February 19, 2013
With the recent success of the movie Les Miserables, people have been looking again at the author Victor Hugo. What is it about Hugo that enabled him to write what Leo Tolstoy called the greatest of all novels? Who was the real historical Victor Hugo?
Every day around 3,000 words are published about Victor Hugo. It has been said that to read the complete works of Hugo would take no less than ten years. Every important poet, novelist and dramatist of his age was shaped by Hugo’s prolific endeavours. Some call him the greatest of French poets. He was the dominant figure in 19th century French literature. By the time he left France in 1851, Hugo was seen as the most famous living writer in the world. Upon his return to France, thousands of people in Paris chanted ‘Vive Victor Hugo’, reciting his poetry, and throwing flowers on him. On his eightieth birthday, six hundred thousand Parisians marched past his house in his honor. At his death, a day of national mourning was declared.
By the time Hugo died in 1883, he had become a symbol of France with all its struggles and challenges. Hugo lived through bloody uprising after uprising. Almost a million Frenchmen had died during this revolutionary period, half of them under the age of twenty-eight. Les Miserables with its passionate message about the barricades reflect this deep trauma of chaos upon unending chaos.
When Hugo was born, his parents were horrified by his appearance. His own mother could not bear to look at him. His own doctor indicated that without a miracle, Victor would not last out the month. With an enormous head and a tiny body, his father said that Victor looked like the gargoyles of Notre Dame. Such an insensitive comment led to his second most favorite novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Ironically after the success of his Hunchback novel, all the nouveau riche wanted their homes to be ornamented with gargoyles.
Victor adored his mother Sophie but she cared little for her children. During his childhood, Victor deeply resented his father Leopold who was always away at war. As an adult, Victor became his father’s closest companion. His own parents had divided loyalties between the royalists and the republicans. Hugo’s parents met in Brittany while his Napoleonic father was stamping out a local royalist rebellion. Both of his parents were unfaithful to their marriage vows, something that repeated itself in Victor’s own marriage.
While only fifteen, Victor applied for the French Academy’s annual poetry contest. His poetry was so advanced that the Academy refused to accept him until his mother produced his birth certificate. Victor loved to write, commenting that ‘every thought that has ever crossed my mind sooner or later finds it onto paper. …Ideas are my sinews and substance.’
His father Leopold saw Victor’s involvement in literature as being like ‘pouring good wine down an open sewer’. So he refused to help fund his literary education: “If you were to elect a career as a lawyer or physician, I would gladly make sacrifices to see through university.” Victor often went without food in his early literary years, saying ‘I shall prove to my father that a poet can make sums far larger than the wages of an Imperial General.’ With great talent and a strong work ethic, Victor became one of a very small band who could earn their living with their pens. One of Victor’s closest friends was Alexandre Dumas, the famous author of the Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers.
One of Victor’s greatest sorrows was that his wife Adele was indifferent to his writings. Even his passionate love poems for his wife, she ignored. Adele warned Victor that ‘it is the fault of passionate men to set the women they love upon a pedestal. To be placed so high produces dizziness, and dizziness leads to a fall.’ Adele’s affair with her husband’s best friend Saint-Beauve crushed Victor, leading him into his own ongoing infidelity. There was great tragedy in Hugo’s life with his own brother Eugene having a mental breakdown at Victor’s wedding and his youngest daughter suffering the same fate after being abandoned by her lover Pinson. One of the deepest wounds was the drowning of Victor’s daughter Leopoldine shortly after her marriage. Out of this great sorrow came great dramatic writing, especially in his novel Les Miserables. Andre Maurois commented that Hugo possessed and would retain all his life long, one precious gift: the power to give to the events of everyday life a dramatic intensity.
Ground-zero in Les Miserables was the gracious Bishop Bienvenue who transformed Jean Valjean by his generous act of forgiveness. Victor Hugo’s son Charles was upset by his father’s choosing of Bishop Bienvenue. Charles suggested instead that his father should have made Bienvenue to be a medical doctor instead of a clergyman. Victor replied to his son: ‘Man needs religion. Man needs God. I say it out loud, I pray every night…” Victor held that humanity is an ‘unspeakable miracle.’ Of all the French Romantics, Hugo made the most explicit usage of the Bible.
I thank God for the life and work of Victor Hugo who had such a passion for life, freedom and forgiveness, especially as seen in his novel Les Miserables.
The Rev Ed Hird, Rector
St. Simon’s North Vancouver
Anglican Mission in the Americas (Canada)
-an article for the March 2013 Deep Cove Crier
award-winning author of the book ‘Battle for the Soul of Canada’
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September 11, 2010
Today’s new atheism has been popularized by Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Contemporary atheism reminds me of Alexandre Dumas’ book ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. You may remember Jim Caviezel/ Edmond Dantes’ cry while in Chateau d’If prison: “I don’t believe in God”. Edmond had suffered so deeply and so unfairly for so long that he had given up on the concept of a loving and just God. His ‘cellmate’ Abbe Faria poignantly replied to Edmond: “God believes in you.”
Alexandre Dumas lived through many French revolutions during which belief in God became distinctly out-of-fashion or even dangerous to one’s health. Dumas experienced much disappointment in his life, and was frequently either breaking the heart of a female acquaintance or having his own heart broken. Yet in the midst of many setbacks, Dumas had a fascination with the God question that comes across in his over 250 novels, travel pieces, memoirs, and theatre productions. Best known as author of ‘The Three Musketeers’, ‘The Man with the Iron Mask’, and ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, Dumas had a remarkable ability to touch deep into people’s souls. As his friend Victor Hugo said after Dumas’ death, Alexandre “fertilizes the soul, the mind, the intelligence; he creates a thirst for reading; he penetrates the human genius and sows seeds in it.”
In the Dumas biography ‘Genius of Life’, we are told about young Dumas’ tragic loss of his father: “Why should I not see (my father) any more?”
“Because God has taken him back”
“…I’m going to heaven”, said young Dumas, “I’m going to kill God who killed my papa.”
Dumas, being an avid reader, learned much sacred history from the Bible that later shaped many of his plays. Dumas encouraged the studying of ‘the bible as a religious, historic and poetic book’. At one point, young Dumas was given funding in a will to go to seminary and become a priest. This overwhelmed him, and he said “I am running away, because I do not want to be a priest.” Receiving his first communion had a profound impact on Dumas: “When the host touched his lips, he became dizzy, burst into sobs, and fainted. It took him three days to recover from this…Dumas would never again approach the communion table, except at the hour of his death.”
Our reactions to suffering and injustice can make or break us, turn us bitter or better. So often we are insensitive to the deeper issues of life until we have personally ‘hit the wall’. Edmond Dantes the Monte Cristo hero recalled that ‘the prayers taught him by his mother discovered in them a hidden meaning hitherto unknown to him. To the happy and prosperous man, prayer is but a meaningless jumble of words until grief comes to explain to the poor wretch the sublime language that is our means of communication with God.”
Edmond Dantes miraculously escaped from prison and found hidden treasure on the Island of Monte Cristo. Using resurrection language, Dumas commented, “When (Edmond) was at the height of his despair, God revealed himself to him through another human being. One day he left his tomb transfigured miraculously.”
But Edmond was consumed by a need for revenge that threatened to destroy his own new freedom. “I must have revenge, Mercedes! For fourteen long years have I suffered, for fourteen years wept and cursed, and now I must avenge myself.” Dantes admitted to Mercedes: “From being a kind and confiding nature, I made myself in to a treacherous and vindictive man…If you ever loved me, don’t rob me of my hate. It is all I have.” She wisely responded, saying, “Let it go Edmond. Let it go.
Edmond’s reappearance after so many years in prison called forth this memorable statement from Mercedes: “Edmond, I know there is a God above, for you still live and I have seen you. I put my trust in him to help me…Unhappy wretch that I am, I doubted God’s goodness…Cowardice was at the root of all my actions.” Edmond responded to her deep repentance by saying: “you have disarmed me by your sorrow…God had need of me and my life was spared.”
At the end of the book, Edmond faces the Christ-like choice of mercy or revenge. He painfully chose mercy which set him free from the root of bitterness that was eating him alive. Mercedes commented: “I repeat once more, Edmond, it is noble, beautiful to forgive as you have done.”
Dumas said in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ that ‘the wretched and miserable should turn to their Saviour first, yet they do not hope in Him until all other hope is exhausted.’