Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo; drawing by David Levine

The poet who unsmilingly designed for himself a coat of arms that featured the motto “Ego Hugo” would seem to have earned Jean Cocteau’s epitaph: “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” But as Professor Brombert demonstrates in his astute examination of Hugo’s novels, the mirror images, redeeming abysses, and inverted perspectives from which Hugo created his fictional universe reflect a mind incessantly at odds with life. Truth might have been better served had Cocteau proposed that Hugo was never quite mad enough to hear archangels whisper cues to him or sober enough to relinquish his dream of transcending his divided self. “Totus in antitheti,” he wrote in an essay on Shakespeare, implying that between Ego and Hugo there was, at times, almost unlimited room for doubt.

In Hugo’s life, which Brombert does not recount, the original antithesis was the mismatch that produced him. His father, Léopold Hugo, an army officer who styled himself “sans-culotte Brutus Hugo” during the Revolution, met his mother, a dowerless Breton girl of royalist sympathies, while hunting down counterrevolutionaries near Nantes, and, despite her aversion to the blue-uniformed invaders, he prevailed upon her to marry him. By 1802, when Sophie Hugo bore Victor, her third son, it was obvious that the few apparently peaceful years they had spent together in Paris under the Directory were a time of truce rather than union. Léopold remained passionate, but Sophie found his bed as uncongenial as his politics and seized every opportunity to avoid it. After Victor’s birth, the couple saw each other only fleetingly, and at wide intervals.

Léopold’s career took him far afield in territory occupied by the grand army. From the Rhineland he was posted to Elba, where he might have languished had not Joseph Bonaparte, whose acquaintance he made at Lunéville, recruited him for action against the kingdom of Naples. With Calabrian brigands running French troops ragged, experience in guerrilla warfare was what Léopold could bring to the campaign. His men caught the rebel leader “Fra Diavolo,” and as a result Joseph promoted him to colonel and appointed him governor of Avellino. Bloodier skirmishes and more munificent preferments lay in store. Soon after Napoleon put Joseph on the Spanish throne, Léopold was summoned once again by his padrone, who wanted a rough hand to govern the obstreperous provinces around Madrid. He performed this service for three years, living in Guadalajara with a concubine. Colonel Hugo had become General Hugo, count of Sigüenza, when Wellington stripped the gilt off his trophies.

While Léopold upheld the imperial standard abroad, in Paris Sophie did her utmost to subvert it: she became the mistress of a revolutionary general named Victor Fanneau de Lahorie, Victor Hugo’s godfather, whom she had known since childhood. During the power struggle from which Napoleon emerged as first consul, Lahorie stood behind General Jean Moreau in a plot to unite republicans and royalists against the future emperor. Having failed, he went underground, where Sophie helped him to elude Fouché’s spies for seven years. A derelict chapel in the garden of her house on the rue des Feuillantines was his surest refuge until clandestine life became unendurable. On December 29, 1810, Lahorie surrendered to Fouché’s successor in the mistaken belief that time had made his mortal sin venial, and promptly found himself behind bars at the Vincennes prison fortress.

Nothing daunted, Sophie kept up the good fight. Through her machinations, Lahorie was eventually set free in what came to be known as the “Malet Affair.” Armed with a false report on Napoleon’s death in Russia, General Malet staged a coup d’état that enabled Lahorie to play one last public part. He did not play it long. The hoax was discovered within hours and the day after he became minister of police Lahorie lay dead on the plaine de Grenelle, alongside his fellow conspirators. Sophie mourned him, the story goes, by wearing white cambric and green shoes at Napoleonic rallies the better to “tread the colors of the Empire underfoot with each step she took.”

For Victor Hugo, the family romance was inherently a palace intrigue embracing all that revolution and empire could foster in the way of multiple loyalties, self-hatred, and ideological paradox. It is hardly surprising that “his deeper visionary tendencies” should have arisen from “the need to relate private phantasms to the thrust of external events” (writes Brombert), or that the perfect, revelatory moments he dreamed up in his fiction—for example, the convent scene in Les Misérables where Valjean and Cosette are enraptured by a sacred hymn—express an ideal of some universal merging. Throughout childhood and adolescence, virtually everything in his life bespoke division, with parent set against parent, ancien régime against the new, public face against private. As remote as the father whose terrible majesty he witnessed in visits to Naples and Madrid was the godfather he saw arrested on December 30, 1810.


The famous name of Hugo harbored a pseudonymous fugitive, and at age nine Victor played “brigand” while wandering through the vast Masserano Palace in Madrid (where Joseph Bonaparte put up General Hugo’s estranged family), acting out this theatrical predicament. A consequence for the young Hugo can be inferred from his adolescent verse, which often voices the fear that people are not what they seem, or might change overnight, himself included. Inside Hugo’s familiar world were hostile ghosts, guilty secrets, walls, gaps, memories of overwhelming loss.

Yet another conflict set brother against brother. Victor and Eugène Hugo had grown up side by side, yoked to the same heroine, their aggrieved mother, to the same teachers, and to the same ambition of achieving literary greatness. What held them together during childhood disintegrated when, at sixteen, Victor won an important poetry prize. Eclipsed by this prodigy whose verse drew praise from Chateaubriand and even from the king, Eugène competed with him for the love of Adèle Foucher, as if no prize had value unless it had been stolen from his brother. Here, too, Eugène lost out and the day after Victor got married, in 1822, Eugène went mad. Until his death fifteen years later, he was confined at the Charenton insane asylum.

Meanwhile Hugo himself swept toward fame. The incarceration of the hostile shadow of his brother, his mother’s death, reconciliation with his fallen father, and marriage—all these combined to release a creative power that generated poetry, stories, plays. “Victor turns out ideas and babies without pausing, he never allows himself a moment’s rest,” wrote one friend, and Lamartine, in 1824, beheld him as success incarnate: “You have never done a foolish thing in your life; my own, up to the age of 27, was all faults and profligacy…. Your heart belongs to the Golden Age, your wife to the Earthly Paradise. With what you have, a man may still live in this Age of Iron….” By 1829, the Odes et Ballades, Les Orientales, and his manifesto of poetic license in the long preface to Cromwell were cult books for the young literary generation. Having become disenchanted with Bourbon rule, but not yet noticeably enough to lose his pension from King Charles X, he enjoyed the benefits of royalism and the virtue of lese majesty. Sainte-Beuve glorified him. An entourage of reverent admirers accompanied him on his evening walks. But at night, he later wrote, he regularly dreamed about someone being buried alive.

In 1829, with revolution threatening again, such dreams inspired his first great novel, Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné, in which the nameless narrator, locked up for some unrecounted murder, is about to lose his head. A brief against capital punishment becomes a proto-Kafkian chronicle of spiritual despair as Hugo movingly evokes how the death of an isolated mind can foreshadow death itself. “The imprisonment in a futureless present, the radicalization of a confined subjectivity” is how Brombert describes what takes place. Surrounded by windowless walls with graffiti etched by his doomed predecessors, the inmate cannot reach beyond this book of last lines (he himself calls his cell a “book”) to find the past or address posterity in the person of his young daughter. Consciousness succumbs to stone, leaving only fossil imprints. The people who have passed through the prison, like those in the cathedral in Notre-Dame de Paris, have conferred upon it its aura of hollow immortality.

“Everything around me is prison: I encounter prison in all its forms, in humans as well as in bolts and bars,” he thinks. “This wall here is the stone prison, this door the wooden one, these warders the prison of flesh and bone.” It will survive because he will not, but even before he is guillotined, certain incidents force him to regard himself as absent, or “other” (his daughter is unable to recognize him, a cellmate confiscates his coat). Indeed, prison house and guillotine accomplish his death sentence on the first day of confinement, when he begins to serve time, rather than on the last, when he drops out of it for, in Hugo’s view, it is the fact of being caught up in a fatal sequence that unravels man’s soul. “Le mal est successif,” he declared in Notre-Dame de Paris, and days spent moving toward a godless Judgment Day are sequence pure and simple.

When, in a postrevolutionary preface, Hugo characterized Le Dernier Jour as a work born entirely of his passion for social justice, he could not have guessed how far that view would take him. By September 1848, he was inveighing against capital punishment in the republican legislature and propagating liberal opinion in his newspaper, L’Evénement. As deputy for Paris, the literary potentate whom Louis-Philippe had made a peer and the Académie Française an “immortal” moved increasingly leftward from conservative ranks and finally moved outside France altogether. Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état, which Hugo tried vainly to thwart in December 1851, provoked him to establish himself on the Channel Islands where he weathered the Second Empire, flashing messages of contempt at Napoleon III, reinventing his country in the epic poems of La Légende des siècles, and toiling over Les Misérables, which appeared in 1862, or twenty-one years after Notre-Dame de Paris.


Napoleon III had no sooner fallen than Hugo made his way back to Paris. What awaited the exile was exile once again. Out of joint with a “moral majority” whose wrath against the Communards knew no bounds, and with the Communards whose excesses he could not condone, Hugo wandered from Belgium to Luxembourg to Guernsey until something resembling peace prevailed at home. Among other appeals for national reconciliation he issued during the so-called Ordre Moral was his last novel, Quatrevingt-Treize. At seventy-two, Hugo had said all he had to say, and official consecration would come eleven years later, in 1885, when, under a liberal government, millions witnessed the funeral cortege that bore him to the Panthéon.

Hugo’s novels unquestionably reflect the politics of this tumultuous career. Notre-Dame de Paris is bound up with the 1830 revolution, Les Misérables with his vendetta against Napoleon III, Quatrevingt-Treize with his desire to help France find nationhood beyond its traumatic memories of the Paris Commune. But on another level—the one that mainly interests Brombert—they constitute a hermetic world in which themes and symbols weave through story after story as through variations of the same dream. At the end of Quatrevingt-Treize, for example, the death cell Hugo evoked half a century earlier reappears to accommodate a quite different historical fiction. Its occupant, Gauvain, is a Breton aristocrat turned revolutionary general; his cell lies below the medieval round tower called La Tourgue in which he was born and grew up, and he has imprisoned himself there of his own accord, after exchanging clothes with the captive leader of the Vendée royalists, Lantenac, who faces execution. Known for his implacability, the Marquis de Lantenac would have eluded capture had he not rescued three small children held hostage by his own besieged men, and this anomalous gesture of self-sacrifice moves Gauvain (i.e., Gawain, Parsifal) to repay him in kind, to “redeem” him.

Hugo conceived Lantenac’s act as a miraculous event “breaking” the “straight line” humanity has traced since its first internecine brawl. The warlord Lantenac’s detachment from his ruthless self announces mankind’s leap beyond its contentious history to the future Gauvain claims to behold “under the visionary vault of his brain.” Where stage fright afflicted Hugo’s earlier hero (who laments that “I would have had everything to say, yet nothing came to mind: my tongue stuck to my palate”), Gauvain ultimately falls into a mute trance, the consequence of a vision words can’t express.

The anonymous prisoner of Le Dernier Jour exists outside himself, while the immortally named Gauvain, who encompasses heaven on earth in his prophetic eye, nullifies the boundary between inside and out, between self and “other.” “Besides, what difference can the tempest make so long as I have my conscience!” he exclaims. This categorical imperative is formulated in a crypt whose symbolic reference to mother and motherland harks back to the very first scene, where Republican soldiers reconnoitring a dark forest in the Vendée surprise a refugee nursing her infant son. Gauvain, no longer confined by the accident of birth (or the division of parents) delivers himself from a transcendent womb. The hero of the tale truly becomes a hero when, by a theatrical ploy, he assumes the fate of his opposite.

It might be overstating the case to propose that Hugo turned full circle with these two consummations in the prison house, but we can say that the sixteen-year-old whose notebook contains the ultimatum “Chateaubriand or nothing” prefigured the mature writer whose imagination was aroused only at extremes—that is, when engaged by the condition of nonentity or of omnipotence. What came of this is a fiction defined by the fatal self-consciousness of Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné and the selfless rebirth of Quatrevingt-Treize, a fiction in which events point toward eventlessness, characters anticipate collective salvation like Gauvain or oblivion like the condamné, words signify silence, and the author’s surrogates move beyond the realm of historical discourse. “Hugo’s dynamic vision of history in progress ultimately leads not to a justification of history, but to the dream of an ahistorical point in time where history is denied.” Brombert writes. It was the turning point that excited Hugo rather than the continuum, and his novels typically unfold between two opposing systems. Quatrevingt-Treize speaks for itself.

In Notre-Dame de Paris he chose 1482 as an epochal year marking the passage from a feudal order, whose emblem is the cathedral, to the demotic age made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press. “This will kill that” is the title of a long digression, in which he says:

Omitting the detail of a thousand proofs and a thousand objections to what has been said, we may sum the matter up as follows:—That architecture, until the fifteenth century, was the chief register of humanity; that during this interval, no thought of any complexity appeared in the world that was not built into an edifice; that every popular idea, as well as every religious doctrine, had its monument; that human nature, in short, had no thought of importance that it did not write in stone…. In the fifteenth century, everything underwent a change. Humanity discovered a means of perpetuating thought more lasting and durable than architecture….Architecture was dethroned. To the stone letters of Orpheus succeeded Gutenberg’s letters of lead. The book destroyed the building!

On this world-historical stage, the doomed prisoner reading words in stone and the doomed, sacred prison releasing language from its traditional barriers carry on Hugo’s obsessive dialectic. When Notre-Dame becomes a shell the universe becomes a secular domain that liberated humanity, by means of the print shop, can invest with its own Logos. This may be interpreted to mean that man, divided in himself by the structures of authority, achieves wholeness only when he encounters nothing but himself in the ruins of Paradise and Hell. The end of the old order is the end of fathers shaping children to their moral and aesthetic purposes. A “second Tower of Babel” rose where formerly language was petrified as gospel, Hugo declared, who went from boasting that he had put a red bonnet on the French dictionary to elaborating, through his novels, a redemptive view of Western civilization in which writer’s block characterizes the old regime and logorrhea the new.

So, too, does Les Misérables begin at a historical turning point, for it is in the aftermath of Waterloo that Jean Valjean leaves the Toulon convict settlement he entered twenty-one years earlier, during Napoleon’s first victorious campaign abroad. The coincidence announces the close link between ex-convict and ex-emperor, whose meaning emerges more clearly when Hugo, pondering Napoleon’s defeat, attributes it to “superhuman necessity.” Napoleon fell because God willed it so in a script that has the humblest man accomplish what the proudest could not. “Redemption from below” was Hugo’s phrase, and the word “below,” as Brombert often has occasion to note, consolidates the lower regions of mind, society, and earth. “Valjean’s salvation, literally and metaphorically, depends on a fall,” Brombert writes. “If Valjean is fated to be a martyr of the dark descent, it is because espousal of misery is what Hugo calls ‘sublimation.’ Unlike inflicted prison sufferings, which made Valjean morally worse, self-imposed sacrifices elevate and liberate him.” Possessed of a herculean strength that also suggests his capacity for moral perfection, Valjean has no place to go but up and away or down and out. For Hugo, the country Napoleon mobilized against walls, boundaries, even limitation itself, becomes, after Waterloo, the empty vessel Valjean will fill with glory of another kind.

As God’s outcast he discredits the conventional world promoted in bourgeois thinking. Divine grace emanates from him not on high but in the Paris sewer. Having accumulated wealth under a symbolically whorish alias (Monsieur Madeleine), he achieves beatitude by divesting himself of it. And in a dénouement that recalls Gauvain impersonating Lantenac, Valjean converts his nemesis, Inspector Javert. “Javert felt something horrible penetrating his soul, namely admiration for the convict,” Hugo wrote. “A beneficent malefactor, a humane jailbird…was a freak whose existence Javert found himself obliged to acknowledge.”

The themes of penetration and eviction seem to me central to the drama. Shadowed by Javert ever since this keeper of legal categories penetrated his secret, Valjean ends up “penetrating” the soul of Javert, who thus loses his raison d’être. No more prisons and warders, no more inside and out. Just as Gauvain exchanges places with Lantenac, so the “alienated” police inspector lets Jean Valjean go free, before committing suicide. It remains then for Valjean to complete his journey beyond what one revolutionary at the barricades calls “the forest of events.” He who had been no more than a numbered convict in a prison throughout Napoleon’s reign asks that those he saved bury him under a nameless tombstone. His final gesture rings every Hugoesque bell, for with it the timeserver imprisoned by stone uses the material of his confinement to mark his escape from individual existence. (In Les Travailleurs de la mer, water figures as the apocalyptic medium.)

Such merging of opposites on a cosmic scale brings to mind—to my mind at least—the “oceanic feeling” or the “feeling as of something limitless, boundless” that Freud, whose informant on the subject was Romain Rolland, describes in Civilization and Its Discontents. “If I have understood my friend rightly,” wrote Freud, “he meant the same thing by it as the consolation offered by an original and somewhat eccentric dramatist to his hero who is facing a self-inflicted death. ‘We cannot fall out of this world.’ That is to say, it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.” Hugo’s cast of characters waiting upon the guillotine, swept overboard in mid-ocean, dwelling undergound among tree roots, or flushed down the sewer need a stage rigged with bottomless traps, where men will fall divided or will stand indivisible.

Damnation is division, merging into unity is salvation; and the plot, which would not otherwise exist, moves from one to the other—from warfare between consanguineous enemies to the absorption of both in a mind that has eliminated all possibility of internal conflict. Gauvain the orphan grew up under the aegis of Lantenac, his great-uncle. Javert, born outside society to a fortuneteller who has been imprisoned, is the bastard intent on legitimizing himself by annihilating his twin. And in La Légende des siècles, Hugo’s characters collect behind God and Satan for the final round. History itself has begun with a disinheritance. History ends when the fallen son wrests forgiveness from his father, after lamenting (boastfully):

And this heart has in its abyss infinity—less one!
Less Satan, forever rejected, damned, bleak.
God excepts me. He stops at me. I am his bourne.
God would be infinite if I did not exist.

No matter that this particular Satan might have meant the reverse, “I would be infinite if God did not exist.” As often happens in Hugo’s work, the rebel magnanimously surrendering his inner self thereby dissolves the power of authority (tradition, law, religion) in a mystical union that suggests a vision of utopia. God reabsorbs Satan, Satan becomes “celestial Lucifer,” the prison of guilt is made to disappear, and with it the Fall.

“Always a lyre, never a sword! My life forever wrapped in a dark veil!” Hugo sighed at twenty-one in an ode to his father. The novels he subsequently wrote may never have dispelled the feeling of impotence, or of being an anachronism, which this complaint voices, but they served an exorcistic purpose. Time and again swords defer to lyres as prophetic healers foresee a world in which instruments of division will have no place. Gutenberg, Valjean, Gauvain: each embodies the demotic force or word whose power transcends power. And so does Satan himself. In a chapter of La Légende des siècles entitled “La Plume de Satan,” Hugo brings all his extraordinary rhetoric to bear upon a single feather the fallen angel lost during his precipitous descent. Enormous, radiant, quivering with human possibility, this plume, which also means “quill,” transforms itself, under God’s virile eye, into a woman whom the “Almighty less one” names “Liberty.”

Professor Brombert is especially good at letting Hugo’s idiosyncratic mind argue against the political and ideological labels that have been applied to him. Fearing mob violence, he could more easily befriend le peuple from afar than from up close. Yet the holiness he accords an old veteran of the Terror in Les Misérables indicates how congenial he found doctrine that legitimized such violence. Making common cause with a liberal republic did not affect the utopian whose affinities were to a government capable of declaring Year I and of making “factionalism” a crime. Deep down, politics would always remain for him his childhood drama. He understood kings and king killers, civil war and indivisibility, divine right and what Robespierre described as “the despotism of liberty.” But a pluralistic world left too much space in between, or felt too much like time. The island on which he spent many years of exile was where he seems to have been happiest, attended by his wife and his mistress, and working before a mirror in a glass belvedere that “looked out upon the sky and on immensity.”

Between Hugo’s hell and redemption lies a broad canvas of symbolic circumstance where Brombert maneuvers brilliantly, examining such disparate themes as money, language, laughter, and showing how they are braided together in the larger design. His prose sometimes gets a bit heavy with deconstructionese, but the critical pieties this jargon normally signals do not restrict his intuition. It is a book that bodes well for the Hugo centennial this year and includes handsome reproductions of twenty-seven drawings by Hugo himself.

This Issue

January 17, 1985