Victor Marie Hugo

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Hugo, Victor Marie


Born Feb. 26, 1802, in Besançon; died May 22, 1885, in Paris. French writer. Leader and theoretician of French democratic romanticism.

Hugo was born into the family of one of Napoleon’s generals. His royalist mother attempted to implant her political views in her son, and this had an effect on his early creative work: in Hugo’s first collection Odes and Miscellaneous Poems (1822), which is marked by the influence of F. R. Chateaubriand, the Bourbon dynasty is glorified. The novels of Hugo’s youth were also imbued with monarchist tendencies, which coexisted in a contradictory manner with the author’s democratic sympathies. A new period began for Hugo in the second half of the 1820’s with the approach of the Revolution of 1830. He drew nearer to the liberal-democratic opposition, and he declared war on epigonic classicism, which was enjoying the official protection of the Restoration. In his poems of 1825–28 (which were included in the collection Les Orientales, 1829), Hugo turned to the theme of the East; he was attracted not only by picturesque exoticism, beloved by romantics, but also by sympathy for the national liberation struggle of the Greeks against the Turkish yoke. New, progressive content required a new, free form. Having abandoned classical alexandrine verse, Hugo created flexible rhythms and complex rhymes, and he introduced everyday common speech into poetry.

Hugo’s preface to his drama Cromwell (1827), the hero of which was the outstanding leader of the English bourgeois revolution of the 17th century, became an aesthetic manifesto for the democratically minded romantics. To the dogmas of classicism and the tyranny of “rules” Hugo contrasted the complete freedom of dramatic creativity. He rejected the traditional “unities,” as well as the moribund rules for the strict distinction between genres, and he called for the introduction into the sphere of art of the comic element equally with the tragic, the ugly with the beautiful, and the mean with the exalted. The theory of the grotesque, which Hugo developed, in spite of its metaphysical character, expressed the attempt to embody life in art more fully than the classical school of the 17th and 18th centuries had allowed. The staging of the drama Hernani (1829) in February 1830, on the eve of the revolution, served as a signal for the “battle between the romantics and the classicists,” which ended with the victory of the new school. The figure of Hernani, a noble bandit who had been declared an outlaw and who enters into single combat with the king, was understood as a living embodiment of insurgent ideas. Hugo’s dramas Marion de Lorme (1829), The King Amuses Himself (mi), Marie Tudor (1833), and Ruy Blas (1838) were also imbued with the spirit of a love of freedom.

Hugo’s first significant novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), re-created the life of 15th-century Paris. Created under the influence of the July Revolution, this work was permeated with an anticlerical tendency, which was new for Hugo. The gloomy image of the cathedral functions in the novel as a symbol of Catholicism, which has oppressed man for ages. Hugo’s democratic sympathies are again manifested in that he finds lofty moral qualities only in the lower classes of medieval society—in the street dancer Esmeralda and the bell-ringer Quasimodo.

During the 1830’s the following collections of Hugo’s lyric poems appeared: Autumn Leaves (1831), Songs of the Twilight (1835), Inner Voice (1837), and Rays and Shadows (1840). In the short story “Claude Gueux” (1834) Hugo spoke out against capital punishment. But Hugo was inconsistent. The temporary decline of the revolutionary movement led him during the 1840’s to a reconciliation with the July Monarchy. Hugo’s contradictory position on social problems was accompanied by a creative crisis. The drama Les Burgraves, published in 1843, was unsuccessful.

The bourgeois-democratic Revolution of 1848 brought Hugo out of his ideological impasse. He joined the ranks of the Republic’s defenders. In the press and from the rostrum of the National Assembly, Hugo exposed Louis Bonaparte, who after the counterrevolutionary coup of 1851 was proclaimed (1852) Emperor Napoleon III. Forced to leave France, Hugo moved to Brussels; later he settled on British islands in the English Channel (Jersey—beginning in 1852, and Guernsey—from 1855). In 1852 Hugo wrote a book entitled History of a Crime (vols. 1–2, published 1877–78) and the political pamphlet Napoléon-le-Petit. The collection of political peoms entitled Punishment (1853), which stigmatized Napoleon III and his clique, became a model for civic lyrics and subsequently had an influence on the Paris Communards.

In the novel Les Misérables (1862) Hugo depicted the life of various strata of French society. In narrating the lot of an unemployed man who is sentenced to penal servitude for stealing a loaf of bread and that of a seamstress who is forced to sell herself in order to save her child, Hugo demonstrated that crimes and poverty are inevitable products of capitalism. Along with the growth of antibourgeois feeling in Hugo, a sentimental-philanthropic ideal took shape, which had begun to form as early as the 1830’s under the influence of Utopian socialism. However, the Utopian preaching about reconciliation among classes was contradicted by the novel’s best pages, which were imbued with the spirit of revolution. Truthful scenes of the life and suffering of the people were indicative of the realistic stream in Hugo’s creative art. At the center of the novel The Toilers of the Sea (1866) is man’s struggle against the elements of nature. In the novel The Man Who Laughs (1869), Hugo described life in England at the turn of the 18th century, unmasking the tyranny of the monarchy and the cruelty of the aristocracy. The principal compositional devices—romantic antithesis and the grotesque—served Hugo as a means of contrasting the egoism of the aristocracy with the moral purity of characters drawn from the common people.

Hugo returned to his native land in 1870 after the deposition of Napoleon III. He responded to the events of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and the Paris Commune of 1871 in his collection of poems entitled The Terrible Year (1872). In his novel Ninety-three (1874), Hugo re-created a picture of the struggle of the Jacobin Republic against the Vendée insurrection, and he sympathetically depicted the characters of the leaders of the revolution. Of interest among his late works is the poetic collection The Art of Being a Grandfather (1877). In 1883 there appeared the third series of Legends of the Ages (first series, 1859; second series, 1877), a lyrical epic collection of historical traditions and legends, reviving biblical, ancient, and medieval characters.

In 19th-century Russia, progressive writers (including A. I. Herzen, N. G. Chernyshevskii, and M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin) highly valued the social content of Hugo’s works and his love for the people, although they did condemn his Utopian illusions. Hugo was one of L. N. Tolstoy’s favorite writers.


Oeuvres complètes, vols. 1–48. Paris, 1904–38.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–15. Moscow, 1953–56.
Izbr. proizv., vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1952.


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Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 2. Moscow, 1956.
Lafargue, P. “Legenda o V. Giugo.” In his collection Literaturnokriticheskie stat’i. Moscow, 1936.
Lunacharskii, A. V. V. Giugo: Tvorcheskiiput’ pisatelia. Moscow, 1931.
Nikolaev, V. N. V. Giugo: Kritiko-biograficheskii ocherk, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1955.
Reizov. B. G. “Giugo.” In his book Frantsuzskii istoricheskii roman v epokhu romantizma. Leningrad, 1958.
Rolland, R. “Staryi Orfei.” Sobr. soch., vol. 14. Moscow, 1958.
Sergent, J. Risunki V. Giugo. [Moscow, 1970.] (Abridged translation from French.)
Treskunov, M. S. V. Giugo: Ocherk tvorchestva, 2nd enlarged ed. Moscow, 1961.
Treskunov, M. S. V. Giugo. Leningrad, 1969.
Audiat, P. Ainsi vécu V. Hugo. Paris, 1947.
Cachin, M. “V. Hugo de 1848 á 1851.” La Pensée, 1952, no. 41.
Escholier, R. V. Hugo, cet inconnu. Paris, 1951.
Foucher, P. Souvenirs. Paris, 1959.
Maurois, A. Olympio ou la vie de V. Hugo. Paris, 1954.
Perche, L. V. Hugo. Paris, 1952.
V. Hugo. [By J. de Lacretelle, A. Maurois, H. Guillemin, et al. Paris, 1967.]


Bruk, E. F., and A. V. Paevskaia. V. Giugo, 1802–1885: Pamiatkachitateliu. Moscow, 1952.
Morshchiner, M. S., and N. I. Pozharskii. Bibliografiía russkikh perevodov proizvedenii V. Giugo. Moscow, 1953.
Dubois, P. Biobibliographie de V. Hugo de 1802 à 1825. Paris, 1913.
Rudwin, M. Bibliographie de V. Hugo. Paris, 1926.
Sergent. J., and M. Dubois. Catalogue de l’exposition Hugo (V.): Maturité de V. Hugo (1828–1848). Ville de Paris. Maison de Victor Hugo. May-July, 1953.
Van Tieghem, P. Dictionnaire de V. Hugo. Paris [1970].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.