Victor Hugo was horn on February 26, 1802, the son of a Breton mother and a father from northeastern France. His works show the influence of both racial strains: the poetic mysticism which marks Celtic literature from the Arthurian romances to Chateaubriand and the earthy vigor of the peasant of Lorraine.
Although Hugo later claimed he descended from a family of the minor nobility, his father, General Joseph Léopold Hugo, was the son of a carpenter, and like many men of the Napoleonic era, he rose through valor and merit to power and influence in Napoleon's citizen army.
General Hugo was attached to the entourage of Joseph Bonaparte, and his duties took him to Naples and to Spain. Victor visited him in Italy at the age of five and went to school in Madrid in 1811. Traces of these exotic memories will be found in his later poetry and plays. However, Mme. Hugo, a strong-minded and independent personality, did not like the unstable existence of an army wife and in 1812 settled in Paris. Here her three sons, of whom Victor was the youngest, received their first orderly education.
As a result of this estrangement, General Hugo formed a liaison that took on a permanent character, and after Waterloo the Hugos arranged a separation. General Hugo, however, refused to leave his sons with their mother and sent them to a boarding school.
Victor Hugo suffered, but not acutely, from this separation from his mother. He was already, at fifteen, in love with a neighbor's daughter, Adéle Foucher, and was planning a brilliant literary career so that he could marry her. An excellent student in literature and mathematics, in 1817 he received an honorable mention from the Académie Française for a poem entered in a competition, and in 1819 he won first place in another national poetry contest.
When his mother died in 1821, he refused to accept any financial support from his father and endured a year of acute poverty, but in 1822, his first volume of verse, Odes at Poésies diverses, won him a pension of 1,000 francs a year from Louis XVIII. On the strength of this he promptly married Adéle, and during the following years four children were born to the Hugos.
Already in 1824, Hugo was a member of the group of Romantic rebels who were attempting to overthrow the domination of classical literature, and in 1830, he became one of the leaders when his historical drama Hernani won the theater audience and broke the stranglehold of the classical format on the stage. It also made him rich, and during the next fifteen years, six plays, four volumes of verse, and the novel Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) established his position as the leading writer of France.
His connection with the stage also had effects on his personal life. In 1831, a rupture developed in the Hugo household when Sainte-Beuve, one of Hugo's closest friends and a well-known Romantic critic, fell in love with Adéle Hugo and received some encouragement. The next year, Hugo met a young actress, Juliette Drouet, who in 1833 became his mistress and quit the stage. Supported by a modest pension from Hugo, she became for the next fifty years his unpaid secretary and traveling companion.
In 1843, the failure of Hugo's last drama, Les Burgraves, and the death of his eldest daughter, drowned on her honeymoon, caused him to abandon poetry temporarily for politics. This sharp change of direction in Hugo's career was paralleled in the lives of a number of other Romantic authors — for instance, Lamartine and George Sand. In the face of a rapidly growing and changing French society, plagued by social problems of all kinds, many writers came to feel that it was not enough simply to write beautiful and moving works of art but that their talents should be more directly applied in helping the poor and oppressed. In effect, this changing mood marks the end of the Romantic era in French literature and the opening of the Realistic-Naturalistic period.
Originally a royalist like his mother, Hugo's reconciliation with his father in 1822 broadened his political views, and he was, by this time, a moderate republican. He was made a peer of France in 1845 and made a number of speeches on social questions of the time.
With the revolution of 1848 and the founding of the Second Republic, Hugo was elected deputy to the Constitutional Assembly. Three years later, when Louis Napoleon abolished the republic by a coup d'etat and reestablished the empire, Hugo risked his life trying vainly to rally the workers of Paris against the new emperor and had to flee to Brussels disguised as a workman.
The next nineteen years of Hugo's life were spent in exile, first on the island of Jersey, then on Guernsey. His family and Mlle. Drouet accompanied him into exile. From his island in the English channel Hugo continued to inveigh against the man he considered the perverter of republican liberties, and 1852 and 1853 saw the writing of the satires Napoléon le Petit and Les Châtiments. He also turned again to poetry and the novel, publishing the philosophical Les Contemplations and the remarkable "history of man's conscience," La Légende des Siecles. Three novels also occupied him: Les Misérables, first begun many years before; Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866), and L'Homme qui rit (1869).
Following the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the empire in 1870-71, Hugo returned to Paris. It was a triumphal return: He was greeted at the station by an immense crowd and was accompanied through the streets to his hotel amid shouts of "Vive Victor Hugo!" He remained in Paris throughout the siege of the city, and the revenues from the first French publication of Les Châtiments bought two cannons to defend the city. In 1871, the death of one of his sons took him for some time to Brussels; he then returned to Guernsey until the death of another son brought him back to Paris in 1873. He was elected to the Senate in 1876, but two years later poor health forced him to return to the tranquility of Guernsey. His later years were saddened not only by the death of his sons but by that of Mme. Hugo in 1868 and of Mlle. Drouet in 1882.
Hugo himself died in 1885 at the age of eighty-three. His last wishes were, "I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be taken to the cemetery in the hearse customarily used for the poor. I refuse the prayers of all churches. I believe in God."
Despite the austerity of his wishes, his funeral was the occasion of a national tribute to France's greatest writer. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe guarded by horsemen with flaming torches, and twelve poets watched around his bier. On the day of the funeral, a million spectators followed his cortege, and the Pantheon, a church under Napoleon III, was once again transformed into a national sepulcher to receive his remains. He lies there today, amid France's great men.
Victor Hugo has frequently been criticized for vanity of character and shallowness of mind. The vanity of which he was accused is largely justified by the immense scope of his talents, unparalleled in literary history since Shakespeare and Goethe. It is true that he was not a profound thinker, but his devotion to "the good, the beautiful and the true," if uncritical, was instinctive and sincere. The people of France whom he loved have judged him better than the critics, and he remains to this day one of France's best-loved authors.
Hugo's career, covering as it does most of the nineteenth century, spans both the Romantic and the Realist movements, but it cannot be said — despite Hugo's initial fame as a Romantic poet — to belong to one movement more than the other. His superb use of the colorful and significant detail, which produces exoticism in Les Orientales and local color in Notre Dame de Paris, becomes, when applied to the modern scene in Les Misérables, the sheerest realism. He is never, like Stendhal and Flaubert, objective and impassive in the face of the scene he describes, but he is always more interested in the external world than in the inner world of his own feelings; and the passionate spirit with which he describes what he sees is no more "romantic" than Zola's. If the themes of his poetry are often Romantic, his concern for art and technique makes him a brother to the Parnassians; and the epic quality of all his work links him with Chateaubriand and de Vigny, on the one hand, and with Zola, on the other. Only as a dramatist can he be considered purely a Romantic.
Hugo is among the greatest poets of a century of great poets. He claims this place not only because of the immense volume of his production, spread over nearly sixty years, but because of the variety of his themes and techniques.
Hugo's poems deal with an unusually wide range of themes. Romantic love and the evocation of nature are, of course, among them, but he also deals ably and movingly with current events of the day, descriptions of exotic and historic scenes, philosophy, parenthood and grandparenthood. His satires are as powerful as his lyrics; no strain is foreign to his lyre.
As a poetic technician, Hugo is a great innovator. He is one of the first to move away from the classical tradition of the Alexandrine couplet (which, nevertheless, he can handle magnificently) toward more complex and subtle forms of verse borrowed from the Middle Ages and from his own rich imagination. He reshapes not only the form but the vocabulary of poetry and injects it with a new variety and richness.
In contrast with most poets who are skilled in the use of only two or three poetic devices, Hugo is master of all. He is a splendid rhetorician but is also adept in the music of poetry. And he employs not only the music of skillful phrasing but the sound of the words themselves to awaken and charm the inner ear of the imagination. When in L'Expiation he writes, "Après une plaine blanche, une autre plaine blanche," not only the repetitive phrase but the flat echo of the open vowels call up the image of Russia's endless expanses.
He is also a master of imagery, not only simile and metaphor but symbol. He advises poets to interpret their "interior world of images, thoughts, sentiments, love and burning passion to fecundate this world" through "the other visible universe all around you" (Pan, 1831); and he can almost always find a vivid and exact natural parallel to the landscape of his soul. In all these respects, he is the precursor and inspiration for the poets who follow: Baudelaire, the Parnassians, and the Symbolists are all to a large extent his disciples and his debtors.
In the preface to Cromwell of 1827-28, Hugo serves as spokesman for the Romantic movement in attacking classical drama and in laying down the precepts of the new drama to be. He condemns the rigidity of both classical format and language: the unities of time, scene, and action, and the false and formal elegance of speech. He calls for a richer and more flexible verse, which will more closely approximate the rhythm of everyday speech, and a more flexible format, which will allow comedy and tragedy to mingle in Shakespearean fashion, just as they do in life itself. Weary of the eternal Greek kings and Roman heroes of the classical stage, he suggests that more recent history may also provide suitable themes for drama and that a bourgeois or a bandit may also sometimes possess enough nobility to transform a stage.
These precepts he exemplified in his own plays, some of which are in prose as well as in verse and which generally deal with some dramatic episode from European history. The subjects of Marie Tudor and Lucrezia Borgia are self-explanatory. Hernani, which quite literally caused a riot at its first performance, sets at odds a noble Spanish bandit and Charles V, Emperor of Spain; in Ruy Blas, a valet, through the love of a queen, temporarily becomes head of state.
We cannot today appreciate Hugo's plays as wholeheartedly as did his contemporaries. His plots, with their disguises and recognitions, seem a little too melodramatic; his daring adventurers and his perfect, passionate, unattainable heroines are two-dimensional. Nevertheless, particularly in their historical accuracy of incident and decor, they represent a great stride toward realism in the drama; in the stage's own terms, some of them are still "marvelous theater."