades. The characters are swept up in an action bigger than they are. Skillfully, Hugo weaves Marius and Javert, Eponine and the others, into the battles along the streets of Paris. Always Hugo's eye catches the details of the passing spectacle, from the old woman who props up a mattress in front of her window to stop the stray bullets to the dynamic flood of humanity coursing down the boulevards. It is here that Hugo's skill as a master of narrative is fully displayed. Never, however, does he lose sight of the pathos of the individuals' struggles; the reader never forgets the principal characters and their plight amid the chaotic scenes. Perfectly, Hugo balances between the two elements which compose his masterpiece. The final scenes of the novel move relentlessly and excitingly to their inevitable conclusion. Perhaps Dostoevski probed deeper or Dickens caught the humor of life more fully, but Hugo was their equal in his ability to portray the human struggle of those caught up in the forces of history.



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