Hugo wrote several novels, but the only three that have continued to be much read today are Les Misérables; Notre Dame de Paris; and Les Travailleurs de la Mer, the story of a young fisherman who fights the sea to salvage a wreck and win the girl he loves, but who gives her up when he learns she prefers another man.
Les Travailleurs de la Mer is read chiefly for its magnificent evocations of the sea, but Notre Dame de Paris is known the world over. Set in medieval Paris, it is one of those Romantic historical novels inspired by Sir Walter Scott, and on more than one score it bears comparison with Ivanhoe. Both are popular classics; both have suspenseful and melodramatic plots; both contain character sketches which, despite their lack of depth, have remained vivid and memorable for a century. Just as every English school child knows Rowena, Rebecca, Ivanhoe, and Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert, so every French reader knows the poor but beautiful gypsy Esmeralda with her little goat; the alchemist-priest Claude Frollo, who desires her; and Quasimodo, the "hunchback of Notre Dame," who loves her and tries to save her.
The chief fascination of Notre Dame de Paris, however, lies in its powerful and living recreation of the Middle Ages. Hugo consulted many historical archives and accounts in his research for the novel, but the scenes of Paris life seem the work not of a scholar but of an eyewitness.
Les Misérables has many of the same qualities as Notre Dame de Paris, but it is a far more complex creation. As early as 1829, Hugo began to gather notes for a book that would tell the story of "a saint, a man, a woman, and a child," but over the years it became enriched by a throng of new characters and multiple accretions from Hugo's philosophy and experience. When it was finally published in 1862, it had attained, both in quality and quantity, an epic sweep.
In both thought and feeling, Les Misérables is far more profound than Notre Dame de Paris. In writing it, Hugo came to grips with the social problems of his own day, which demanded much reflection upon the nature of society and, therefore, upon the nature of man. In 1830, the average life expectancy of a French worker's child was two years. Hugo, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not consider this statistic as "inevitable" or "the fault of the parents," but evaluated it in human terms and cried out that suffering of such magnitude was intolerable and that such conditions must be changed through social action. What social action he considered desirable he shows us indirectly by portraying children who need to be fed, men who need jobs, and women who need protection; but also directly through M. Madeleine, who serves as an example of the ideal employer, and through the students of the 1832 revolt, who demand legislation that will make possible equal education, equal opportunity, and genuine brotherhood among men.
But to support this social action Hugo must be convinced, and convince others, that the poor, the outcast — the misérables — are worth saving: that even the most impudent, scruffy street gamin has something to contribute to society, that even the most hardened convict is capable of great good. And the most appealing and enduring quality of Les Misérables is the fact that it is permeated by this unquenchable belief in the spiritual possibilities of man.
Like that of Notre Dame de Paris, the plot of Les Misérables is fundamentally melodramatic; its events are often improbable, and it moves in the realm of the socially and psychologically abnormal. But this melodrama is deliberate; Hugo has chosen an extreme example, the conversion of a convict into a saint, to illustrate a general truth: Man is perfectible.
Moreover, within this general framework, the sequence and interrelation of the events are credible, and the structure is very carefully plotted. Like a good play, it opens on a situation of high suspense, rises to two increasingly tense climaxes at the ends of Part Three and Part Four, and arrives at a satisfactory and logical denouement in Part Five. Its two themes, the struggle between good and evil in the soul of one man and society's struggle toward a greater good, are skillfully interwoven, and Hugo effectively immortalizes this struggle in our imaginations by a number of striking visual tableaux.
Psychological subtleties are not Hugo's forte. He does not, probably cannot, delve into the baffling paradoxes, the complexities, the idiosyncrasies of the soul. His gift is for the fundamental truth. Valjean is a simple character dominated by one powerful emotion: caritas (charity — active, outgoing love for others). He helps a prostitute, protects his workers, gives constantly to the poor. His very raison d'être is literally love since his existence revolves around Cosette; when she leaves him, he dies.
Javert is the watchdog of the social order. Marius is the incarnation of the romantic lover. Enjolras is the incorruptible revolutionary. All of Hugo's characters can be briefly described — in other words, labeled.
But this simplicity has its own value. It allows the writer to analyze in depth a particular emotion, like a scientist studying an isolated germ. No one has captured better than Victor Hugo the arduous path of virtue or the poignancy of love. Valjean's deathbed scene has brought tears to the most sophisticated reader.
Of course, Hugo's truth is the poet's not the psychologist's. He takes great liberties with reality. His characters do not always evolve in convincing steps. Valjean's conversion is almost miraculous, Thénardier's degradation unmotivated. They are larger than life. Marius loves passionately, Valjean is a modern saint, Thénardier a Satanic villain.
But these are superficial criticisms. Hugo only distorts details: He scrupulously respects the basic integrity of the character. Les Misérables is the archetypal representation of eternal human emotions such as love, hate, and abnegation.
Style is the reflection of the man and it is therefore not surprising that a writer of Hugo's enormous vitality should abandon classical restraint. Hugo revels in language. Ideas are stated and restated. Places are exhaustively described. Characters do not speak; they harangue, lament, eulogize. No doubt, Hugo's exuberance is excessive. His antitheses occasionally grow tiresome. His discourse can degenerate into verbiage. His pronouncements sometimes sound hollow, or worse, false. But the defect is minor, for Hugo suffers only from an overabundance of riches. His style is a mighty organ.
He is at home in every idiom from the argot of the underworld to the intellectual tone of student discussion. He captures the slangy sarcasm of the gamin, the eloquence of the idealist, the lyricism of the lover. His expository prose, fed by an insatiable curiosity, deals with a range of subjects rarely encountered in a novel. Hugo writes with an absolute command of the mot juste, about history, logistics, philosophy, religion, and political morality.
He remains, of course, the greatest word painter in the French language. In Les Misérables no less than in his poetry, he justifies his claim of being "the sonorous echo of the universe." Countless vignettes and a few bravura pieces such as the description of the Battle of Waterloo invest his novels with a heightened sense of reality. Few writers can rival the vividness and eloquence of Hugo's style.