Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
II. By Andrew Lang
PERHAPS only two great poets have been great novelists, Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. If any one likes to say that Scott is a great novelist, but only a considerable poet, I fear I might be tempted to retort, quite unjustly, that Hugo is a great poet, but only a considerable novelist. However, I am unwilling to draw invidious distinctions. In all Hugos vast volume of work, poetry, satire, fiction, the drama, I am inclined to think that his lyrics have most of the stuff of immortality: imperishable charm. In his lyrics he is most human, most like a man of this world; or, what is as good, an angel singing out of heaven. In his dramas, and still more in his novels, on the other hand, he is less human than Titanic. He is a good Titan, like Prometheus, tortured by the sense of human miseries, and uttering his laments as if from the crest of a gorge in Caucasus. Hugos poignant sense of the wretchedness of men, above all of the poor, is not unfelt by Scott; but how does he express it? In the brief words of Sanders Mucklebackit, as he patches the auld black bitch o a boat, in which his son has just been drowned. Again, and more terribly, he gives voice to the degradation, the consuming envy, the hatred of the mauvais pauvre, in the talk of the ghoul-like attendants of the dead, the hags and the witch of The Bride of Lammermoor. Human beings speak as human beingsin the second case, almost as devilsbut these scenes are seldom presented in the happy stoical pages of Sir Walter. A favourite motive of Hugos is the maternal passion of a woman otherwise socially lostPaquerette or Fantine. Her child is taken from her, and we all weep, or nearly weep, with those unhappy ones. But the idea had also been handled by Scott, in the story of Madge Wildfire, distraught like Paquerette. Naebody kens weel whas living, and whas deador whas gane to Fairylandtheres another question. Whiles I think my puir bairns deadye ken very weel its buriedbut that signifies naething. I have had it on my knee a hundred times, and a hundred till that, since it was buriedand how could that be were it dead, ye ken. Madge with her wild chants is not less poetical than Fantine, to whose sorrows Hugo adds a poignancy and a grotesque horror which Scott had it not in his heart to inflict.
Hugos novels, especially Les Misérables, LHomme Qui Rit, and parts of Notre Dame de Paris, are the shrill or thunderous ototototois of the tortured Titan. They are apocalyptic in grandeur, but they are grand with little relief, or with the relief of what may appear too conscious and extreme contrast. The charm, the gaiety, the innumerable moods that make music throughout his lyrics are less common in his novels. If there is relief, it is poignant in the pathos of childhood, or contemptible, as in the empty-headed Phbus de Châteaupers, or the noisy students of Notre Dame de Paris.
Scott sees the world of sunshine and of rain, green wood, and loch and moor, and blowing fields of corn. Hugo beholds the world as if in the flashes of lightning and the pauses of the tempest. He sees everything magnified larger than human, and he is Titanically deficient in the sweet humour of Shakespeare and Fielding, Dumas, and Molière. Thus unfriendly critics, and of these he has had no lack, might style his novels gigantesque, rather than great. His humpbacked, bell-ringing dwarf is like a colossal statue of the cruel Dwarf-God, found in Yucatan or old Anahuac. Quasimodo is, in some regards, like Quilp seen through an enormous magnifying glass, and Quilp himself was sufficiently exaggerated. Had Æschylus written novels, they would have been tame and creeping compared to those of Hugo. Yet he is not a mere exaggerator, one of the popular demoniacs who work as if in the flare and roar of a boiler-factory. He is a great genius, full of tenderness and poetry. To be superhuman is his foible.
Hugo began Notre Dame with dogged and gloomy desire to finish a task. This it may be which renders the initial chapters, the vast descriptions of people, crowds, street scenes, ambassadors, the Cardinal, and the rest, rather prolix. But when once Esmeralda, Claude Frollo, and Quasimodo appear, the story races on. Gringoire, the typical poet, concentrated in the fiasco of his own play, while every other person is more than indifferent, has humour and is sympathetic. But Gringoire following Esmeralda and her goat; Quasimodo divinized in burlesque, a Pope of Unreason, yet tickled, for once, in his vanity; Esmeralda a pearl on the dunghill, dancing and singing; the empty, easily conquering Phbus; the mad and cruel love of the priest, Claude Frollowhen these are reached, the story lives, burns, and rushes to its awful portentous close. Rushes, I said, but the current is broken, and dammed into long pools, mirrors of a motionless past, in all editions except the first. Hugo, as she tells us, lost three of his chapters, and published the first edition without them. Two of them were the studies of mediæval architecture, which interfere with the action. However excellent in themselves (intended, as they are, to raise a vision of the Paris of Louis XI), these chapters, introduced just where the author has warmed to his work and the tale is accumulating impetus, are possibly out of place. We grumble at Scotts longueurs: the first chapter of Quentin Durward is an historical essay. But Hugo certainly had not mastered the art of selection and conciseness. His excursus on architecture is admirable, but imprudent.
These chapters, however, are the natural blossoms of the devotion to the mediæval which inspired the Romantic movement. Every poetic Jean was then a Jehan. Rudolph carried his bonne dague de Tolède, and, when George Sand dined at a restaurant, her virtue was protected from tyrants by an elegant dagger. The architecture of the Middle Ages, the spires, and soaring roofs, and flying buttresses, and machicolations, were the passion of Hugo.
The interest, before the architectural interruption, lay in the chase of Esmeralda by Gringoire; in the beggar-world, with its king and gibbet, like the Alsatia of the Fortunes of Nigel vastly magnified. The underworld of Paris, that for centuries has risen as the foam on the wave of revolution, fascinated Hugo. The hideous and terrible aspect of these grotesques he could scarcely exaggerate. It is urged that Esmeralda, a finer Fenellaa success, not a failurecould not have been bred and blossomed in her loathsome environment. The daughter of a woman utterly lost, till redeemed by the maternal passion, Esmeralda must have gone the way of her world. But it is Hugos method to place a marvellous flower of beauty, grace, and goodness on his fumier. The method is not realism; it is a sacrifice to the love of contrast. In short, this is the probable impossible which Aristotle preferred to the improbable possible; and the reader who yields himself to the author has no difficulty in accepting Esmeralda and the heart-breaking story of her mother. Claude Frollo demands and receives the same acceptance, with his fraternal affection, his disbelief in all but the incredible promises of alchemy, his furious passion, and fury of resistance to his passion. Whether Esmeralda is made more credible by her love of Phbus, which proves her bane, is a question. That love strikes one as a touch of realism, an idea that Thackeray might have conceived, perhaps relenting, and rejecting the profanation. Whether the motive clashes or not with the romanticism of Esmeraldas part, we may excuse it by the ruling and creative word of the romanceANATKHDoom.
On one essential point Hugo certainly does not exaggerate. The trial of Esmeralda is merely the common procedure in cases of witchcraft. With the evidence of the goat, the withered leaf, and the apparition of the mysterious monk against her, there was no escape. Thousands were doomed to a horrible death (in Scotland till the beginning of the eighteenth century) on evidence less damning. The torture applied to Esmeralda is that with which Jeanne dArc was threatened, escaping only by her courage and presence of mind. For the rest, the Maid endured more, and worse, and longer than Esmeralda, from the pedantic and cowardly cruelty of the French clergy of the age. One point might be perhaps urged against the conduct of the story. The Inquisition spared the life of the penitent sorceress, in Catholic countries, though Presbyterian judges were less merciful than the Inquisition. Esmeralda, who confessed to witcheries, under torture, would as readily have recanted her errors. It does not appear why she was hanged. If executed for witch-craft, it would have been by fire; and obviously she had not murdered Phbus, who led the archers at the rescue of the Cathedral from the beggars. That scene is one of the most characteristic in the book, lit by flame and darkened by smoke. The ingenuity by which the mother of Esmeralda is made to help in causing her destruction, blinded as she is by [Greek] is one of Hugos cruel strokes of stagecraft. The figure of such a mother, bankrupt of everything in life but the maternal passion, haunted Hugo, and recurs in Fantine. The most famous scene of all, vivid as with the vividness of a despairing dream, is the agony of the accursed priest as he swings from the leaden pipe on the roof of Notre Dame. Once read the retribution is never forgottenthe picture of the mad lover and murderer swaying in air; death below; above, the one flaming eye of the monstrous Quasimodo.
The portrait of Louis XI, as compared with Scotts of the same King, has been likened to a Velasquez as vastly superior to a Vandyke. To myself, Scotts Louis appears rather to resemble a Holbein; Hugos to be comparable to a miser by Rembrandt. But such comparisons and parallels are little better than fanciful. I find myself, as regards the whole book, sometimes rather in agreement with the extravagantly hostile verdict of Goethenever, indeed, persuaded that Notre Dame is the most odious book ever written, but feeling that the agonies are too many, too prolonged, and too excruciating, the contrasts too violent. Strength alone, even when born of the Muses, has the defects which Keats notes in one of his earliest poems.From Victor Hugos Novels.