Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

Victor Hugo was born in 1802 in Besançon, France. His father was a general in Napoléon’s army, and much of his childhood was therefore spent amid the backdrop of Napoléon’s campaigns in Spain and in Italy. At the age of eleven, Hugo returned to live with his mother in Paris, where he became infatuated with books and literature. By the time he was fifteen, he had already submitted one poem to a contest sponsored by the prestigious French Academy.

Hugo wrote prolifically in all genres, but his plays proved to be his earliest critical and commercial successes. France’s 1830 July Revolution opened Hugo’s creative floodgates, and he began producing a steady stream of work, most notably the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831). Hugo also began to cultivate his interest in politics and was elected to France’s National Assembly after the revolution of 1848. As Hugo grew older, his politics became increasingly leftist, and he was forced to flee France in 1851 because of his opposition to the monarch Louis Napoléon. While in exile in 1862, Hugo wrote his famous novel Les Misérables. He remained in exile until 1870, when he returned to his home country as a national hero. Hugo continued to write until his death in 1885. He was buried with every conceivable honor in one of the grandest funerals in French history.

Hugo remains one of the most popular and respected authors in French literature. His writings were cultural fixtures throughout the 19th century, and he quickly emerged as one of the leaders of the Romantic Movement in literature. Hugo also developed his own brand of imaginative realism, a literary style that combines realistic elements with exaggerated symbolism. In this style, each character represents a significant social issue of the time. Indeed, political concerns dominate much of Hugo’s writing, and he used his work to champion causes such as universal suffrage and free education. Hugo believed that the modern writer had a mission to defend the less fortunate members of society. Though he often drew criticism for his politics, his passion for documenting injustice ultimately led to widespread praise for both his literary and social achievements.

Background on The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Written during the July 1830 Revolution, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was profoundly affected by the historical and political trends of the early nineteenth century. Victor Hugo was born at the beginning of the Napoleonic Empire in 1802 and began writing under the Restoration monarchy before becoming one of the most ardent supporters of the French Republic. After the 1789 French Revolution, French society was split into two parts: those who opposed the Republic and those who supported it. From the early days of his youth, Hugo identified with the themes of social and political equality that characterized the legacy of the French Revolution. Moreover, his father was a general in Napoleon's army and, as a result, Hugo was never a strong supporter of the monarchy that began in 1815 after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

In July 1830, a new revolution occurred in Paris. The Bourbon family was deposed by the more liberal Orléans family, which supported a constitutional monarchy. Although Hugo did not think the revolution went far enough (he favored a republic), he celebrated the resurgence of the ideas of political liberty, democracy and universal suffrage that dated back to 1789. Hugo thus incorporated the political legacy of the these two revolutions into The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but was also inspired by the artistic and cultural representation of these social upheavals. For example, the political cartoons of Honoré Daumier and the paintings of Eugène Delacroix both made republicanism an aesthetic subject and focused on the city of Paris as a center of revolutionary ésprit. In Delacroix's famous depiction of the 1830 Revolution, Liberty Guiding the People, the two towers of Notre Dame can be seen in the background, evoking the mythic presence of Paris as a symbol of revolutionary fervor. Hugo greatly admired this painting, striving to represent Notre Dame as the cultural and political center of Paris.

Paris itself plays a major role in the novel. Hugo presents Paris as a place that can all be seen from the towers of Notre Dame, reaffirming its place as the center of Paris. The cathedral comes to represent Paris's "Gothic heart," and remind readers of its resplendent past. Even though most of this past has been swept away, Hugo compares the city to a living creature, "talking," "singing," "breathing," and "growing" everyday. He argues that Paris is on the verge of a major change that will forever erase its Gothic past. By evoking the Cité, the Ville, and the Université divisions of the fifteenth century, Hugo presents the reader with a version of Paris that might soon disappear. Indeed, within twenty years of the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Napoleon III and Baron von Haussmann began a massive rebuilding program throughout most of the city, tearing down old quarters and widening streets into boulevards. Artists who had embraced Hugo's movement to safeguard the past were horrified, while Hugo himself moved into self-imposed exile.

Finally, The Hunchback of Notre Dame must be examined in its literary context. Hugo was a pioneer of the Romantic movement, which stressed the individual experience of imagination and emotions. Romanticism was predominantly a reaction against classicism, which found its subjects in Greek and Roman antiquity. For example, the great seventeenth and eighteenth French playwrights Racine and Corneille used Roman and Greek stories for their plays. Romantics stayed away from themes dealing with the past as much as possible. But Hugo broke the mold, boldly suggesting that Romantic themes could be extracted from the recent past of France. One of his major goals in The Hunchback of Notre Dame was to prove that French history offered a rich variety of subjects to represent Romantic ideals and themes.

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