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A Reception History of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables

A look over time about how the novel,

Reception History: Les Miserables ?The Wretched?

A man found guilty of burglary sentenced to spend nineteen long years in a prison in Toulon, France changes his stripes and finds a reason to live. A prostitute does everything she can to support her child. An obsessed police officer tracks the same criminal for years. A freedom fighter who falls in love with a woman, and a bishop who sees some hope in a vagabond. These all sound like separate plots for several different novels, but they are all things found in Victor Marie Hugo?s book, Les Miserables or, in English, ?The Wretched?.
Hugo, born in France in 1802 was very instrumental in beginning the romanticism era. His poetry was world renowned and accepted, being acclaimed by all. His prose however, left something to be desired in the minds of some literary critics. From the time of the books publishing in 1862 (The book was written twenty five years earlier) until the present, literary critics have held mixed views on Les Miserables. Some critics, in fact, contradict themselves in their own articles. Literary criticism regarding this book was everywhere in the few years after its conception, but all but disappeared until a more modern time. I think that this shows that although this book, as far as literature is concerned, is timeless, but some of the social ramifications of the book did not hit home nearly as much in the late nineteenth century, up until the mid to late twentieth century.
According to the book of Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticisms, Vol. 3, it seems to me that there are three main areas in which the critics disagree: Hugo himself, The characterizations in Les Miserables, and the novel in general. Although these are implicit not explicit, that is where most of the critics seem to focus their critiques.
Hugo was seen, throughout time as either the best of the best, or the lowly of the low. Some critics will praise him for his poetry in one line of their critiques, and on the next line, bash him for his prose, or his drama. I think that he would have wanted to be remembered for his poetry, and that he would regard most of, if not all, his work as poetry. ?Hugo is considered one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in French literature, as well as its most prolific and versatile author? (NCLC Vol. 3 232). Unfortunately, part of Hugo?s versatility has been all but lost to us, as Hugo?s theatrical work has ?gone the way of the buffalo? and, ?His plays retain significance only in scholarly circles? (NCLC Vol. 3 232). Due partly to the literary significance of his writing, and his Socialist affiliations, the editor of Victor Hugo?s section in the NCLC contends that, ?Hugo remains an outstanding symbol of liberty and humanitarianism in France? (NCLC Vol. 3 232).
I have found that Hugo?s contemporaries were not enamored of Hugo?s writing to the extent that we are today, although there are a few critics who break the rule during his lifetime, and praise Hugo despite his political affiliations. In fact, Les Miserables was said to have been, ??uttered by the most eloquent lips of our day. In spite of any possible intentional deception or any unconscious bias in the matter -in the eyes of strict philosophy-? (NCLC Vol. 3 244). This writer goes on to clarify by stating that, ?Victor Hugo is for Man, and yet he is not against God. He trusts in God, and yet he is not against Man? (NCLC Vol. 3 244).
J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of the The Hobit and The Lord of the Rings books stated that his books contained no allegory to the Gospel. Tolkien maintained that because his Christianity was so integral to his life and his art, it was only natural that there would be an outpouring of such faith filled literature. It seems to me that Hugo was very similar in his philosophy of his writing, especially if this quote is similar to Hugo?s own ideas on the matter ?Victor Hugo is an artist, and only a moralist in so far as art is indissolubly bound up with moral influences? (NCLC Vol. 3 245). If this is the case, and in fact, Hugo?s belief system and political affiliations are as tightly wound up within his character as they seem to be, he can hardly be slighted for those. If it is art, let it be art for arts sake, regardless of the message.
Not all critics specifically disliked, or liked Hugo?s writing. Some critics would compare his writing to Milton in one sentence, and in the next suggest that he cheated his more casual readers out of something by, ??allowing his imagination to run away with his common sense? (NCLC Vol. 3 246).
Again, pointing out apparent incongruities in the criticism of Les Miserables, one of Hugo?s critics state that,
The angels that made war in heaven did not sin through ignorance, but through defiance, and the fearful deeds perpetrated on earth are more often the results of rebellion than of ignorance. M. Hugo?s reflection as to the existence of such a state of things are most unsatisfactory, and his philosophy is altogether illogical (NCLC Vol. 3 247).

At the end of that same article, the critic does not entirely do discredit to Hugo when he states that, ?M. Hugo is an excellent miner; he has dug diligently the secret depths of literature and collected much gold and precious gems? (NCLC Vol. 3 247).
Literary criticism of Les Miserables was rarely seen again until the middle of the twentieth century, when an author made mention to the quality of the writing, and the supposed justification of doing the writing. ?Notre Dame, Les Miserables, Quatre Vingt Treize, L?Homme qui Rit, and Les Travailleurs would have made a very great fame for any writer, and yet they are but one fa?ade of the monument that Victor Hugo has erected to his genius? (NCLC Vol. 3 253). This critic has obviously not done his research if he believes what he is writing. Of course there is more than self-promotion for Hugo?s writing. It may look like that to an uneducated audience today, but Hugo was writing from a socialist, and a Christian background. The two are not mutually exclusive either.
Among Hugo?s audience were some poets that almost reached the ability of his own. Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote this concerning Hugo?s writing.
?Victor in Poesy, Victor in Romance,
Cloud-weaver of phantasmal hopes and fears,
French of the French, and Lord of human tears;
Child-lover; Bard whose fame-lit laurels glance
Darkening the wreaths of all that would advance,
Weird Titan by thy winter weight of years
Who dost not love our England- so they say;
I know not-England, France, all man to be
Will make one point ere man?s race be run:
Yield thee full thanks for thy full courtesy
To younger England in the boy my son? (NCLC Vol. 3 256).
Coming into a more modern age, Hugo?s work was far more successful with critics, and indeed, Hugo was finally compared to some of the greats of our time.

?It (Les Miserables) is witty, antiethical, bombastic, pathetic, figurative, grandliloquent, and makes an English reader think of Macaulay, and Carlyle, and Ds Quincey and Frank Crane and Fra Elbertus, all rolled into one. And it is that kind of style which has the effect, very often, of diverting attention from the characters, the subject, on to the author himself? (NCLC Vol. 3 272).

Although this does praise Hugo, it also shows how prevalent the ?modern? mindset is, that Hugo was writing for self glorification, and not the advancement of the causes in which he believed. Yes, I do think that all authors are in a slight way egomaniacs (Why else would one submit something for publication), but I think that more modern critics see this more than they see the time period that Hugo was living in, and the basis from which he was drawing his material. Perhaps this is a shift from the more traditional biographical and historical methods of literary criticisms, to the more modern psychological literary criticism. Could the method in which we critique literature bias us without even our considering it? I have never thought of the method in which we critique being a bias.
While trying to praise Hugo, Elliot M. Grant insults him far worse than he could imagine. He begins his article by doting on Hugo?s versatility as a writer. He talks of Hugo?s high ideals and courage, Grant even goes as far to say that Hugo is (which I do not disagree with), ??progressive in his outlook, charitable, and humane? (NCLC Vol. 3 273). Grant then proceeds to stick his foot in his mouth and says that, ?Victor Hugo did not have a highly original mind and that he was not a philosopher in the sense that Descartes, Condillac and Kant were philosophers can readily be admitted. He was nevertheless an intelligent as well as a gifted man? (NCLC Vol. 3 273). First of all, stating that an author is uncreative is like telling an unattractive person that they have a nice personality. They know what you are First of all, stating that an author is uncreative is like telling an unattractive person that they have a nice personality. They know what you are really trying to say. Besides that, how can you compare Hugo, philosophically speaking, to Descartes? Yes, Hugo was a philosopher in his own respect, but he was saying something very different than Descartes, and presenting it in a vastly different, and might I add superior, fashion. Although it is as bad as many of the clich?s I have used in this paper, it is like comparing apples to oranges.
Several of the critiques I read pre-twentieth century had the same opinion of the characters. They did not have a life of their own, they were a distraction to the story, they had no serious, real-life motivations, they were puppets, and their conversion was unrealistic, and characters were too quick to turn of their ways. For example, :?The bishop is meant to be good, and is only ?goody?. His humanity is sacrificed to unreal sentiment of the ?goody? order (NCLC Vol. 3 245). The critics also seem to think that Hugo seems unconcerned with willing suspension of disbelief with the characters because things just don?t fit. For example, ?He (Hugo) audaciously calls upon us to accept her (Fantine) as a model of chastity and purity? (NCLC Vol. 3 245). Also, he argues that it is inconceivable for someone to go from a thief bold enough to steal from a priest, to an upstanding man of society. I suppose that particular critic knows nothing about the power of God to change a man?s heart.

Works Cited
Nineteenth Century volume of Literary Criticism

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