Unmasking the Bourgeoise

The Romantic Victor Marie Hugo

A Love Story




Real Life



To think of French Romanticism is to naturally think of Victor Hugo. More than any other French writer of the 19th century, Hugo associated himself with the Romantic Movement that swept through Europe and the rest of the world. It was a movement characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature.

As early as 1828, Hugo had associated with social liberty, and the freedom of the artist. He was convinced that 1830 was as important a date for poetry as it was for government. The 19th century, he often said, had two names: Romanticism and Socialism. The year 1830 marked for Hugo the definitive emergence of both.

Hugo associated with the Romantic Movement while it was still in its early infancy, and remained faithful to the Romantic cause all throughout his career, a career that spanned over three generation. He broke from the conventional 18th-century rules of French versification; and in the preface to his drama Cromwell (1827; translated 1896), a famous critical document in its own right, Hugo not only defended his break from traditional dramatic structure but also justified the introduction of the grotesque into art. Romanticism praised the genius of the extraordinary man. Hugo presented himself as the poet born of the ideological currents that shaped Romanticism, according to which the poet is a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures. Hugo identified with the Romantic Movement and felt it was his calling. In the early 1830's, when Romanticism was just starting, artists were invited to form an avant-garde, to convert the nation to the doctrine of Saint-Simon. The artist is alone capable of directing society, for he alone embraces both God and Man.

Hugo responded wholeheartedly to this call: his ideas and even the expressions he chose were those of the Saint-Simonians. The new position was one that Hugo would retain for the rest of his life, his association with Romanticism, with the Revolution and, ultimately, with socialism. Victor Hugo not only wrote about Romanticism, he lived the life of an ideal Romantic.

He was the embodiment of the Romantic image of martyrdom when he went into exile in 1851. He tried in, 1848, to enter politics, hoping to become Prime Minister of the new government established by the younger Bonaparte; the attempt was a failure. The prince-president never had any intention of giving Hugo such an important position. Hugo became a violent critic of the new regime; and went into exile in 1851 when Bonaparte seized absolute power.

Hugo's power lay in his literary personality. As a lyric poet, as a writer of prefaces and articles, Hugo created for himself a persona. Hugo believed that: "Every man who writes, writes a book; this book is himself. Whether he knows it or not, whether he wishes it or not, it is true. From every body of work, whatever it may be, wretched or illustrious, there emerges a persona, that of the writer. It is his punishment, if he is petty; it is his reward, if he is great". And certainly, by his own definition, Victor Hugo was great. This belief he incorporated into the actions of his characters. In perhaps his most famous novel, Les Miserables, Marius Pontemercy courts young Cosette from afar, and wins her affections with a love letter; his way of baring the depth of his love for her to see, and which revealed a sense of the silent agonies he endured on her behalf. Marius crafted his persona with words, representing and embodying himself in a letter, and he gave this letter to the woman he loved, in the hopes that she would see the depth and sincerity of his love. And like the character he created, Hugo revealed a part of himself in everything he wrote, he incorporated his life into his stories, and drew from his own experiences, and he gave away his views on certain subjects in his writing. His disgust at the treatment of the poor and for the conditions in French prison and in the corruptness of the French judicial system he made very clear in Les Miserables. He sought compassion for the poor and reform for the prisons by creating characters that touched the hearts of his readers, and which challenged them to think and encouraged them to change.

Lamaritne wrote of the Romantic Writer: "The public heard a soul without seeing it, and saw a man, instead of a book…He went straight to the heart; sighs were his echoes, tears were his applause." And indeed, through his literature, Hugo moved his audience to sympathy and aroused them to action and challenged them to question accepted dogmas of the time. We come away red eyed and teary but warmed by the fire of sacrifice and virtue of his characters, angered and in disbelief at the social injustice of the time. The heorism of Gavroch, the wretchedness and later the beauty of Cosette, the misery of Fantine, Valjeans redemption, and Javert's dogged pursuits all touched us simply because they touch facets of human nature familiar to everyone and Hugo knew this, and he knew how to use this.

Hugo felt that the Romantic, or "the complete poet" as he calls it, "consists of three visions: Humanity, Nature, and the Supernatural" (Shroder, 68). The first voice Hugo heeded was that of humanity, calling the poet to accomplish his role as a humanitarian by taking part in political activity. Where he had earlier rallied to the aristocracy, he now associated himself with the people. In the 1850's, the bourgeois origin Victor Hugo, declared himself the plebian hero. The things of which he wrote were about the people and for the people. He believed in the common man, and saw the poor as the legs by which the rich were able to stand. He saw in them potential and he worked hard to have this potential realized by the people. His most memorable characters in Les Miserables were not of the rich or people of high-standing, but rather, of the poor and common man. Jean Valjean was the pinnacle of saintly virtue and piety, and the struggles of Fantine moved his audience to tears by her very sacrifice and love. The themes in his novels were also in favor of the people. Jean Valjean always triumphed over Javert, and in the end, Javert realizes the mistake he is about to commit if he arrests Valjean, because he has no other charge against the man except that he is a good man. Valjean embodies the common man, and Javert symbolizes the social institutions of the time. To the very end, Hugo felt an empathy for the poor, and though he didn't share in their poverty, he did sympathize with their plight. He carried his association with the lower classes even to his final breath: in accordance with his will, his coffin was carried on the corbillard des pauvres, the bare carriages used in the funerals of the poor.