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( Originally Published 1913 )
France produced many clever novelists during the nineteenth century. While Balzac stands pre-eminently first, many showed themselves worthy contemporaries. Victor Hugo was first of the gifted circle and fifty years ago he was accorded a more prominent place than later criticism has left him.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was the son of one of Napoleon's generals. He lived at a time when men were not yet agreed about the nature of the times in which they lived, whether the terrible social revolution through which France had gone was wholly bad or whether it made for good. Families were not infrequently divided-as were those of the United States during the Civil War. Hugo's mother was a staunch royalist; his father, a firm supporter of Napoleon.
Hugo was a poet of considerable merit and a playwright whose plays still hold the stage. However, he is best known as a novelist. He was first of the Romanticists among whom we find Balzac, De Musset and the older Dumas. Scott was carefully studied by these men, who turned with the current of the day in breaking with the old traditions which had long held sway in the various fine arts.
Notre-Dame de Paris, Les Miserables, L' Homme qui Rit are superb romances. Hugo possessed the ability to portray strong character, a gift of eloquence, enormous descriptive power, and he carries the reader long at a bounding rate, even though the sense of what is probable is often disturbed. In picturing scenes of poverty, sin and misery, Hugo is nevertheless an optimist and believes in the ultimate triumph of good and the salvation of men.
These lines from the preface of Les Miserables state his purpose in the story: "So long as there shall exist through the fault of our laws and customs a social condemnation that creates artificial hells in the midst of our civilization and complicates a divine destiny by human fatalism; so long as the three problems of the century-the degradation of man by the proletariat, the fall of woman through hunger, the arrested development of the child by ignorance-are not solved.