Victor Hugo was a French Romantic poet, author, playwright, and politician. He is most well-known for his two novels The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables, both of which examine the roles of fate, justice, and redemption in 19th century French society.
Victor Hugo made his mark on French literature during the Romantic period in the early 1800s. Born in 1802, Hugo came to be one of the most celebrated poets and authors in French history.
Hugo first made his mark with the plays Cromwell and Hermani, which were both rooted in the new Romantic movement. The preface of Cromwell is actually more celebrated than the play itself because Hugo attacks the Classical traditions that dominated literature and drama for many years, creating a battle cry for Romantic writers and ushering in a new way of writing, thinking, and performing. He calls for more flexible verse and style, with a focus on emotion and beauty that is standard for Romanticism.
His first major novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, was a foray into the Gothic-Romantic style. While still championing the shrugging off of Classical elements in literature in favor of emotion and imagination, the setting of the old cathedral offers new and mysterious elements which access the new Gothic writing style. By making the cathedral a central focus of the novel, Hugo shows that even Classical elements can be renewed and reexamined in Romantic writing.
Hugo’s next celebrated novel was conceived as he was in political exile for 15 years after the takeover by Napoleon III. Much like his English contemporary Charles Dickens, Hugo used memorable characters in Les Miserables to decry the social conditions of the poor in France. By highlighting the plight of former convict Jean Valjean, student Marius, and young Cosette, Hugo highlights the disparity in treatment of the rich vs. the poor in society, especially how bureaucratic conscience is never a consideration in criminal punishment.
Hugo died in 1885 after a lengthy illness, but his push into the literary world in the name of Romanticism was an inspiration for many writers, including Walt Whitman and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”
“You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines. Fame much have enemies, as light must have gnats. Do not bother yourself about it; disdain. Keep your mind serene as you keep your life clear.”
“From a political point of view, there is but one principle, the sovereignty of man over himself. This sovereignty of myself over myself is called Liberty.”