Victor Hugo

WHEN we read a beautiful poem it may very well happen that we find ourselves wholly fascinated by its charm, or possibly moved to tears by our interest in the fictitious story told us, so that we seem capable of feeling only one emotion; but if at that time we lift our streaming eyes from the book, and chance to see a man hanging from the eaves of the opposite roof and vainly struggling to climb up, all interest in the book vanishes, and we care only for the man who is in danger. Just as the real incident makes the book seem tame, there are books which by dexterous use of thrilling scenes come so near to producing the effect of reality that better literature seems like the hair-splitting of monkish logicians in comparison with their attractiveness. It is not the book which treats of the most exalted subjects that is always surest to gratify us. It is the great merit of those books we honor with the name of classics, not that they are surest to tempt us in our leisure moments, but that if we are willing to make some effort, and attune ourselves to their level, we are on the whole more pleased, and more satisfactorily pleased, by them than by any cheaper devices. We ask not merely that we may lose ourselves in a book, but that when we find ourselves again we may have the consciousness that we have not been unworthily tricked into forgetfulness. The feeling of admiration is one of our rarest luxuries, and we are ashamed when we discover that we have squandered it. It is very like being awestricken by what we take to be mysterious, and learning afterwards that what we bowed down before was a mere trick of legerdemain. These cautions suggest themselves to us in regard to Victor Hugo. If cleverness, ingenuity, ease and skill in writing, and the power of fascination were ail that were needed, Victor Hugo, who possesses these, would be not only by far the greatest writer now living, but also one of the greatest who have ever lived. His success is and always has been something enormous. Even Scott — not in these critical, degenerate days, but before readers had begun to find out the unreality of his donjon-keeps and his other mediæval properties, and to decry his characters as dull — did not enjoy such wonderful popularity as has fallen to Victor Hugo’s lot. Of his new works, editions go off in a day, in an hour ; they are translated into all manner of strange tongues, and talked about with the most lavish praise. Certainly a man of whose writings this can be said differs from the common herd. He must have qualities which even men so warmly admired as Tourguéneff lack, for he has many thousand times the number of admirers that the Russian novelist possesses. What are the characteristics, then, of this wonderful man? What are the qualities surest to win success and popularity ?

In matters of morals and so-called intellectual discussion the public is very patient of even desperate prosing. The Proverbial Philosophy, well thumbed and marked, is still to be found, in nearly the three hundredth edition, on many a table, generally in comparative solitude. It so well reflects the vacant mind, it so dexterously avoids irritating the unpracticed reader by giving him food for thought, it so thoroughly embalms nothingness, that those who only care for blank mediocrity have regarded it as an inspired book, and its writer as a prophet. The Country Parson, too, now nearly forgotten, had only about ten years ago a similar, if less lasting, success. He mingled sprightliness with his mediocrity, in his personal revelations he appealed to the love of idle gossip which lies deep in human nature, and he became almost a great man. But when readers ask to be amused, they demand more. They do not rest satisfied with well-meaning dullness; they are anxious to have all the liveliness possible in their entertainments. Their principles grow lax; in short, they are much more orthodox in church than in the theatre. Since no one better pleases the public than Victor Hugo, an examination of what he has written will show, possibly, on what foundations his fame rests.

Victor Hugo was born in the year 1802. His father was one of Napoleon’s generals; his mother was from La Vendée, and in her girlhood she had wandered about the country with the Chouans. In the days of his boyhood all Europe was in arms, and young Hugo followed his father from one country to another for many years. At the age of nine he was sent to school at Madrid, where he acquired the knowledge and love of Spain so noticeable in some of his plays and poems. Afterwards he was placed in the Collége Louis le Grand. At this school he was compelled to study, among other things, the mathematics, which was very uncongenial to his poetical mind. While yet a lad he became distinguished by his precocious success in writing odes, by which, too, he won several prizes. These odes still have a place among his collected poems, and are very good in view of the age at which they were written. They are all tinged by very ardent love for royalism. In a preface written in the year 1853 he does not apologize for this political tendency, which he soon outgrew; on the contrary, and fairly enough, he counts it one more of his merits that, beginning as a royalist and an aristocrat, he was yet able to grow up into a democrat, at the sacrifice of worldly possessions and at the risk of losing home and life. In 1821, when he was nineteen years old, his odes were collected and published. They were cordially greeted by Chateaubriand, who was then the literary dictator and a warm royalist, who called Hugo a sublime child, and naturally enough, for the young poet was indeed full of promise. His merits, too, won for him a pension from the king, Louis XVIII.

It was not in verse alone that he was precocious. In 1823 appeared the first of his prose writings, a romance, Han d’Islande, which was followed in 1825 by another, Bug-Jargal. In these it is easier to recognize the familiar Victor Hugo than it is in his first poems. As for the stories, they are enormous absurdities; the plots are as wild as those of the maddest pantomimes, but without a trace of humor. A brief sketch of Han d’Islande may serve to show what the public is capable of swallowing when it consents to bow down submissively before the eccentricities of genius. Han was the worthy descendant of a monster of hoary antiquity, known as Ingulph the Exterminator. The family is most famous for its hatred of mankind except as articles of uncooked food. Han has already burned a cloister in which vain efforts had been made to civilize him, overthrown a rock which crushed all the inhabitants of a village on a holiday, burned a cathedral during divine service, etc., etc.: it is all as dreadful as a thunder-storm in a theatre. The hero, however, finds these joys pall upon him; he loses his son and surrenders himself to justice, after showing the ungenuineness of a person who pretended to be the original Han, by killing a man in the court-room and calling upon the pretender to drink of his blood, — a test which staggered the false one. In his speech on giving himself up, he says to the judges, “ I have committed more murders and set more fires than you have pronounced unjust judgments in all your lives. ... I would gladly drink the blood in your veins. It is my nature to hate men, my mission to harm them. Colonel, it is I who crushed a battalion of your regiment with fragments of rock. I was avenging my son. . . . Now, judges, my son is dead; I come here to seek death. . . I am tired of life, since it cannot be a lesson and an example to a successor. I have drunk enough blood, I am no longer thirsty ; now, here I am, you can drink mine.” Thereupon he indulges in blasphemy, and is soon, at his own request, condemned to death. He finds the ordinary processes of justice too tardy, however, and being naturally of an impetuous disposition he sets fire to his prison and perishes in the flames, with his few surviving enemies. This cold account does but feeble justice to the original; the descriptions of the hero, clawing and biting men, fighting victoriously with wolves, — no savage bard ever sang so brutal a story as this, one so devoid of anything except willfully bloodthirsty fancies. If this story were merely an outburst of boyish folly which the author had afterwards outgrown, it would be unfair to give it any prominence in a discussion of Hugo’s characteristics. But unfortunately we find in this novel the very same qualities which distinguish much of his subsequent work, as we shall presently show. He here made his first attempt to attract by what was merely horrible, and having made his odious idol with the teeth of a wolf, the glowing eyes of a tiger, the appetites of a cannibal, and the general appearance of a cannibal’s idol, he seems to forget that to himself is due the credit of inventing the monster, and he is the first to fall down and worship it. Slighter similarities to his later work may be observed; the epigrammatic antitheses of the conversation, the ardor of the descriptions, have now, although in more brilliant colors, become familiar to us all. It shows, too, another peculiarity of Hugo, namely, the slight claim he makes upon his reader’s imagination; he never gives it the least chance to spread its wings, he is beforehand with his inventions. This fact probably has something to do with his popularity, but it cannot wholly explain it.

What is then the reason of Hugo’s popularity? It is not every writer who will be read if he chooses dead-houses and dusky caverns for his stage, hangmen and hybrid demons for his dramatis personœ, murder and arson for his incidents, even if he rattles his thunder continuously and turns down his gas till it burns blue. There must be something more than an appeal to traits surviving from the habits of our man-eating ancestors, which has won Hugo readers. What more especially distinguishes him is the ingenuity with which he puts into the mouths of his characters not what is best said, much less what any human beings would be likely to say, but, rather, what is perhaps the brightest thing they could say, what most forcibly strikes the reader. It is easy to understand how naturally a man would be led, by such brilliancy as that of which Hugo feels himself the possessor, to ascribe undue value to his own unusual merits. Whatever he may have to express, he cannot help knowing that he expresses it well. He never stumbles, nor hesitates for a word, is never awkward, is never dull. If in the greatest genius there were not qualities which escaped definition, he would be one of the greatest of geniuses; as it is, he has all the gifts the fairies could give him, and he has never been troubled by distrust of himself. His many volumes of poems are good examples of his skill and often of his imagination. His lyrics are much admired by the French critics, who are doubtless the fairest judges of their merits, so hard is it for a foreigner to have an ear accurate enough to judge of the appropriate use of words, the choice of phrases, and in fact of all that mechanical part of verse-making which goes for so much in French poetry. With regard to his plays, however, it is possible for us to be fairer judges. We know what the power of these plays is, how in even the most diluted translations and with incompetent actors they have the power of making the spectator hold his breath, or grow pale in eager uncertainty over the fate of some brilliant character in great danger of losing his life. But it is another matter when we ask, Do these plays mirror life? Are they full of instruction? Do they give lofty delight? Do we read them over and over to learn how one more great man regards the joys and sufferings and passions of human life? Far from it: they are written for the few hours during which we sit in the theatre; they are meant to fascinate us by a clever plot which shall introduce all manner of stage machinery, the familiar stock characters, especially black - browed assassins, and by means of clever contrasts and brilliant antitheses cajole us into a feeling of surprise, which, if we are not careful, we are likely to mistake for admiration. Admiration of a certain sort it may be, of course. We are grateful to any one who is a real master of the art of amusing us; it would be unjust to wrap ourselves up in disdain immediately after being thrilled and fascinated by one of his plays, to say, He is not Shakespeare, and so pass him by with contempt. But when, on the other hand, it is claimed in his behalf, by himself as well as by others, that this is the true voice for which the world has long been waiting, that here we have the spirit of the nineteenth century, it is well that such important claims should be carefully weighed. And if, moreover, we are told that we should not condemn him, because all who have introduced reforms which were admired by later generations have been abused by their contemporaries, we need not give up at once and acknowledge ourselves beaten, because there is another general remark of equal truth, that not all reforms are wise or sure of the approbation of posterity. It is a frequent bane of argument that debate of matters so very wide of the mark is taken as satisfactory treatment of the question under discussion. Let us, then, take up one or two of the plays and examine them to find what underlies his dramatic success. To take Ruy Blas, which is perhaps the most familiar to us on this side of the water, seems so absurd as to be almost unfair. To undertake to show that this play, — its fantastic Don Salluste, who is so angry with the queen and so grim in his vengeance; the queen, so melancholy in her royalty; and its hero, who becomes prime minister by simply changing his clothes, — to undertake to show that this contains any picture of life as it exists anywhere, except on the stage of a theatre, seems an impossible thing. Such characters are not human beings; they are animated scenery. The play is not written to set forth the relations between different men and women, but these are introduced to give zest to the mechanism of the play. When Ruy Blas is at the height of his power, and has just received the queen’s confession of love, Don Salluste appears and prepares to take his revenge. Every one who has seen the play will recall the scene in which Don Salluste compels the prime minister, who is really his lackey, to close the window, and pick up his handkerchief, while trying to explain the condition of Spanish politics. As a dramatic situation this may endure comparison with that in a more recent play in which one of the characters is tied down upon the railway track and the train is heard rapidly approaching. The one case is quite as natural as the other. Ruy Blas has indeed the best chance; he could have Don Salluste imprisoned or put to death at a moment’s notice, but no, he meekly bows his head, and finally takes poison after having done his duty, which consisted in sacrificing the queen to Don Salluste’s desire for revenge. To make a list of all the impossibilities in the play would be idle; it nowhere comes near the ground of probability. The mirror is not held up to nature, but to the most ingenious inventions for making dramatic performances interesting. It is sheer melodrama, and to enjoy it we have to lay aside all criticism and devote ourselves merely to looking, as if we were watching rope-dancing, or the man who puts his head in the lion’s mouth, who does it, not, we may be sure, from any strong instinct of human nature, but in order to make our blood run cold. If we put the play in comparison with any of the acknowledged masterpieces of the world, it falls lamentably short, but if we put it where it belongs, among the melodramas, it certainly stands prominent. But the cleverness which goes to the making of a thrilling melodrama is to be distinguished from the qualities which go to the making of a great play, just as the combination of practice and boldness which enables a man to thrust his head between the wild beast’s jaws is to be distinguished from heroism or moral courage. The sight of one of these is ennobling, that of the other amusing.

Local and temporary circumstances contributed to the success of many of Hugo’s melodramas. Admiration of Hernani, at the time it was brought out, was made the test for those who were anxious to join the party of young men who protested against the classical pedantry which had so long held control of the French stage. The writer made himself the leader of the Romantic school in France, and if literature there had worn heavy chains before, it now was freed from any control. In the universal overthrow, what was monstrous and ugly had better chance of success than what was calm and beautiful. As Hugo stated it, in the long preface to his Cromwell, the era of the grotesque, had fairly come in. What is meant by the grotesque it is easy to judge, from the many examples of it to be found in his writings; easier in this way, perhaps, than from the vague general statements in his voluminous prefaces. Broad contrasts, antitheses, ingenious invention always taking the place of what is probable, and the horrible held up for our admiration, these are some of the qualities most noticeable in Victor Hugo. That he is vigorous in drawing his scenes no one can deny. In his plays he manages his stage-effects admirably; he keeps the threads of the drama in his hands, and only brings matters to a solution when that will be most impressive. He well knows how to please his audience. He never steps aside to show any complexities of character in his dramatis personæ, because they never have any; they are simply embodiments of some picturesque passion. They have the first merit of actors on the stage, however, in that they are entertaining. And they are clearly drawn — no more to be confounded together than the trees in the painted scenes are to be confounded with the chairs and tables. Every one is there for a specific purpose. While the plays deserve this praise, we should also be careful not to confuse our gratitude for the freeing of the French stage from its shackles with admiration of the methods employed. Perhaps the exaggeration of the reformers was unavoidable, in the face of the great task they set themselves, but what they did is certainly to be judged now merely on its own merits. There is no longer any fear of the revival of the dramatic unities; they have been slain too often already; and it is interesting to study the way in which they were driven out of France, now that the heat of combat is over, and we can decide more fairly. Victor Hugo complies with the first duty of a writer — he is interesting; but it would be as unwise to give him too much praise for that as, in view of the fact that the first duty of men is to be carefully washed, to lavish approbation on a man because he is clean. His neatness can never outweigh the absence of more essential qualities or the presence of gross faults. We judge of a man’s influence on his fellow-creatures by very different tests. There is not one of Hugo’s plays that is not marked by the errors noticed in Ruy Blas. Some of them were raised into undeserved prominence by the good luck of receiving the government censure. They immediately acquired all the sweetness of forbidden fruit, but they never for that reason came nearer to dramatic excellence. Giving an account of one is, for all purposes of criticism, giving an account of all. The one we have chosen for mention was written in 1838.

In 1831 appeared his Notre Dame de Paris, which by many is considered his masterpiece. It shows very clearly almost the same qualities as those which are to be found in the plays. It is a novel which any one will read with great interest the first time he takes it in his hands, but one to which he will return with less enthusiasm after he has once followed the different victims in their excursions to the gallows, and has feverishly turned over the leaves to find out whether this time the characters are actually going to suffer a violent death; but having once solved this problem, its repetition leaves him cold. What is most noticeable is the curious collection of mediæval properties the author has industriously accumulated. He puts before us the picture of Paris of the fifteenth century after a manner which is half pre-Raphaelitism and half scenepainting. To be sure, there is to be noticed, perhaps, the influence of the author’s romantic affection for the architecture of the cathedral, but there is no serious effort to show us human nature, the real heart of man, amid the surroundings the author draws. He regards the Middle Ages as the time when sudden disappearances, frequent executions, in a word, all the component parts of the picturesque life he has drawn, gave Opportunity for more thrilling incidents in his novel than could have been possible in a city with police and a generally monotonous civilization. The world was yet to learn how impressive a detective could become. The characters, too, are all painted in but one color each: the archdeacon is all fiery, unholy passion, Esmeralda is love for the captain’s uniform, the captain is frivolity, and Jehan Frollo is the Gavroche of his century; and when they talk they express either Victor Hugo’s epigrams, their prevailing passion, or some bit of archæology,

— never a bit of human nature. It is again a success in melodrama that the author has made, but it is interesting melodrama, with incidental bits of eloquence, and all so filled with enthusiasm that one is almost ashamed of being critical and irresponsive to the author’s fire. It requires some effort to resist the unholy fascination the book exercises. To doubt that the writer, when he leaves sober prose, is really one of the greatest poets, seems the coldest skepticism. Victor Hugo has no timid fears about his own merits, and the world is very apt to take a man for what he gives himself out to be. If his manner is confident and his voice loud, he is tolerably sure to have a large following of those who like to be saved the trouble of making up their minds on the evidence. Those who care most for brilliant coloring in literature will find themselves more nearly satisfied by this novel than by any we can recall: it is a swift succession of incidents, each one fully charged with vivid emotion; but every incident exists only for its picturesqueness; the author is merely striving to make a great impression. It is his being contented with this that makes him so unsatisfactory; he pleases once, perhaps, but another time his trick is learned, and he is judged according to a different test by our minds when cooler. Even Hugo’s versatility fails to provide eternal novelty; but he does all that man can do, and, although he refuses to comply with what he calls conventional laws, substitutes for them his own almost boundless invention. While in watching him we forget to judge him, his false position obliges him to call us aside to some new bit of cleverness before we are cool enough to see the shallowness of what last amused us. Before our ears have become accustomed to the unusual silence after hearing the busy speech of his characters, and before our eyes find anything but monotonous gray ness after his dazzling panoramas, we are again summoned to witness new feats.

His versatility in politics is quite as remarkable. He has been everything that he could be. As we have said, he began life as a royalist; afterwards he became a Jacobin; when he had been received into the Academy he became conservative; later, after 1848, he was a socialist, and how bitter an opponent he was of the late empire is well known, His hostility to Napoleon III. was the cause of his exile from France, and his new political and social views inspired the best known of his writings, his famous Les Misérables.

It would be hard to find a novel which takes a stronger hold upon the reader. Even Notre Dame de Paris, with all its picturesqueness, almost pales before the equal vividness of the pathos in Les Misérables. There is no mediocrity in it. The whole is distinctly conceived in the author’s mind, and it is set before the reader with uniform distinctness; there is not a dull tint, not an uncertain line in the whole book; even more than that, there is hardly a page which is devoid of thrilling interest. The success of the book was naturally enough something unprecedented: it was translated in advance into nine different languages, and offered for sale on the same day in Paris, London, Berlin, New York, St. Petersburg, Turin, and Madrid. Such popularity as this must be due to remarkable qualities, and these the book has. There is no need of telling the story again. It may be enough to say that Hugo remains true to his old fashion of mingling the horrible with what is beautiful, the tragic with the comic, and then giving us the combination as a true picture of life. From beginning to end the book is a direct appeal to the feelings. Nothing is hinted, everything is painted in the most striking colors. But what is the upshot of it all? We see the familiar monotonous characters, this time people of the present century, but as truly vehicles of a single passion as the illustrative dramatis personæ of Notre Dame de Paris. There is Javert, who makes even the detectives of modern realistic plays seem as awkward and clumsy as constables at a country fair in comparison with his omnipresence, ingenuity, perseverance, epigrammatic conversation, and unfailing power of crushing retort. There are the dissolute students posing for brilliancy as if they were forming themselves after the best models of French fiction. There is Jean Valjean, who, with his immense strength of body, energy, and kindness, is an encyclopædia of all the virtues. There is Gavroche, who if he had lived might have become in time a contributor to the Figaro. These are all, not people, but exalted human qualities, picturesquely draped, and carried through a dizzy succession of incidents in which all need of imagination on the part of the reader is supplied by the author’s unflagging invention, and all distrust silenced by his proud self - confidence. Take the pathetic story of Fantine, for instance, which forms but a fragment of the whole book; Hugo here takes the coldest reader deep into misery. He knows better than any writer of the time how to excite physical horror, and it is in general to his ability to excite sympathetical physical sensations that nine tenths of his success is due. In the case before us our blood runs cold at the description of the poor girl’s sufferings: she sells her hair for money, she sells her teeth, and finally herself, and it is perhaps as grim a picture as even Hugo has drawn, that is made of it all. He is as pitiless as fate or as a newspaper reporter; he spares us none of the tragedy. With Jean Valjean he proceeds in the same way: he describes the strong man caged, the gentle-hearted man buffeted by persecution; and we who read the story of his sufferings can no more help shivering at the horrors told us than we can hear a sudden shriek in the dark without alarm. It is really the reader, however, who should be pitied for the violence of his emotion; the writer is only glad, the victim of the story, indifferent, but the reader requires all sympathy. To understand other writers we have to be accustomed to distinguishing feelings that lie deeper than those Victor Hugo appeals to. George Eliot carries us into the discussion of the greater problems which are forever arising between duty and inclination; she lets the conscience, not a police - officer with an unflinching eye, strike the note of alarm; the questions in which we are interested are not how a man can get away from peril of his life with a whole skin, or how a certain man can get possession of a certain woman, but, rather, how a man may lead his life secure from those dangers he brings upon himself by the weakness of his nature. And the further one gets from the savage state the more important becomes the consideration of these questions, and of less value that of imaginary problems of what one would do if ten detectives were on his track and every outlet watched, or if even in the hands of highway-robbers. Yet there is no one who can be indifferent to such matters if his attention is called to them, and Hugo is so clever a writer that he does not fail to interest his readers, indeed almost every reader; but the means he employs never rise above this direct appeal to the simpler feelings. He is sure of a large audience; his bait tempts the multitude.

L’Homme qui rit and Les Travailleurs de la Mer, two of his later novels, have had less success, and deserve less mention. Hugo remains monotonous whatever be the new soil in which he is working. He brings down the green curtain after the loudest explosion of all, and in the last-named story, just as the ship conveying the happy bride and bridegroom disappears beneath the horizon, the head of the disconsolate rival, who had stationed himself on a rock of the sea-shore, is covered by the rising tide. It is by detecting such failures to be impressive as this that one may perhaps best learn to see the insincerity of his methods. In itself this coincidence is no absurder than many of those which are devised to lend brilliancy to his books, but it is more likely to cause a smile than many others. What makes the whole scene ridiculous is the total lack of connection between a woman’s refusing one man, accepting and marrying another, and the state of the tides. It is not a poetical effect, it is as purely a theatrical trick as the use of the trapdoor to cause sudden disappearances. Hugo utilizes the nineteenth century in this way, that he lets ingenious mechanism do the work formerly delegated to irresponsible fairies.

As to the eloquence and pathos which are alleged to compensate for what is false sentiment in Hugo, they are often as delusive as phrases well can be. He says, “ Paris is synonymous with Cosmos,” and his readers blush for shame at the thought of their modest native village. With his flow of words he confounds his hearers, and then he wins their suffrages; he knows no world but the one he is at the time creating, and his frenzy carries all away, for a time at least. When cooler, they find questions still unsettled, emotions untouched, and they are conscious of a sort of shame at the thought of the real value of what so moved them. When he becomes pathetic, it is with the same energy that inspires him to assume and call forth any other emotion. The often quoted scene in Quatre-vingttreize is a favorite example of his power in this direction. After describing scenes of carnage he pauses for a moment, wipes his brow, and in direct contrast to the tumultuous excitement with which he has been delighting his readers, sets the scene in which the children appear. He suddenly roars as gently as a sucking dove. It is very possible to feel that the tenderness he shows is as much assumed as the violence which has preceded it. When we know that a writer considers contrast a most valuable method, it is impossible to believe that the quiet scenes following noisy ones have their origin in genuine love of tenderness.

This brings us back to where we began, to the statement that Victor Hugo’s qualities are those which enable him to be impressive for the time, but which do not command lasting admiration. He can draw an almost irresistible picture of some emotion, he can make a sensation, but having accomplished that one end, he rests contented for the time, and when he turns to anything new it is to perform the same tricks with different material. In short, in novels as in plays he is a perfect master of melodrama; he puts all his wonderful talent to but one purpose, and he makes a more taking show than any one else can, but there he stops. If emotion were all that is to be asked in life, and rather crude, physical emotion at that, criticism would be idle and there would be nothing to do but to give assent to all that Hugo’s admirers claim for him. But there is something more which we have the right to claim of genius: that it should teach us not merely to thrill and shiver, but to know the heart of man; that it should regard life not as a combination of startling incidents, but as a problem in which thrilling scenes and dangers play but a small part. This Victor Hugo has not done; even now that he has been before the world for more than fifty years, he looks on life as might an inexperienced youth of twenty; all that he has seen he has taken for nothing but new setting for his old methods, and he remains at present the much - adored and brilliant trifler that he was at the beginning.

T. S. Perry.