U.Va. Professor Provides Insight into Victor Hugo's Views on Things That Matter

November 13, 2009

November 12, 2009 — Victor Hugo's ideas had a huge impact on his time, and that impact continues today, according to "Victor Hugo on Things That Matter," a new book from University of Virginia professor Marva Barnett, who teaches in the Department of French.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:

The book draws upon excerpts from his voluminous writings, which include poetry, plays, novels, letters, political speeches and drawings, to offer insight into the ideas and character of a man considered a literary genius and perceptive social critic – and how applicable his thoughts are to the modern world.

"I am inspired by the feeling that I am sitting down with a live person when I read his work," Barnett said.

Barnett acquaints the reader with Hugo's world by organizing the book chapters by key motifs or themes in his private and public lives. Chapters concerned with his private life focus on love and passion; children; death, grief and tragedy; nature; the mysterious, the exotic and the grotesque; God and religion; rights, law and conscience – where private and public intersect.

On the public side of his life, chapters are devoted to his views on the role of the poet in society; liberty and democracy; tyranny and exile; social justice; poverty, crime and education; and humanity, progress and peace.

"This is someone who faced a lot of personal tragedy, a lot of political unrest, who had a brilliant literary talent and many truly intriguing ideas," Barnett said.

One of Hugo's daughters died at age 19 in a boating accident; another, his youngest, became mentally ill after an ill-fated love affair. Hugo lived through the many 19th-century French political upheavals and was exiled along with other legislative deputies in 1852 after a coup d'état by Napoleon III. When he returned to Paris in 1870, he was welcomed as the "Father of the French Republic."

"Despite his tragedies, Hugo does have an optimistic view of the human capacity for progress, and I wanted more people to know what he thought and be able to enjoy his work," Barnett said.

In the book, Barnett's introductions, footnotes and glossary are written in English, while Hugo's excerpts are in French.

For the non-French speaker, it provides an orientation to Hugo's work as well as the times in which he lived. For the English speaker with some French fluency, "readers will find their rusty French loosens and the language comes back to them with ease," Barnett said.

Hugo was the leader of the Romantic movement. "Romantics felt that nature was alive and life was all around us, and people needed to engage with that," Barnett said. "His poetry is groundbreaking and revolutionary because he more or less slaughtered the classic rules of poetry – and similarly for theater."

His poetry foreshadowed the work of symbolist poets. For a poem about evil genies, Hugo developed a line structure that forms the shape of a magic lantern, and a rhythm that echoes the genies' flight.

In his plays, he broke away from the Classicists, who had held sway for more than two centuries with their conventions of portraying kings and nobles in tragic productions and relegating the common man to comedy. In the preface to his play, "Cromwell," Hugo laid out the manifesto for the Romantic movement in theater, which argued for a more lifelike portrayal.

"Hugo saw that life is full of antitheses," Barnett said. "Life is, and human experience is, full of happiness and sadness, and good and bad, and ups and downs; and so to separate tragedy from comedy is artificial and unreal."

He also wrote personally about his experiences, explaining his viewpoint to his critics in the preface to his 1856 "Les Contemplations": 'When I speak to you of myself, I'm speaking to you about yourself. How can you not feel that? Ah! Insane, you who think that I'm not you!' Barnett translated.

The Hugo work that is perhaps most familiar to English-speaking audiences is his 1862 novel, "Les Misérables." Adapted to the stage in 1980, "Les Misérables" is one of the best-known and oft-performed musicals of the last quarter-century.

In the story, Hugo elevates a common man and ex-convict, Jean Valjean, as he struggles toward redemption, a closer connection with God. The narrator sometimes looks into Valjean's conscience, saying in one case: "We are going to look again into the soul and conscience of a man. There is nothing more terrifying than that sort of contemplation."

But Valjean's upstanding life after 19 years at hard labor shows Hugo's optimistic side. "Hugo brings to life the human spark and spirit," Barnett said. "That's one thing I would like people to be able to experience from his work, his abiding optimism."

Hugo, who began as a supporter of the monarchy, or an ultraconservative, as they were called, is "an interesting study in personal evolution; his life experiences and his awareness of them changed his beliefs," Barnett said.

In his early 20s "he saw that the poor people didn't have much to go with and he became more and more liberal," she said

"On the political front, he fought for freedom of the press and literary freedom," Barnett said.

"He believed and talked about what he called the universal republic, meaning that everyone should have a say and that human rights were extraordinarily important. People needed to be educated to have an intelligent voice in this conversation," she said.

Over the years, serving in numerous legislatures, he advocated against the death penalty, and for rights for children and women and social justice issues we still struggle with today.

Hugo dominated the French literary scene for most of his adult life. His influence was pervasive and his popularity wide. When he died in 1885, at age 82, somewhere between 1 million and 2 million mourners crowded the streets of Paris for two weeks.

Since 2002, the bicentennial of his birth, there has been a "big surge of interest in the impact he had on literature and ideas," Barnett said.

— By Jane Ford