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Victor Hugo is the most important French Romantic writer in the 19th century and his works have social and literary relevance.
Victor Hugo is a poet, dramatist, and novelist, whose brilliance in writing made him the most important French Romantic writer in the 19th century. He has a distinguished style for writing a historical novel. He fuses concrete historical details with his vivid imagination. One of his best-known creations, Notre-Dame de Paris, better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, captured the attention of the people with its melodramatic plot and social relevance.
The author Victor-Marie Hugo was born in Besancon in February 26, 1802 to Joseph-Leopold-Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie-Francoise Trebuchet. His father is a ranking officer in Napoleon’s army. Soon after his birth, his father had a mistress and her mother had an affair with General Lahorie. Despite the affairs of both, his parents were only legally separated in 1818 (Falkayn 83). During the early years of Victor’s life, his family lived in Corsica, Elba, Italy, and Spain.
In 1809, General Lahorie was arrested at their house for conspiring against Napoleon and charged with treason.
He was sentenced to a firing squad in 1812 (Falkayn 98). Even as an adolescent, he had already been showing his talent for writing. At the age of 15, he had won an award in a prestigious poetry competition, making him a famous child prodigy. The statesman and writer Francois Rene Chateaubriand serving as his inspiration, he published his first collection of poems in 1822, the Odes et Poeies, gaining him a pension from Louis XVII.
Being financially secured of his future, he married his childhood sweetheart, Adele Foucher.
On the day of his marriage, his brother Eugene, who was secretly in love with Adele and who had mental problems, went permanently insane (Maurois and Sheilah 187). Through the years, he engaged himself into several adulterous relationships with other women (Falkayn 103). Leonie Biard, whom he had his most known affair, went to jail for their relationship, but Hugo was immune to the prosecution because of his position in the government. Both Hugo’s literary and political career were active. He wrote masterpieces as well as criticism essays. However, his political stand changed from one side to the other.
At one point, he was criticizing Napoleon, but at the other, he was defending his father’s role in Napoleon’s victories and attacking the monarchist regime (Maurois and Sheilah 239). His play Cromwell in 1827 sparked a debate between the Romanticists and French Classicists. He deeply influenced the Romanticist movement despite of his indirect involvement in the campaign against the bourgeois (Maurois 152). When he published Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831, it became widely accepted in the popular culture. In 1841, he was elected to the Academie Francaise after three failed attempts.
Two years later, his daughter Leopoldine drowned with her husband, which deeply saddened Hugo. He was not to publish a book until 10 years later (Robb 377). After the 1848 revolution, he was elected to be part of the Legislative Assembly and Constitutional Assembly. In 1851, he shifted to republican idealism, which led him to be was forced out of France and moved to Brussels, Jersey, and Guernsey (Robb 427). He lived in exile for 19 years but he continued writing. He declined the amnesty offered to him by the prevailing French government several times. He published political essays that inspired others in exile.
In 1852, he wrote what critics considered his best work, Les Miserables, a story about social injustice which instantly became internationally acclaimed (Maurois 293). Finally, Hugo returned to France after the proclamation of the Third Republic. Then, he was elected to the minority party of the National Assembly but resigned because of his unheard proposals. He became a senator of Paris in 1876 and advocated for the amnesty of other revolutionaries (Communards) (Maurois 314). After suffering a mild stroke in 1878, he stopped writing. In 1880, he finally secured the amnesty for the revolutionaries.
On May 22, 1885, Hugo died in Paris from pneumonia. A grieving public, approximately two million, attended his funeral at the Pantheon (Falkayn 220). Played in 1905, Les Miserables is the first ever full-length feature film created in the United States. In 1939, Notre-Dame de Paris was released as a silent film and was retitled and became widely known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Robb 515).
Hugo’s lyrical style is rich and full of powerful sounds and rhythms. In spite of its resemblance to the taste of the popular culture, it has a personal bitter tone. His poems are representation of the political and philosophical issues of his generation. Most of it are about the social unrest in France, but he also wrote to the glory of Napoleon. With simplicity, he wrote the joys and sorrows of life. His works are characterized by a recurring theme: the fight of humanity against evil. He infused his writings with the problem of the century and universal human questions. Thus, up to this day, his works are still admired by modern readers.
However, there were many delays because of other projects he attended to. However, his publisher, Gosselin, in 1830 demanded that the work be finished the following year. He then concentrated on working the novel, bought an ink and a woolen cloak, and secluded himself, going out only to visit the Notre Dame at night (Falkayn 183). The story was set at the church of Notre Dame. Thus, he studied very well its structure, noting the details of inscriptions, staircases, and the hidden chambers. He also studied old writings and records to ensure that his story has a correct historical framework (Falkayn 186).
After six months, he completed his first full-length novel. He intended to entitle it What There is in a Bottle of Ink because he completed it just as he was running out of ink. However, he decided on naming it Notre-Dame de Paris, considering the church as the main character (Falkayn 192). Thus, he disliked the English translation The Hunchback of Notre-Dame because of its implication that Quasimodo is the lead character.
It is noticeable that most of the actions happen inside or around the church. Mimicking Eugene Delacroix’s painting, Hugo portrayed Notre Dame as the political center of Paris (Falkayn 211).
That from the towers of Notre Dame the whole of Paris can be seen reaffirms it as the center of the city. It also represents France’s splendid Gothic past that was being erased by the major changes in Paris. The novel is also an expression of Hugo’s emphasis to safeguard the past. The cathedral’s structure reflects the deformities of Quasimodo. The church was damaged during the French Revolution when the people viewed it as a symbol of the old regime and pillaged it.
Because it was written during the 1830 revolution, the novel is greatly influenced by the political trends of the century. The resurgence of political liberty and democracy from 1789 was incorporated into the novel, as well as the legacy of the revolutions of 1789 and 1830. Hugo also depicted the cultural representation of social upheaval, specifically the class differences. There is also a historical reference to the storming of the Bastille in 1789 when the vagabonds attacked Notre Dame. Furthermore, when he made every character in the novel an orphan, he represents a contradiction to the image of the French as united people under the Bourbon rule.
This concept of a broken family alludes to the civil wars of 1879 that split French society between for and against the Republic ((Falkayn 236). Moreover, a central figure of the Romantic movement, Hugo stressed the significance of emotions and imagination. Noteworthy, romanticism is a reaction to classicism that uses Greek and Roman antiquities as subjects. As Romantic writers refuse to write on themes of the past, Hugo represented French history as source of Romantic ideas (Falkayn 203). D. Universal themes The novel talks about determinism and human initiative.
Believing in predetermination, Pierre Gringoire opted to follow whatever Esmeralda’s decisions are. Also, as Frollo believes that fate would bring Esmeralda to him, comparing it toe the inevitability of a fly trapped in a spider’s web, the readers know that it is actually his carefully constructed plan. Just as predetermination is essential to the plot, there is also a suggestion of the possibility of free will. It is the deterministic attitude that transformed Frollo into a villain. When people exercise free will, they become aware of the moral responsibility of their actions.
Similarly, Sachette thought of her actions as determined by fate. Her resignation of what she thinks is her fate prevented her to know that the gypsy girl she hated, Esmeralda, is her lost daughter. Blind loyalty and blind passion are also embedded in the plot of the novel. The most notable example of this is that of Quasimodo to Frollo. He failed to see the madness of Frollo’s actions. However, when he finally perceived it in when Frollo attempted to rape Esmeralda, he was unable to do anything to stop his master. Likewise, Esmeralda’s naive love to Phoebus blinded her of Phoebus’ insincerity, which gave way to her death.
Frollo’s obsession with Esmeralda brought him to the brink of insanity. He also left his brother that eventually died. This obsessive love also brought his destruction at the hands of Quasimodo. Moreover, Quasimodo’s devotion to Esmeralda led him to join her in death. Pierre Gringoire and Phoebus are open to all opportunities as they are never emotionally attached to a single passion.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame established Hugo’s work as a novelist, not only as a poet. Its immortality results from its universal themes as well as its social relevance during Hugo’s time. Definitely, Victor Hugo would continue to be a significant part of literary criticism. Most importantly, his advocacy of liberty and social uplift had cemented his position as one of the most important figures of the 19th century.
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