IntroductionEver since its publication in 1862, Les Miserable has remained one of the most widely read novels in the world, achieving special pre-eminence during the twentieth century in the countries of the Soviet bloc. Indeed, its appearance was a unique phenomenon in the history of publishing, “by the scope of [its success] among the elite as well as the people, national as well as international, with general readers as well as critics” (Terence, 1988). In addition, dozens of film versions–from France, the United States, Italy, Egypt, India, Japan, and the Soviet Union–have perpetuated the legendary quality of the book.
This reputation is unlikely to diminish in the near future, thanks to the renewed fame–and fortune–of Les Miserable as a musical presentation in the Western world and the Orient.Perhaps more than any other work of literature, Victor Hugo’s novel has flourished as part of our international consciousness.Given this acclaim, the dearth of criticism on Les Miserable is surprising. The relative paucity of scholarship testifies to the difficulties involved in examining it closely or comprehensively.
In the first place, the sheer length of the novel–between 1200 and 1500 pages in most editions –and its place in an enormously productive career render textual exegesis and intertextual interpretation equally daunting. Not unexpectedly, nineteenth century luminaries like Flaubert and Baudelaire, who wrote far less, have attracted more critical attention.Moreover, the work itself defies any reductionist approach. As Vernier says, “If Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary ‘with hatred for all forms of realism,’ the book nevertheless continues to serve as the ‘Bible’ of realism.
But no one has ever been able or even dared to classify Les Miserable, so great is its resistance to any enclosure” (Terence, 1988). While many have seen a prime example of the author’s so-called antithetical imagination in Jean Valjean’s heroic struggle between good and evil or in his conflict with the policeman Javert, the novel defies such easy categorization. Antithesis may be the “organizing feature of Hugo’s poetry” ((Richard, 1970)), but the novel invariably deconstructs such oppositions. In so doing, this “total work, poem-drama-novelepic” also appears to escape the limits of any single genre (Richard, 1970).
Vernier even argues that “books such as this” (as Hugo refers to the novel in his famous preface) do not really exist, that Les Miserable is a wholly unique composition, a fatras or “hodgepodge” corresponding to no known genre(s) or rules of rhetorical organization. The “spectacular contrast between so famous a book and such ineffectual criticism” suggests that its very accessibility to every manner of reader makes the novel impossible to grasp from any one approach. It is, in every sense, an all-embracing work, one that systematically opposes all forms of exclusivity (Richard, 1970).Before turning thirty-one, he had published four novels– Han d’Islande (1823), Bug-Jargal (1826), Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829), and Notre-Dame de Paris (1831)–as well as drafted a first version of the short narrative Claude Gueux (1834).
Another thirty years passed before the appearance of a second quartet– Les Miserable (1862), Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866), L’Homme qui rit (1869), and Quatrevingt-treize (1874). While critics have focused on the causes of this lengthy hiatus, few have discussed the relationship between the two series. In fact, only two major studies of all the novels have appeared in the past three decades– Richard B. Grant the Perilous Quest: Myth and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo (1968) and Victor Brombert Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel (1984).
In debating the degree to which the earlier and later fiction share affinities, some scholars have pointed to Claude Gueux as a prelude to the vast social commentary envisioned for Les Miseres, a work begun in September 1845, interrupted in February 1848, and completed in exile as Les Miserable. Others see little resemblance between the two sets of novels, except for Hugo’s abiding interest in unconventional heroes with tragic destinies (Terence, 1988).As an interpretive, mediating voice at the centre of the universe, the poet both affirms his identity and resolves the tensions between self and others. Through such self-expression, his art is indissolubly bound up with broader social concerns.
An examination of historical, utopian, and romantic discourse in Les Miserable indicates that, many years later, Hugo was still elaborating a definition and practice of the sublime. As his most complete meditation on the subject, Les Miserable illustrates both continuity and discontinuity with the early novels.The abyss identified with death and destruction in Bug-Jargal and Notre-Dame de Paris is now incorporated into Hugo’s mature vision of the sublime. To speak the void is to transcend it.
Nothingness corresponds, paradoxically, to a “fabulous will to grasp and to reveal what is imperceptible” (Northrop, 1957). Whether through revolution, oxymora, or apocalyptic vision, disharmony becomes an essential component of Hugo aesthetics. Though Les Miserable may appear to be a chaotic, disjointed, multidimensional hodgepodge, it is in fact much more deeply ordered than it seems. Through intricate verbal patterns, Hugo orchestrates a vision of the sublime.
Indeed, the impact of Les Miserable cannot be wholly explained either by its mythic story line or its aspiration toward inclusivity, that is, by aspects evident in an initial, primarily linear reading. Besides unfolding in conventional narrative time, the book envelops the reader in a web of repeating motifs that interweave plot, characters, imagery, and digressions. This pervasive but largely subliminal system may help to account for the book’s vivid, often indelible, effect on the reader, and hence its popular appeal. More important, the novel invites a recursive, poetic, metaphorical reading, and one that explores the hidden connections beyond apparent gaps, differences, and antitheses.
A “poetics of transcendence”–the notion of transcending a void or absence–thus shapes not only Hugo’s concept of the sublime but the text itself (Northrop, 1957). Even the powerful opening points toward the nothingness from which such fiction springs–and toward which it may be headed. From the outset, the reader of Les Miserable is plunged into a complex meditation on past and future, historical fact and visionary power, dystopia and utopia.A careful reading of Les Miserable would greatly enhance our understanding of this multifaceted work and its relationship to the earlier novels.
Beginning with Les Contemplations (1856), Albouy asserts, Hugo poetry reveals a new aesthetic, a “poétique de la transcendance”. In this poetics, the many voices with which the poet once spoke now contain an “abyss in the centre”–the presence of death introduced by his daughter Leopoldine’s premature disappearance in 1843: “whereas, before exile, the voices poured out through the cracks in the self, which they sealed in the process…
, now, in exile, the voice not only bursts from the rupture, but also preserves the rupture, is itself a rupture” (Samuel, 1961). Put more simply, the poet’s cosmic voice no longer seeks to ensure harmonious unity but to insist on and perpetuate the disjunctions from which it arises. These include not just the gap produced by Leopoldine’s death. Rather, the child’s tragic end recapitulates a whole series of “holes” in the author’s existence–both personal and political–since the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris: the death of his demented brother Eugene in 1837; the failure of Les Burgraves, and so of romantic theatre in general, in 1843; his arrest for adultery in 1845, soon after his elevation to the peerage; the derailed Revolution of 1848; and his flight into exile in 1851 with the advent of Napoleon III.
The abyss identified with death and destruction in Bug-Jargal and Notre-Dame de Paris is now incorporated into Hugo’s mature vision of the sublime. To speak the void is to transcend it. Nothingness corresponds, paradoxically, to a “fabulous will to grasp and to reveal what is imperceptible”(Samuel, 1961). Whether through revolution, oxymora, or apocalyptic vision, disharmony becomes an essential component of Hugo aesthetics.
Though Les Miserable may appear to be a chaotic, disjointed, multidimensional hodgepodge, it is in fact much more deeply ordered than it seems. Through intricate verbal patterns, Hugo orchestrates a vision of the sublime.Indeed, the impact of Les Miserable cannot be wholly explained either by its mythic story line or its aspiration toward inclusivity, that is, by aspects evident in an initial, primarily linear reading. Besides unfolding in conventional narrative time, the book envelops the reader in a web of repeating motifs that interweave plot, characters, imagery, and digressions.
This pervasive but largely subliminal system may help to account for the book’s vivid, often indelible, effect on the reader, and hence its popular appeal. More important, the novel invites a recursive, poetic, metaphorical reading, and one that explores the hidden connections beyond apparent gaps, differences, and antitheses (Harold, 1973).A “poetics of transcendence”–the notion of transcending a void or absence–thus shapes not only Hugo’s concept of the sublime but the text itself. Even the powerful opening points toward the nothingness from which such fiction springs–and toward which it may be headed.
From the outset, the reader of Les Miserable is plunged into a complex meditation on past and future, historical fact and visionary power, dystopia and utopia.The concern in Les Miserable with artistic metastructures is, we have observed, accompanied by distinctly political overtones. Whereas anarchy and monarchic despotism appear, respectively, as the counterparts of hack literature and neoclassicism, romanticism finds its parallel in the all embracing republican barricade. Poetic imagination and social vision are, for Hugo, two sides of the same creative impulse.
His many reflections, both implicit and explicit, on social and political history should therefore help to elucidate his view of French romanticism (Harold, 1973). In representing the supremely harmonious political state, the republican dream of utopia should also point toward the aesthetic sublime.In pursuing his notion of the romantic ideal, Hugo offers many meditations on utopian thought. First, he connects the saintly and essentially non-partisan Jean Valjean with a wide array of political forces, despite the failure of his social experiment in Montreuil-sur-mer.
This thematique contributes in turn to a far-reaching discussion of history, revolution, and progress, where the author examines various utopian positions, both in his own voice and through those of his socially committed characters. The thread of this meditation runs through the book’s major digressions, enriching its aesthetic argument as well. The correspondences between fiction and reality, story and history, explored in Han d’Islande, BugJargal, and Notre-Dame de Paris are further elaborated in Les Miserable (Jay, 1987).In his discussions of the ideal state, Hugo establishes intricate correspondences between the novel and the outside world.
But he also connects diverse elements of the text itself, not only through recurrent themes that permeate both story and digressions but also, at a more local level, through recurrent images that assume the role of obsessive motifs. The overlapping motifs, endlessly recycled, contribute to the impression of a huge symphonic structure. Even minor passages thus acquire heightened significance when examined in the context of the entire novel. This carefully orchestrated array of master tropes binds the work together in often unexpected ways.
Critics have, of course, often pointed to Hugo’s recurring opposition between darkness and light. What has not been analyzed, though, is his meticulous attention to patterns that undermine such simple dualities. ConclusionIt could be said that there is something for everyone in Les Miserable, Hugo aiming in his vast literary mélange to embrace all of reality, including what does not yet exist, by speaking it. In authoring an entire universe parallel to creation, he would indeed rival God not merely in power but in the supreme expression of power, generosity.
The Father Christmas of the Word would give (a) voice to everyone. Such an extraordinary ambition might have easily yielded yet another shapeless, sprawling tale in a century replete with fictional verbiage. Written otherwise, Hugo’s narrative would have ended, with the unsung heroes of failed revolution, on the garbage heap of history.Despite his ambitions for Les Miserable, Hugo might well be astonished by its widespread recognition today.
Ironically, it is the stage version–translated into the local idiom, both linguistic and cultural–that has once more renewed its status as a worldwide phenomenon (Samuel, 1961). This artistic resurrection, following a fifty-year cinematographic career, indicates that the adaptability of the novel to other media is closely related to its generic mixture. One might also maintain that its successful transposition into a musical presentation derives somewhat less from Hugo’s celebrated visual imagination than from the operatic quality of the text itself, which intertwines lyrical, dramatic, and narrative elements.To suggest the incoherence of Hugo’s work through its lapses, omissions, and inconsistencies would be simple.
To demonstrate that such discontinuities–like chaos or evil in the divine creation–contribute to an even richer coherence has required close scrutiny of the entire textual fabric. The recurrence and metamorpho- is of core motifs, the mark of Hugo’s poetry, characterize his poetic novel as well. As the confluence of narrative and lyrical discourses, Les Miserable presents a paradigm for studying the master tropes that shape other post-Revolutionary fiction, including his own. Besides serving as a key to Hugo’s other novels, the text offers a schema for analyzing the interplay of competing discourses in works by his contemporaries, and perhaps by twentieth-century writers as well (Richard, 1970).
In Hugo’s case, the correspondences between Les Miserable and the early fiction–where patterns of substitution and contiguity, metaphor and metonymy, are likewise interwoven–enable us to gauge his development. If the elements of his imaginative universe appear constant, we have seen that they undergo radical reassembly during his maturity. The search for harmony, for resolution, becomes an open-ended process, a series of transitions into ever higher realms of consonance, with no a priori point of arrival. Balance gives way to risk, and risk to leaps of faith.
He, whose future has died, both with his child and the Second Republic, is a novelist of a different order. Having confronted a tyrant in Les Châtiments and probed the heights and depths of visionary experience in Les Contemplations, Hugo boldly recasts the narrative genre. The equilibrium of sublime and grotesque impulses in Notre-Dame de Paris seems remarkably tame compared with the exploration of their limits in Les Miserable.Significantly, in Notre-Dame de Paris the two impulses intersect in the Gothic cathedral, the middle of both city and novel.
In Les Misvrables, they converge at the margins, the fringes–in gardens, graveyards, suburbs, sewers, outcasts, and barricades. Extremes meet, but not in the centre. Sublime and grotesque, poetry and prose, intermingle and heighten each other, sometimes most strikingly in the digressions. The force that spins the gypsy’s tale is centripetal: la Esmeralda ends by collapsing into the spider’s web.
The force that impels the later works is centrifugal: the web weaves onward and outward, from book to book, from poetry to narrative and back again, an infinitely expanding universe.Moving from the dramatic novels of his youth to the poetic novels of his maturity, Hugo exchanges antithetical confrontation for a meditation on the interrelatedness of being. The elaboration of this metaphorical system in Les Miserable provides a means for reassessing not only Les Travailleurs de la mer, L’Homme qui rit, and Quatrevingt-treize but also the fiction of such poet-novelists as Vigny, Musset, Gautier, Nerval, and Breton. One might also include the works of distinctively lyrical novelists like Chateaubriand, Zola, Proust, Colette, Duras, and Cixous, or extend the approach to major poet-novelists of other national literatures–Goethe, Pushkin, and Walter Scott come immediately to mind.
The metonymic and metaphoric patterns in such texts illuminate the ways in which narrative and poetic discourses interact. Where poetic discourse prevails, one might expect to encounter the emphasis on transcendence that we have observed in Les Miserable.Moreover, fiction shaped primarily by metaphorical models will further test Ricoeur’s conclusions about the creative, predicative function of this trope. If Ricoeur is right, certain sets of motifs–those concerned, for instance, with transposition, displacement, alienation, exile, frontiers, discovery, equivalence and equality, the reciprocity of the inner and the outer–would signal a meditation on the metaphorical process itself.
The predominance of these motifs in romantic literature (and its scions) would in turn suggest that post-Revolutionary idealism posits itself as a higher form of realism, one where logic and intuition, discovery and creativity, science and poetry, are wholly complementary. Indeed, the identity for Ricoeur of poiesis and mimesis challenges any notion of romanticism as non-realist or even antirealist. To envision is in some way to know; to see (or say) one thing in another is not merely to engage in clever play but to bridge a cognitive gap. The ground claimed by Ricoeur for metaphor should therefore resemble the ground claimed by those who portray what is through the lens of future history.
Thus, by examining the role of metaphoric patterns in romantic, utopian, and/or visionary fiction, one should be able to investigate more fully Ricoeur’s concept of poetic redescription.The study of Les Miserable in no way strives to be inclusive. Rather, the attention to critical theory in the past twenty years should give rise to many different approaches. How would a feminist reading of Les Miserable? How might Bakhtin’s poetics help to account for features of narrative or structure that have not yet been considered? Since the test of any literary theory is its value in interpreting such masterpieces as Les Miserable, This novel will long continue to provoke a lively critical dialogue.
For once, Hugo will not have the last word.Reference:Bloom Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
Cave Terence. Recognitions: A Study in Poetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.Clayton Jay.
Romantic Vision and the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.Frye Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.Howell Wilbur Samuel. Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700. 1956.
New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.Klein Richard. “Straight lines and arabesques: metaphors of metaphor.” Yale French Studies 45 (1970): 64-86.