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Representations vs. Realities: Hugo's View of Paris

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How did the famous writer Victor Hugo envision Paris?

If this is your question, hopefully you will find your answer here. In many of Victor Hugo's works the author gives the reader physical descriptions of Paris. But how did he view the city and its people as a whole? Generally, Hugo thinks of Parisian society as being full of potential. The history of Paris and its culture are the foundations for the grandeur of the society. However, he knows that there are those individuals who are not enlightened, hence his motivation to write Les Miserables. To discuss this question in greater detail, we will look at quotes from his great work Les Miserables to find out what he thought of Paris and why.

Hugo's General View of Paris

"Paris is a sum total. Paris is the ceiling of the human race. All this prodigious city is an epitome of dead and living manners and customs. He who sees Paris, seems to see all history through with the sky and constellations in the intervals." (Hugo, 513)

Hugo makes this statement in Marius Book 1 Chapter X. In this book, entitled Paris Atomised, Hugo tours the city through the eyes of the gamin, or street child that he labels as the "expression of Paris, and Paris is the expression of the world" (Hugo, 513). This quote is one of the many commentaries. He states that Paris is the "ceiling of the human race" which basically means that he saw Paris society as the highest attainable limit for all people. He qualifies this statement by explaining that it is Paris' rich history and customs that make it such a grand society. This general quote helps to put Hugo into perspective for the reader. He definitely saw Paris as being a city of great culture and history. However, Les Mis as a whole is a commentary on what is wrong with Paris. He brings into view the destitute members of society, and the problems that the Paris governmental system causes for these dangerous classes. There fore it can be said that Hugo holds a very Rousseau-like attitude towards the city: Paris is inherently good and can be brought to purification.

Hugo's Representation of the Growth of the Banlieue

"To rove about, musing, that is to say loitering, is, for a philosopher, a good way of spending time; especially in that kind of mock rurality, ugly but odd, and partaking of two natures, which surrounds certain large cities, particularly Paris. To study the banlieue is to study the amphibious. End of trees, beginning of houses, end of grass, beginning of pavement, end of furrows, beginning of shops, end of ruts, beginning of passions, end of the divine murmur, beginning of the human hubbub; hence the interest is extraordinary." (Hugo, 506)

This representation on the banlieue indicates the ideas that Hugo held towards the banlieue. In his opinion, the banlieue is the ambiguous area surrounding Paris where nothing is completely rural yet not part of the city. The idea that the banlieue is a "mock rurality" leaves the impression that Hugo's idea of the banlieue is negative. Perhaps it is not the actual banlieue itself which Hugo frowns upon, but the way in which Parisian's view the banlieue, as being a place of rural purity. This idea dates to the period of Marie Antoinette and her mock peasant village on the grounds of Versailles. The idea that one can escape the "hubbub" of city life and venture into the "divine murmur" of the banlieue was very popular with the Bourgeoisie. Hugo seems to be of the opposing opinion that the banlieue should not be idealized. In fact he calls it "ugly but odd". He realizes the difficulties of rural society and does not present them as being part of the pleasures of the city.

The True Parisian Race

"As to the people of Paris, even when grown to manhood, it is, always, the gamin; to depict the child is to depict the city, and therefore it is that we have studied this eagle in the open-hearted sparrow. It is in the suburbs especially, we insist, that the Parisian race is found; there is the pure blood; there is the true physiognomy; there this people works and suffers, and suffering and toil are the two forms of men." (Hugo, 517)

Here Hugo again represents the people of Paris in the gamin, who, in his heart, depicts all Parisians. The child is innocent and loving, and Hugo sees every person in Paris as possessing these qualities. At the core of this view of Parisians are the inhabitants of the suburbs, where their suffering and toil should be recognized by all people. Their inability to read should be the concern of society as a whole. Hugo uses the word "Light!" in many passages of the novel to symbolize literacy and education. Here, he is making that cry to those who can and are reading his words. In order for social change to occur, Hugo needs to convince the audience that the rural populace is worth helping. This quote exemplifies Hugo's empathy towards the poor of the suburbs and reminds the newly crowned members of the bourgeoisie that this is their heritage.





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