I didn’t realize Victor Hugo was buried in the Panthéon when I walked by the magnificent building in Paris, which is strange for me because I’m absolutely obsessed with that city and have been trying to learn everything about it since I got back from my study abroad. His impact on literature is immeasurable and was often thought of as radical.
To really understand the impact this man had, we need to first understand the way the French monarchy royally sucked. Death and disease in the 1830s, when Hugo first gained prominence, were rampant through the streets. Similar to today, people were incredibly politically divided. Having an opposing political opinion with someone (say, believing the monarchy was the best system of government), could very well have been a death sentence. So you can imagine how tense it was in Hugo’s household, with one parent being for the monarchy and one supporting the revolution. Hugo's political beliefs were not so subtle throughout his writing. His most famous work was, without a doubt, Les Misérables. However, considering it took that man nearly 20 years to write it, it would take another 20 just to break it all down. So to save us from turning grey, I’ll break down the basics of how death and politics are interwoven in all his works.
There would not be Les Misérables without Nôtre-Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Anyone familiar with the Disney retelling knows that Hunchback is the story of what it means to be a monster and how far corruption can drive people. In literature, the traits that normally constitute a tragedy are: noble birth, excessive pride, tragic flaw, reversal, self-realization, excessive suffering causing catharsis. Hunchback is a relatable tragedy today not because it follows the literary definition from hundreds of years ago, but because the anger that protagonist Quasimodo felt shows that governments today are still corrupt and racist.
From the beginning of this novel, we can tell this is a critique of the French government. The Révolution de Juillet, aka the July Revolution of 1830 (one year before Hunchback was published), was decades after the main French Revolution that you probably talked about in history class, but this battle was significant enough that it’s called The Second Revolution. The July Revolution was a bloody battle taking place over a short period of time. This revolution was full of military violence against civilians who could only build barricades in hopes of defending themselves while simultaneously starving for a single loaf of bread. Wait a minute, doesn’t this sound familiar? If you’ve seen or read Les Misérables, it certainly should. But more on that later.
When Hugo wrote Hunchback, he was basically sticking his middle finger to the French monarchy. The novel shows that when you live in a corrupt society, how people perceive you can often matter more than who you are yourself. Systemic discrimination was enforced by the monarchy throughout Hunchback: if you looked like a little different, came from a different country, or believed in a different religion, you were discriminated against. Even if you didn’t check any of these boxes, if you were perceived as different, it was basically a death sentence. Hugo loathed the systems that were in place, and we can only imagine how angry he was, sitting a second revolution outside his window.
What feels the most tragic about this story is that there is no happy ending. The life of Quasimodo, one single social reject, cannot change the system that has been in place for hundreds of years. How many times have we seen this in our own history? Not just in France, where decades of revolutions often hurt civilians more than the society they fought against, but everywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine how many millions feel hopeless and destroyed because they were born into a society that says their life doesn’t matter.
French civilians loved Hunchback. Hugo describes the scenery and cathedrals in the novel so beautifully that you could almost forget that architecture was being destroyed everywhere in the revolutions. If you’ve ever seen a physical copy of Les Misérables, you know this guy had a lot to say. After the success of Hunchback, people wanted more of Hugo’s criticisms. He wrote tons of plays, short stories, and poems in the years that followed — many of which were censored or banned. Knowing this man’s political history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hugo refused to accept the coup d’état from Napoleon III. The idea of a self-proclaimed military emperor of France ruling as an authoritarian monarch didn’t exactly vibe well with our dear Victor Hugo. And of course, Napoleon III took this rejection personally.
In 1851, Hugo was exiled to Brussels. And the funny thing about spending basically your whole life hating the government is that if that same government forces you to live isolated in exile, you continue being angry. When Hugo’s exile officially ended in 1859, he basically told Napoleon III to go screw himself, essentially declaring that he won’t step foot in France until Napoleon III is gone. And true to his word, Hugo didn’t come back from his exile until 1870, when Napoleon III was removed from power and the French monarchy was finally over.
If you took notice that Hugo wrote Les Misérables over the course of nearly 20 years and he was also in exile for almost 20 years, excellent observation. Between writing chapters for this refrigerator-sized book, Hugo wrote many satirical and insulting essays about Napoleon III. And again, this book is literally too long to be summarized in a single blog post, so I’ll save you the trouble. But here’s the deal: the Second Revolution was one of the major revolutions which Hugo lived through. It changed the French government, though not necessarily for the better. The major battle in Les Misérables, which seems to the untrained eye like it actually is a depiction of the French Revolution, it’s actually not. It’s not even the Second Revolution, (the July Revolution). Though very similar, it’s actually the June Revolution, which takes place two years (1832) after the Second Revolution: one year after Hunchback was released — this distinction matters because the country was essentially losing their minds. Remember how I said earlier that the French people were obsessed with Hunchback? It’s a safe assumption to say that Hugo used the government corruption he saw in 1830 as inspiration for Hunchback in 1831, which people then used as a blueprint to revolt again 1832: a revolt which they lost, but Hugo would still be inspired by this one battle when writing in 1852 when beginning Les Misérables. In the book, that revolution fails too, he didn’t rewrite history. But maybe that’s the whole point: it doesn’t matter if you’re losing a battle, you have to at least try to stand up when you see an injustice.
So where does this leave us? I guess it shows that history is cyclical and tragedy is imminent. But also, it blows my mind that a lot of Hugo’s writing (at least from what I’ve noticed) draws on the theme that how someone is perceived in society can matter more than who they are, it can be something that spirals out of control — people deciding who you are can potentially ruin your life. And maybe that’s kind of true. I think often about my privileges as a cisgender LGBTQ+ woman in a relationship with a man. Certainly walking down the streets with him grants me more privileges than it does if I was with a woman. I’m bisexual no matter who I’m dating, but when society views me as straight, it grants me a certain level of protection — regardless of whether or not I want it. But more importantly, I think Victor Hugo’s writing tells us that there’s no guarantee that one person can change the world, but damn, it’s certainly worth trying.
is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. When she isn't writing, she's reading and working on her bullet journal. You can read more of her work at ashaswann.com