While France knows Victor Hugo (February 26, 1802- May 22, 1885) better for his poetry, he remains better known as a novelist to his English-speaking readers. One of his most celebrated works, Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), tells the story of the hunchback Quasimodo and presents a harsh criticism of the society that degrades and castigates him. It was this work that paved the way for Hugo as a political writer.
Hugo studied law between 1815 and 1818, but never found himself committing to his studies or any desire to continue. His mother, Sophie Trebuche, encouraged him on his literary pursuits. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a unique stylistic arrangement, in the sense that Hugo blurs the lines between the grandiose and the mundane and nothing in his novel exists in a vacuum. Though ultimately a tragedy, Hugo employs sarcasm flawlessly and imparts hilarity to the text. The humour is dark and scathingly critical. The narrator plays along with the events of the story, and in that process, subtly ridicules the medieval Parisian superstitions.
Hugo tends to portray the government as an oppressive rather than executive force in his works. In his own lifetime, Hugo contested against capital punishment, taxes and tyrannical authority and war, and built inspiration among people by lifting the public morale and believing in freedom and limitless progress. Consequently, he became the torch of liberty during the nineteenth century, ushering in a literary style divorced from the codified conventions of classical French literature. He soon became one of the most beloved literary heroes and moral centers of all time to come.
Hugo’s most beloved work Les Miserables was published in 1862 and it became a testimony of Hugo’s faith in individual freedom and benevolence. In the novel, the government becomes the fountainhead of oppression, and through his denouncement of tyranny, Hugo presents a celebration of freedom.
Like Jean Valijean, the figure of benevolence and charity in Les Miserables, Hugo decided to help the poor through his personal resources. He provided for his estranged wife and sons who were failing financially, asked his cooks to not let beggars go hungry and served “Poor Children’s Dinner” in his neighbourhood.
Hugo lived up to his words “Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come”. He pursued his ideal of liberty with great commitment and a vibrant enthusiasm. His writing took a political tinge from his very first novel Bug-Jargal (1826), which is a story about a black rebellion in Santo Domingo. His next work was the anti-royalist, medieval epic The Hunchback of Notre Dame. By 1831, after a broken marriage, he had plunged himself into political writings. He has written Le Derier Jour d’un Condamne (Last Day of a Condemned Man), a polemic against capital punishment. He became the mouthpiece of opposition to Louis-Napoleon, the president of France after Louis-Philippe. In December 1851, Louis-Napoleon disregarded a law allocating the presidential term of office and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III. Soon, his soldiers started to hunt Hugo down, who fled to Guernsey, which became his home for the next fourteen years.
Hugo’s pursuit of liberty became his one true ideal. He denounced the execution of John Brown, who tried to instigate slave revolts in Virginia, encouraged the efforts of Giuseppe Garibaldi to establish liberal democracy in Italy. His desire for personal and political liberty is evident not only through his own actions but also through his work. His narratives select characters from unexplored realms of life, people who are not thought about or cared for by the general sentiment. Hugo subtly and artistically interweaves a sense of freedom with these characters; a freedom that is not merely political or social but also deeply personal. His works are born from his ideals and thus Hugo’s essence, as a liberalist and idealist remains for generations of readers to absorb.