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Victor Hugo

The revolution of 1848 marked a watershed in the social and political opinions and ultimately in the course of the great writer's literary career. However, for Victor Hugo the course that would lead him from the right to the left in the Chamber of Deputies, unfolded gradually over the first two years of the upheaval. Even after the fall of the citizen king Louis Philippe, this former member of the upper house under the Restoration, favored the regency of the Duchess d'Orleans. His famous portrait of Blanqui at the clubs perfectly encapsulates the bourgeois iconography of fear for the revolutionary wild man. The carnage of the June Days merely shifted his sentiments from Cavaignac to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. But Louis Napoleon was on his way to becoming "little" (le Petit) in Hugo's eyes only when he sent troop to help the pope defeat the Italian patriots in the summer of 1849. This event precipitated Deputy Hugo's shift to the extreme left in the parliament. By March 1850 he would be denouncing the Falloux Law on education as a law attempting to undo not only the revolutions of 1848 and 1789 but also the Enlightenment. A year later he was even voting against a bill, the Pidoux measure to regulate cafés more strictly, that would have severely limited the type of popular politics he had abhorred a few years earlier. This vote proved a harbinger of Hugo's instantaneous resistance to the new emperor. Hugo's reputation as a critic already insured that his preventative arrest along with other dissenting parliamentarians. Hugo also futilely attempted to form a resistance committee and tried to rally popular support in Paris for a new round of barricades. These moments are the subject of his novel History of a Crime. By the time the great romantic had begun his exile he had turned one hundred and eighty degrees, from an adherent of the restored monarchy to a champion of a democratic and social republic.

Written in exile, Les Misérables, although ostensibly about the 1830s, is a work of the 1848 revolution. Although Louis Chevalier is right that the images of misery, decay, destitution, and desperation, best symbolized in the classic images of the sewers, reflect the social problems of Restoration and July Monarchy Paris, the equally extensive depiction of secret societies, sociability, and solidarity are a testimony to the hope the 1848 revolution had brought. Hugo even invests the slang of the streets with a revolutionary spirit. He saw the wineshops of the Faubourg Saint Antoine as playing a particularly exemplary role. They "have a notoriety which is historic. In times of trouble their words are more intoxicating than their wine. A sort of prophetic spirit and an odor of the future circulates in them, swelling hearts and enlarging souls." Les Misérables also provides fictional but realistic accounts of how secret societies and other republican groups used the capital's cafés to spread the republican message. For example, the poverty-stricken young student Marius, after spending an evening in a Latin Quarter café with a republican secret society, the ABC, converts from Bonapartism to republicanism.

Thus Hugo's novels more so than his autobiographical and realistic writings such as Choses vues and his Mémoires, capture the revolutionary process in 1848. He illuminated for Paris, as Agulhon and Margadant did for the provinces, the cultural and social processes by which republicanism spread. His focus on sociability and festivity thus complemented the work of the most innovative historians of the past thirty years on the 1848 revolution. It also revealed that romantic empathy led many writers to left during this revolution was not simply sentimental but also sober.

W. Scott Haine


Combes, Claudette. Paris dans "Les Misérables." Nantes: Editions CID, 1981.

Cornuz, Jean-Louis. Hugo, L'homme des Misérables Lausanne: P.M. Favre and Paris: Diffusion Interform, 1985.

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