Victor Hugo was one of the most prolific authors of French Romantic poetry and novels as well as an accomplished artist, with a career spanning over the course of six decades. Many readers will instantly recognize Hugo as the mastermind behind such beloved stories as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Known for giving a voice to the disenfranchised people of French society, Victor Hugo’s literary works often shed light on the adversity and social injustice faced by the working class of 19th century France.
Hugo would bear witness to political instability and internal conflict, culminating in the Paris Uprising of 1832 led by anti-monarchist republicans which directly influenced his crown jewel, Les Misérables. Many of Hugo’s works would reflect his experiences due to his heavy involvement with politics.
For those wishing to feast their eyes on more published novels by a true Romantic, we’ve compiled a list of books that may have been overshadowed by his globally acclaimed masterpieces.
Victor Hugo was a lifelong proponent for the complete abolition of the death penalty. In his eyes, the guillotine was a tool of barbaric cruelty, one that had been turned into a public spectacle. The Last Day of a Condemned Man, first published in 1829, perfectly encapsulates Hugo’s stance on the matter by portraying a tale void of compassion for a prisoner trapped in a hopeless situation.
We are introduced to a man with no name as he is condemned to die by execution in 19th century France. The reader is not informed of the prisoner’s crime, yet there is a hint of murder. In the final days leading up to his imminent death, he writes down his innermost thoughts and fears. The man’s notes contain detailed descriptions of his surroundings ranging from his time in imprisonment to even physical features of his cell.
As despondency begins to set in at the prospect of his death being reduced to a mere show of entertainment for the crowd, the prisoner’s story is a reminder by its author of the world’s raging cruelty and serves as a poster-child for Hugo’s staunch opposition to the merciless guillotine.
2. Claude Gueux
As we continue with some of Victor Hugo’s early short stories, Claude Gueux was published in 1834 and was described as another example of the author’s thoughts on the social injustice faced by the poor and uneducated people of France. More specifically, Hugo criticized the lack of proportionality between education and punishment.
Claude Gueux is an impoverished resident of Troyes who is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of firewood and bread for his mistress and child. He has no education and no source of support by which he may sustain himself and must resort to stealing in order to survive. As prisoners, Claude and his cellmates work tirelessly in the prison’s workshops and sleep in poor conditions. After another prisoner offers Claude some of his food, the two form a lasting friendship until they are pulled apart by the heartless Director. After many failed attempts to reason with him, Claude murders the man, for which he is sentenced to death.
His appeals are brushed aside as he is thrust onto a path he can never return from. The story serves as a stark rebuke by Hugo toward the French society and the seemingly lack of care for the nation’s uneducated outcasts.
Following Hugo’s theme of criticizing nobility and bringing light to the oppression they conceive, The Man Who Laughs is a tragic tale of a young boy named Gwynplaine. His facial deformities have carved a permanent smile onto his face and have influenced the trajectory of his life. The unfortunate child finds himself performing in freak shows.
After being separated from the love of his life and subsequently exiled for the illegal use of an animal on-stage, it is revealed that his mutilations were the result of the King’s cruelty, further demonstrating Hugo’s sharp criticism of the indifference afforded to the lower class by those of higher nobility. Can Gwynplaine reunite with those he cares for or will he remain as a victim of the hierarchy’s remedy for their boredom?
We briefly depart from the stories revolving around societal oppression of 19th century France to find ourselves in the weeks leading up to the Haitian Revolution of 1791. A man by the name of D’Auverney is soon to be wed with his cousin, Marie. D’Auverney is the nephew of an well-established slave-owning aristocrat in Haiti.
D’Auverney ends up befriending a slave named Pierrot after the latter rescues Marie from an crocodile attack, but whom ends up jailed after attempting to protect his fellow slave. Pierrot falls in love with Marie, but finds himself helpless to overcome the racial barriers in place.
As the fires of revolution begin to rise across the land, Pierrot desperately warns the couple to flee but to no avail. After Pierrot saves Marie once again from the wrath of the enraged slaves, D’Auverney begins to suspect that his friend has kidnapped his wife, but is unable to pursue as he is captured by the revolutionists. What are Pierrot’s motives? Will his friends evade certain death in the face of the uprising? And who exactly is this mystical “Bug-Jargal”, the rumored leader of the slave rebellion?
Ninety-Three, published in 1874, would be the final novel of Victor Hugo’s prolific career. Hugo turns his attention back to the historical counter-revolutionary uprisings during the 1793 French Revolution. He takes part as the narrator, telling the perspectives of both republicans and royalists during their bloody conflict. Yet readers will quickly discern from Hugo’s language that he favors the side of the revolutionaries.
Nevertheless, the novel does not portray either side as cynical or disingenuous. Their ideal visions for how society should be structured are supported by their staunch devotion to their cause, with absolutely no regard for the cost of blood they must pay in order to achieve victory. Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three is considered by many to be an inspirational epic of national freedom and the fight against tyranny, a work of art that rivals even the most critically acclaimed novels of his career.
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