The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Princeton University Press, 208 pages, $24.95
The most potent philosophers and scientists of the nineteenth century—Schopenhauer, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche—saw their main undertaking as dethroning the Christian God and relegating the soul to a mere adjunct of the body, if not abolishing it altogether. Some of the finest artists of the time—Balzac, Flaubert, George Eliot, Turgenev—took the latest intellectual news to heart and soaked themselves in skepticism or even nihilism, as flamboyant suicides douse themselves with gasoline before striking the match.
There were, however, other and greater artists who upheld the old godly truths in the face of the most advanced thinking and for whom it is not going too far to say that writing was their most ardent form of worship: Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Victor Hugo. Among these, at least in the English-speaking world, Victor Hugo might seem not quite worthy of such rich company: He is known for having written the novel on which a monster hit musical is based, but the novel itself enjoys neither high critical esteem nor popular love.
In much of the rest of the world, it is a different story. As the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa writes in The Temptation of the Impossible, “After Shakespeare, Victor Hugo has generated across five continents more literary studies, philological analyses, critical editions, biographies, translations, and adaptations of his work than any other Western author.” One does not wish to incite the Anglo-American academic industry to Hugolian riot, but one would be happy to see increased regard, and an expanded readership, for so great a writer—and so great a religious writer, though one with a theological turn peculiarly his own.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born in 1802, and even his conception, according to his father’s account, foretold poetic grandeur, taking place “almost in mid-air,” atop a mountain peak in the Vosges; a sandstone memorial, the brainchild of a puckish museum director, now marks the spot. As Graham Robb notes in his invaluable 1997 biography, Victor Hugo, the novelist’s father, Léopold, was a soldier who had renamed himself Brutus during the Revolution and taken part in the bloody subjugation of refractory Brittany; he would rise to general in Napoleon’s army and be titled Count Siguenza for his heroism in Spain.
His father was the godless republican antithesis of Victor’s Catholic royalist mother, according to the son’s telling; in fact, the maternal family was strongly republican and proud of its modernity. There must have been some truth, however, to the politicized chiaroscuro of his parentage: When Sophie Hugo’s lover, and Victor’s godfather, Victor de la Horie, was executed for conspiring against Napoleon in 1810, Sophie Hugo apparently averted deportation only by blackmailing her chief political enemy. In any case, the family was riven by marital discord more than by great politics: The father was a sexual rover, and the parents separated for the first time before Victor was two; the separation became final when he was in his teens.
Literature consumed Hugo from the start. “I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing,” he wrote in his journal in 1816. With the jetting abandon of schoolboy ambition, he wrote verse in a fervent daily routine: fables, popular songs, extravagances after the Ossianic manner, mock epics, odes to the steamship and hot-air balloon. At fifteen he submitted a poem, on the happiness of the life of study, for a prize sponsored by the Académie française, and his prodigious success—the Academicians could not believe his youth—won him immediate renown. At eighteen he produced an ode to the duc de Berry, son of the future king, Charles X, who had been assassinated by a Bonapartist; this gushing tribute earned him a five-hundred-franc honorarium from King Louis XVIII and an invitation to meet with Chateaubriand—whom Hugo would later disparage as “a genius, not a man.”
Being a man, endowed with a full measure of heart and soul as well as of mind, was essential to Hugo, and he devoted himself to love as fully as to literature. He was seventeen and his beautiful Parisian neighbor Adèle Foucher fifteen when he told her he loved her; he signed his first letter to his beloved, “Your husband.” Theirs was the love of two exiles from heaven, he enthused in adolescent transports; he preserved his virginity for marriage, and he guarded Adèle’s chastity with a watchdog’s vigilance, steering her away from unseemly friendship with a painter and discouraging her from learning to draw: “Does it befit a woman to descend into the class of artists—a class which encompasses actresses and dancers?” Holding out until their marriage in 1822 evidently had its carnal upside: Hugo claimed he made love to his bride nine times on their wedding night.
Family responsibilities fired Hugo to work harder than ever before. His first book of poems, Odes et Poésies Diverses, in 1822, made him enough money to cover two years’ rent. His 1823 novel, Han of Iceland, subtitled The Demon Dwarf, did well too, thanks largely to the literary fashion for dwarves then current. On the death of Byron in 1824, Hugo’s Romantic manifesto in the form of an obituary notice declared that the literary avant-garde marched with the political avant-garde: “One cannot return to the madrigals of Dorat [an eighteenth-century courtly poetaster] after the guillotines of Robespierre.” The 1827 preface to Cromwell—a six-hour drama that no one put on then or since—lays out the deregulation of literature that is the heart of French Romanticism: “There are no rules, no models; rather, there are no rules other than the general laws of Nature.”
In 1830 Hugo put his iconoclastic theory into practice with the verse tragedy Hernani, which defied the strict conventions of French drama prevalent since Richelieu’s founding of the Académie française in 1635. Conservative patrons were aghast at, and young Romantics delighted in, homespun imagery, a king hiding in a closet, and the unthinkable audacity of an enjambment in the play’s opening couplet. Messing with time-honored strictures of versification was a shooting offense in some quarters: One evening during the play’s run, the author came home to find a bullet hole in his window. The catcalls and brawling that erupted at most every performance made Hernani the sensation of its day, and this hectic celebrity marked Hugo as the polestar of French Romanticism. His novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, secured that position in the literary heavens.
Meanwhile, Hugo’s politics were catching up with his literary nerviness. Although in 1825 he had served as official poet for Charles X’s coronation and had been enrolled as a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, in 1830 he supported the revolution that brought down Charles and replaced him with the constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe. The great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who was Hugo’s dear friend, boasted that he was responsible for Hugo’s political evolution: “I deroyalized him,” he claimed.
Sainte-Beuve also cuckolded Hugo while he was at it. Hugo responded to the betrayal with golden magnanimity, at least at first, writing to Sainte-Beuve in 1833: “You have always believed that I live by my mind, whereas I live only by my heart. To love, and to need love and friendship . . . that is the basis of my life.” Losing his wife’s love, he found another’s: Juliette Drouet, an actress playing a small part in his Lucrèce Borgia in 1833, captivated him, and they began an affair that would span decades.
They were traveling together in 1843 when Hugo read in the newspaper that his daughter Léopoldine, her husband, and Hugo’s uncle and cousin had drowned in a sailing accident at Villequier. The drownings, and particularly the loss of his daughter, shattered Hugo. Grief made him doubt God’s goodness, and yet he struggled to affirm his belief, writing to a critic whose father had recently died: “Let us bend our heads together under the hand which destroys . . . . Death brings revelations. The mighty blows that open the heart also open the mind. Light penetrates us at the same time as pain. I am a believer. I anticipate another life. How could I not? My daughter was a soul. A soul which I have seen and, as it were, touched . . . . I suffer as you do. Hope as I do.”
Hugo poured his hope not only into his private prayers but also into the public life of France, in which he came to play a significant part. In February 1848 a republican revolution overthrew Louis-Philippe, and Hugo was elected to the national assembly of the provisional government, which was led by the poet Alphonse de Lamartine. In June 1848 the provisional government brutally put down a proletarian insurrection, and with spirited bravery Hugo served the government in the savage street fighting, unaware that in doing his duty he might have been firing on Baudelaire, who took the part of the insurgents.
The bloodshed produced no lasting benefit. In December 1848 Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the great man’s nephew, was elected president of the republic by a landslide. Under the new administration, Hugo moved inexorably to the left, delivering firebrand speeches on his countrymen’s wretchedness: “Here are the facts: . . . There are in Paris . . . whole families who have no other clothes or bed-linen than putrid piles of festering rags, picked up in the mud of the city streets; a sort of urban compost-heap in which human creatures bury themselves alive in order to escape the cold of winter.”
When in July 1851 Louis-Napoléon sought to extend his presidential mandate by parliamentary action, Hugo denounced the jumped-up homunculus in flaming words the president would not forget: “What! Does Augustus have to be followed by Augustulus? Just because we had Napoléon le Grand, do we have to have Napoléon le Petit?” Louis-Napoléon’s dictatorial coup d’état in December 1851 spurred Hugo to flee to Brussels, one step ahead of the authorities, where he would write the subversive broadside Napoléon-le-Petit, and then to Jersey in the Channel Islands, where he wrote the politically incendiary book of poems Les Châtiments (1853), or The Punishments. He would remain in exile for nineteen years, most of that time on the island of Guernsey.
It was there that Hugo undertook to correct and fulfill “the botched work of Jesus Christ” and to lead humanity toward knowledge of the One True God. Prodded by a visiting woman friend, he took up table-turning and séances. At first he contacted the spirit of Léopoldine, who told him that to join her in the realm of light he must love. Subsequent callers from the beyond included Moses, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad, Galileo, Mozart, Androcles’ lion, a host of angels, a resident of Jupiter, and Shakespeare, who presented a new comedy, in French of course, because death had taught him that this was the superior language. As Christ himself assured Hugo, the poet would “found a new religion which will swallow up Christianity just as Christianity swallowed up paganism.” But the Shadow of the Tomb, one of his eerie visitants, demurred and suggested that the transcripts of the sessions be published only posthumously. Hugo, reasonable enough to fear ridicule, concurred with the Shadow.
What he did publish instead was his greatest book of poetry, Les Contemplations (1856), which drew on his continued mourning for Léopoldine and its attendant spiritual travails and exaltations. In “Elle avait pris ce pli dans son âge enfantin” (She had this habit when she was a child), the way Léopoldine’s slightest unhappiness made her father suffer when she was alive drives home the unendurable loss of her death. In “Demain, dès l’aube, l’heure où blanchit la campagne” (Tomorrow, at dawn, when the countryside brightens), the master of aureate diction writes with unadorned heartbreak of placing heather and holly on his daughter’s grave. “Paroles sur la dune” (Words on the dune) evokes a spiritually parched figure in a desolate landscape but ends with the sight of a flowering thistle, a hardy growth that survives, and even thrives, amid the desolation.
Hugo’s is truly a constitution of undying hope. “Aux Feuillantines” (At the Feuillantines) renders the wonder young children feel at discovering the Bible, whose beauty trembles in their minds as a live bird does in their hands. Worshipful tremors shake Hugo as well. This colossus learned what it is to be bent double with suffering like the least of men yet to continue like a hero upon his appointed path. In “Écrit au bas d’un crucifix” (Written at the foot of a crucifix), he finds the ultimate comfort in the simplest piety.
You who weep, come to this God, for he weeps.
You who suffer, come to him, for he heals.
You who tremble, come to him, for he smiles.
You who pass, come to him, for he endures.
Hugo came to see his role as champion of the politically outcast and spiritually downtrodden. He spoke out in support of Greek and Italian republican movements. Overcome by admiration for Garibaldi, he sported a red shirt under his dressing gown and named a room in his Guernsey house in the great patriot’s honor. He wrote a letter “To the United States of America” defending the violent abolitionist John Brown, “a soldier of Christ” whose execution threatened to “dislocate” the Union. His advocacy for Brown made him a sainted figure in Haiti, the republic of former slaves, whose president he warmly corresponded with.
On his rocky outpost, Hugo lived as the premier citizen of the world. When Napoleon III—the title Louis-Napoléon had taken for himself—declared a blanket amnesty for political exiles in 1859, Hugo spurned the offer to come home: “When freedom returns, so shall I.”
After seventeen years of labor, in 1862 Hugo sent Les Misérables out into the world. Tolstoy would call it “the greatest of all novels”; Dostoevsky would pronounce himself grateful for having been imprisoned in 1874, because his confinement allowed him “the time to refresh my old, wonderful impressions of that great book.” Lesser men such as the celebrated diarists Edmond and Jules Goncourt sniped at Hugo for demanding 300,000 francs—a sum equivalent to the annual salaries of 120 civil servants—“for taking pity on the suffering masses.” Yet the book served as a moral goad even to Hugo’s enemies. As though to undo his crimes against Hugo and France, Napoleon III began indulging in ostentatious works of charity and contributed to making philanthropy le dernier cri for a time. The novel’s success also prompted social legislation in the way of penal, industrial, and educational reform.
At last, in 1870, the French defeat at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War and the consequent fall of Napoleon III cleared the way for Hugo’s return to his native land. He received a hero’s welcome. Honorific delegations of writers and statesmen came knocking at his door; women market workers from Les Halles draped him in flowers. The journal he kept during the siege of Paris records a straitened diet featuring dog or perhaps even rat—“We are eating the Unknown”—but Hugo made the most of wartime conditions in other respects, demanding a more refined and substantial daily ration when it came to sex: Pushing seventy years old, he totted up forty different sexual partners in the course of five months; the sex log he had kept faithfully throughout his life—and which lists encounters with hundreds of women—certifies the liaisons. The fiercely virginal youth and devoted young husband had devolved into a satyr, and Parisian womanhood was honored to provide its literary hero with the services he required.
The Paris honeymoon did not last long. With the bloody suppression of the socialist Commune in May 1871, Hugo found himself once again on treacherous ground in France. This time Brussels was no better: When Hugo offered asylum in his house there to any political refugees, a well-heeled mob raged outside his home, chanted “Death to Victor Hugo! Death to Jean Valjean!” smashed the windows, and attempted to batter the door down. The next morning, the Hugos were banished from Belgium for disturbing the peace. He returned to Paris for a brief spell, but the scene disgusted him, and Guernsey offered refuge once more. He turned again to political fleering in the poems of L’Année Terrible, decrying the stupid fatality of history, in which one tyrant succeeds another, as though men had no control over their own destiny. A novel of the French Revolution, Quatrevingt-treize, followed in short order.
In 1873, however, encouraged by political developments, he found his way back to Paris, where he would live out his life. A stroke in 1878 hurt him, though he rallied a year later with some impressive verses. On his eightieth birthday, in 1882, a half million people passed in procession before him as he sat at the window of his house.
His death in 1885 was even more of a celebrity spectacle. His spiritual condition as the end approached became a national concern. In a newspaper cartoon, the archbishop of Paris kept vigil on Hugo’s roof with a butterfly net, eager to snatch the writer’s departing soul; however, the anticlerical Hugo, who had never been baptized but had nonetheless enjoyed direct access to Christ, Moses, and Muhammad, was not about to fold at the last moment. “I shall close my terrestrial eye, but the spiritual eye will remain open, wider than ever. I reject the prayers of all churches. I ask for a prayer from every soul.”
A hurried parliamentary order deconsecrated the Church of Saint Geneviève and rededicated it (for the fourth time in a spiritually contentious history) as the Pantheon, where the bones of venerable Frenchmen were to repose in secular glory. The remains of this secular saint and patron of the wretched of the earth rode to the place of honor in a pauper’s hearse. A police source informed Edmond Goncourt that the brothels were shuttered and the city’s prostitutes had bedecked their crotches with black crepe in honor of the great man’s passing. More than two million people, more than the population of Paris, joined in the funeral procession. No other writer before or since has known such an outpouring.
Although Hugo wrote 158,000 lines of verse and retains to this day the reputation as France’s premier poet (when asked who most deserved that distinction, André Gide replied, “Victor Hugo, alas,” that archaic lavender sigh being a favored Hugolian interjection), there can be little question that his masterwork, and one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, is Les Misérables. It is a 1,200-page monument of a book with a peerless moral giant as hero and the vaulting ambition to transform the world through love.
Aesthetic exquisites will find the novel rough-hewn and perhaps uncouth, even if they acknowledge its oceanic power. Lytton Strachey called it “the most magnificent failure—the most ‘wild enormity’ ever produced by a man of genius.” Contrary to Flaubertian example, Hugo demonstrates that a great novel is to be made, not of perfectly flowing ironic sentences, but rather of thudding emotional jolts, transparent plot contrivances, and good and evil in mortal combat. Simple feelings wrung for all they’re worth are the fundamentals of Hugo’s art, and any reader who does not tear up at the splendor with which Jean Valjean triumphs over his agonies has failed truly to understand the book’s teaching.
As most everyone knows, Jean Valjean is a decent man sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven children; several escape attempts stretch his sentence out to nineteen years. Hatred of society’s injustice toward him breeds hatred of God’s cruelty, and Jean Valjean leaves prison a hard and bitter soul.
The novel recounts his fearsome path toward salvation. A saintly bishop’s merciful kindness leads Valjean to amend his life, and he becomes a factory owner under the name Monsieur Madeleine, whose industrial innovation brings prosperity to his town, which rewards him by making him mayor. He tangles with the police officer Javert over the fate of Fantine, a young woman who in desperation has become a prostitute. No one believes more devoutly in the rightness of the social order, including the hell at the bottom, than Javert; no one believes more devoutly in the redemptive power of love than Valjean, who takes it upon himself to act like beneficent Providence because he knows what it is to be nothing in the world’s eyes.
He becomes nothing once again when another man, Champmathieu, believed to be Jean Valjean is about to be sentenced to life imprisonment and conscience moves the real Valjean to announce himself. The law has a long memory, and an ancient petty theft lands Valjean in the galleys once again. After a daring escape several years later, Valjean keeps his pledge to the dying Fantine by fetching her little girl, Cosette, who has been monstrously abused by her keepers, the Thénardiers. Valjean’s and Cosette’s is the tender encounter of two souls desperate for love, and they live in Paris as father and daughter, sometimes under the name Leblanc, their happiness threatened periodically by the relentless nosings of Javert and the criminal perfidy of the Thenardiers.
Their simple contentment is complicated when Marius Pontmercy falls in love with Cosette. Marius’ pining for Cosette affords Hugo the opportunity for an excursus on how the loving soul outranks the disinterested mind when it comes to comprehending the essential truth about life: “Happy, even in anguish, is he to whom God has given a soul worthy of love and of grief! He who has not seen the things of this world, and the hearts of men by this double light, has seen nothing, and knows nothing of the truth. The soul which loves and suffers is in this sublime state.”
Marius’ finding Cosette, and finding his love reciprocated, affords Hugo the opportunity to extol human love as of the utmost magnificence; the really quite commonplace details of the pure and youthful heart in bloom swell into a lavish moral spectacle: “Destiny, with its mysterious and fatal patience, was slowly bringing these two beings near each other, fully charged and all languishing with the stormy electricities of passion—these two souls which held love as two clouds hold lightning, and which were to meet and mingle in a glance like clouds in a flash.”
When Marius despairs of gaining Cosette’s hand and goes off to join his comrades on the barricades—it is 1832, and an insurrection is brewing—Valjean follows him to the battleground on the rue de la Chanvrerie. The insurrectionists take the police spy Javert prisoner; Valjean makes out to the others that he is going to kill Javert, but he spares his life. Then Valjean saves the wounded Marius in a desperate flight through the Paris sewers; Javert is waiting to snare Valjean when he emerges, but the victorious Javert lets Valjean go. Valjean’s inexplicable Christlike mercy has flummoxed the implacable right hand of justice. For the first time Javert senses the godly part of himself, and these novel stirrings leave him at a loss. Javert had always seen moral confusion as the consequence of evil; now it is extraordinary goodness that disorients him. His moral compass shattered, he drowns himself in the Seine.
Marius weds Cosette, and Valjean endows the couple with the secreted fortune he had earned in his industrial career years before. Happiness seems perfected, but Valjean feels himself bound by conscience to disclose his past to Marius, who is horrified and who scorns Valjean. Marius discovers the ex-convict’s moral radiance too late to save Valjean, whose heart is broken, and who is dying.
On one of the most heartrending of literary deathbeds, Valjean offers his summation of the gospel according to Victor Hugo: “Those Thénardiers were wicked. We must forgive them. Cosette, the time has come to tell you the name of your mother. Her name was Fantine. Remember that name: Fantine. Fall on your knees whenever you pronounce it. She suffered much. And loved you much. Her measure of unhappiness was full as yours of happiness. Such are the distributions of God. He is on high, he sees us all, and he knows what he does in the midst of his great stars. So I am going away, my children. Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.”
To love is to come to know God—that is Hugo’s elemental theme. Such a teaching can be mewling and mawkish, or it can be robust and eloquent. In Hugo’s hands the message has a winning power. By love Hugo encompasses high romance, familial devotion, and even the intellectual’s responsibility to promote social amelioration. “Study evil lovingly, determine it, then cure it. To that we urge.”
To love is above all to feel what another is feeling. The democratic virtue of compassion extolled by Rousseau and Tocqueville is a virtual sacrament for Hugo, a natural instrument of grace requiring no churchly sanction. The compassionate heart must be initiated into all the degrees of suffering: “In fact, he who has seen the misery of man only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of woman; he who has seen the misery of woman only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of childhood! . . . Oh, the unfortunate! how pallid they are! how cold they are! It seems as though they were on a planet much further from the sun than we.”
Even when the lowest of the low must bear some blame for their condition, it is precisely for them that the loving soul reserves its richest empathy: “There is a point, moreover, at which the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confounded in a single word, a fatal word, Les Misérables; whose fault is it? And then, is it not when the fall is lowest that charity ought to be the greatest?” None is beyond saving, if only the entire society reform itself. “They seem not men, but forms fashioned of the living dark . . . . What is required to exorcise these goblins? Light. Light in floods. No bat resists the dawn. Illuminate the bottom of society.”
Yet the recalcitrance of social evil is not overcome by mere goodness of heart: To make Utopian dreams come true, hardness, sacrifice, and even cruelty are sometimes called for. Revolutionaries who kill and die for a righteous cause are also doing God’s work: “Even when fallen, especially when fallen, august are they who, upon all points of the world, with eyes fixed on France, struggle for the great work with the inflexible logic of the ideal; they give their life as a pure gift for progress; they accomplish the will of Providence; they perform a religious act.”
The best of the revolutionaries hate the violence they are compelled to commit in the name of justice. Fortunately for humankind, Hugo declares, God has so arranged matters that the need for violence has subsided, and men will henceforth advance peacefully on the effulgent future. Sadly, world-historical prognostication was not Hugo’s forte.
The outstanding South American novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is ideally placed to lead a reconsideration of Victor Hugo, and in his important new book, The Temptation of the Impossible, Vargas Llosa examines the providential vein in Les Misérables that runs through both individual destinies and the life of nations. “Fortuitous meetings, extraordinary coincidences, intuitions, and supernatural predictions, an instinct that, beyond reason, drives men and women forward, toward good or evil, and, in addition, an innate predisposition that puts society on the road to progress and inclines men and women toward virtue, these are all the essential characteristics of this world.”
Vargas Llosa draws a bead on what he calls the “irresistible traps” in which Fate ensnares the main characters by “multiplying coincidences to a vertiginous degree”—the Gorbeau tenement where the Jondrettes assault Leblanc, the barricade at the rue de la Chanvrerie, the Paris sewers. “These are very intense locations, stalked by destruction and death, and the meetings that take place there spell imminent catastrophe for the heroes: their murder, their ruin, or their imprisonment. These traps are magnets of fate.” Whereas Victor Hugo himself seemed capable of transmuting iron adversities into sterling accomplishments, thus furnishing a living argument for untrammeled human freedom, in Les Misérables “fate is always lying in wait, and human beings, unlike the real Victor Hugo, can rarely escape its traps or turn its onslaught into advantage.”
Yet Vargas Llosa also points out that the characters’ subjection to fate sometimes exists in subtle dialectic with their freedom. “Characters cannot define the boundaries between these two worlds in which they are free or slaves, responsible or irresponsible. Readers are similarly perplexed. Does fate intervene to get Jean Valjean to arrive on time for the trial of poor Champmathieu, or is it Jean Valjean himself who, by taking fate in his own hands, overcomes all the obstacles in his way?” Such moral nuance complicates what could otherwise have been the most lurid fictional travesty of reality.
Still, the novel’s overwhelming effect is of destiny in the hands of a godly creator knowing and powerful as no human agent can ever be, and Vargas Llosa argues that the reader does not mind this patent manipulation. Personal fate in the grip of Providence seems perfectly appropriate for so outsized a hero as Jean Valjean; suffering and transcendence reminiscent of Christ’s own, as Hugo takes pains to make clear, rightly belong in the loving charge of God himself. Vargas Llosa writes: “When our grandparents wept as they read Les Misérables, they thought that the characters moved them to tears because of their touching humanity. But what really moved them was their ideal nature, their manifest inhumanity.” Today we understand more readily Hugo’s effect: The aspiration to moral perfection in the face of pervasive individual evil and institutional corruption colors the world of the novel, and these golden notions of humanity at their most heroic fill us with love for characters so obviously unreal.
It is possible that Hugo’s treatment in Les Misérables of the way Providence determines the fate of entire nations at the Battle of Waterloo also influenced Tolstoy’s handling of Napoleon in War and Peace (1869). In Vargas Llosa’s words: “The great events of history obey a complicated, ineluctable destiny. The defeat that Napoleon suffers at Waterloo is, according to the divine stenographer [Hugo’s narrator], due to a series of accidents.” Hugo hammers home, just as Tolstoy does, the ways in which Providence utterly subjugates prudence, the capacity of military and political intelligence. In Hugo’s words, “That Waterloo should be the end of Austerlitz, Providence needed only a little rain, and an unseasonable cloud crossing the sky sufficed for the overthrow of a world.”
Providential history weighs the sufferings of multitudes against a single man’s force and finds Napoleon morally wanting. “Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed. He vexed God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is the change of front of the universe.” Hugo the seer discloses the workings of God as Destiny, while the great military hero discreetly vanishes to make way for the democratic century.
There are good democrats, however, as Vargas Llosa shows, for whom Les Misérables is a profound affront to liberal moderation and therefore a genuinely dangerous book. The poet and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine, head of the 1848 provisional revolutionary government, contended that Les Misérables presents “an excessive, radical, and sometimes unjust critique of society, which might lead human beings to hate what saves them, which is social order, and to become delirious about what will cause their downfall: the antisocial dream of the undefined ideal.” The divine origins of inequality, Lamartine argued, militate against Hugo’s wholesale indictment of society for its failure to embody divine justice.
In any case, he went on, such flagrant abuses of justice as Monsieur Madeleine’s being sentenced to the galleys are flagrantly unreal: “The world is not like that.” As for pain and misfortune in general, given the material men have to work with, they are bound to be ineradicable, and Hugo’s book is dangerous because it is oblivious to this brute fact: Les Misérables “gives unintelligent men a passion for the impossible: the most terrible and the most homicidal of passions that one can instill in the masses is the passion for the impossible. Because everything is impossible in the aspirations of Les Misérables, and the main impossibility is that all our suffering will disappear.”
Lamartine’s is really the sensible voice of liberal democracy, which does not expect moral heroism of its citizens or perfect justice of its society. Vargas Llosa in both his literary and political careers—he ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990, advocating democratic values, including a turn toward a free-market economy—has possessed just such a voice himself. In the 1991 essay “Saul Bellow and Chinese Whispers,” collected in Making Waves, he assails the “Deng Xiaopings, Fidel Castros, ayatollahs, Kim Il Sungs and their like still loose in the world. They have tried to bring the heavens to the earth and like all those who have attempted to do so, they have created unliveable societies.” Yet, in his new book, Vargas Llosa plainly comes down on the side of the utopian visionary Victor Hugo against Lamartine, whom he likens to the agents of the Spanish Inquisition.
Why then this volte-face, which makes a hero of the immoderate Hugo and a villain of the moderate Lamartine? Vargas Llosa appears to think that, as Hugo’s novel has served as moral armament to enemies of tyranny, so anyone who finds his socialist utopianism seriously objectionable must be taking the side of tyrants. Here it is a matter of excess responding to the excess that was in turn responding to excess: Vargas Llosa’s to Lamartine’s to Hugo’s.
Vargas Llosa is absolutely right, however, in recognizing that there is moral beauty in Hugo’s vision, to which Lamartine, in meanness of spirit, seems altogether blind: “There is no doubt . . . that in the history of literature, Les Misérables is one of the works that have been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one they live in.”
To love the radiance in the heart of Jean Valjean, and perhaps even of the insurrectionists on the barricades, is not the same as to adopt a political program or call the troops to arms. Hugo was not writing a political tract but what he explicitly called “a religious book.” Les Misérables is above all a testament to human goodness and to the mysterious goodness of a God who allows terrible suffering as men struggle to perfect their souls, and who loves men all the more for their struggle.
Algis Valiunas is a literary critic in Florida and author of Churchill’s Military Histories: A Rhetorical Study.