Article written by Robert Neblett, Les Misérables Dramaturg
Victor Hugo (1802-85) was a French poet, novelist, and playwright. He is most commonly associated with the Romantic movement of literature and art in 19th century Europe. Romanticism rejected the scientific goals of the Industrial Revolution and idealized heightened emotion, dreams, nature, a belief in the supernatural, and the superior role of the imagination in the creation of art and literature. The Romantics often reached back into the distant past for inspiration and rejected rules, tradition, and conventions that governed “proper” forms of art, such as those mandated by the French Academy, an intellectual and cultural organization dedicated to formalizing French language and literature.
Victor was the son of a military officer and moved frequently, which allowed him to see much of France and Europe. The early years of his life were filled with political and personal turmoil. Shortly after he was born, Napoléon Bonaparte was named Emperor of France, and Hugo’s childhood was marked by a period of violent political upheaval throughout the country. He secretly married Adèle Foucher when he was 19 years old, and they had several children. When his daughter Léopoldine drowned in 1843, he was devastated.
In 1830, his play Hernani incited riots among its audiences. Prior to its performance, French playwrights were required to adhere to the Neoclassical unities of place, time, and action in their dramatic writing. These rules basically meant that a play’s action must occur in a single venue, take place over a span of time no longer than 24 hours, and must follow a single main plot with no subplots. Hernani defied all of these conventions when it premiered at the Comedie Française in Paris and caused public outrage. Historians have discovered that much of this outrage was manipulated and manufactured by both Hugo and his opponents, the riots becoming acts of theatre in themselves.
In 1841, Hugo became a member of the French Academy, hoping to change its traditional values from within. After several years of open criticism of political leaders in France, he left the country in a period of self-appointed exile from 1851-1870. While in exile in England, he wrote many of his most popular works, including Les Misérables.
When he returned to France in 1870, he was considered a national hero. He became active in politics during the final years of his life. When he died from pneumonia in 1885, over two million people attended his funeral. He was buried in the Panthéon, along with the leading thinkers of his time.
Other novels by Hugo include:
Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) – also known as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The publication of Hugo’s novel would ultimately shame the civic leaders of Paris to restore the cathedral and renew an interest in medieval architecture throughout the city.
Quatre-vingt-treize (1874) – recounts the story of the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.