Biography of Victor Hugo, French Writer

Poet, novelist, and voice of the French Romantic Movement

Victor Hugo sitting on a stoop among leaves
Victor Hugo, photographed in 1868.

London Stereoscopic Company / Getty Images

Victor Hugo (February 26, 1802 – May 22, 1885) was a French poet and novelist during the Romantic Movement. Among French readers, Hugo is best known as a poet, but to readers outside of France, he’s best known for his epic novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables.

Fast Facts: Victor Hugo

  • Full Name: Victor Marie Hugo
  • Known For: French poet and author
  • Born: February 26, 1802 in Besançon, Doubs, France
  • Parents: Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet
  • Died: May 22, 1885 in Paris, France
  • Spouse: Adèle Foucher (m. 1822-1868)
  • Children: Léopold Hugo (1823), Léopoldine Hugo (1824-1843), Charles Hugo (b. 1826), François-Victor Hugo (1828-1873), Adèle Hugo (1830-1915)
  • Selected Works: Odes et Ballades (1826), Cromwell (1827), Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), Les Misérables (1862), Quatre-vingt-treize (1874)
  • Notable Quote: “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”

Early Life

Born in Besançon in Franche-Comté, a region in eastern France, Hugo was the third son born to Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo and Sophie Trébuchet Hugo. He had two older brothers: Abel Joseph Hugo (born 1798) and Eugène Hugo (born 1800). Hugo’s father was a general in the French army and a fervent supporter of Napoleon. As a result of his military career, the family moved frequently, including stints in Naples and Rome. For the most part, though, he spent his early years in Paris with his mother.

Hugo’s childhood was a time of immense political and military turmoil in France. In 1804, when Hugo was 2 years old, Napoleon was proclaimed emperor of France; a little over a decade later, the monarchy of the House of Bourbon was restored. These tensions were represented in Hugo’s own family: his father was a general with republican beliefs and a supporter of Napoleon, while his mother was Catholic and fervently royalist; her lover (and Hugo’s godfather) General Victor Lahorie was executed for conspiracies against Napoleon. Hugo’s mother was primarily responsible for his upbringing, and as a result, his early education was both intensely religious and strongly biased towards pro-monarchy sentiments.

As a young man, Hugo fell in love with Adèle Foucher, his childhood friend. They were well-matched in personality and in age (Foucher was only one year younger than Hugo), but his mother strongly disapproved of their relationship. Because of this, Hugo would not marry anyone else, but would not marry Foucher while his mother was still alive, either. Sophie Hugo died in 1821, and the couple were able to marry the following year, when Hugo was 21. They had their first child, Leopold, in 1823, but he died in infancy. Eventually, they were the parents of four children: two daughters (Leopoldine and Adele) and two sons (Charles and François-Victor).

Early Poetry and Plays (1822-1830)

  • Odes et poésies diverses (1822)
  • Odes (1823)
  • Han d'Islande (1823)
  • Nouvelles Odes (1824)
  • Bug-Jargal (1826)
  • Odes et Ballades (1826)
  • Cromwell (1827)
  • Le Dernier jour d'un condamné (1829)
  • Hernani (1830)

Hugo began writing as a very young man, with his first publication coming in 1822, the same year as his marriage. His first collection of poetry, titled Odes et poésies diverses was published when he was only 20 years old. The poems were so admired for their elegant language and passion that they came to the attention of the king, Louis XVIII, and earned Hugo a royal pension. He also published his first novel, Han d'Islande, in 1823.

Engraving of a portrait of young Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo circa 1840, engraving by J. Sartain from the original painting by Maurir.  Kean Collection/Getty Images

In these early days—and, indeed, through much of his writing career—Hugo was heavily influenced by one of his predecessors, French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, who was one of the preeminent literary figures in the Romantic Movement and one of France's most visible writers during the early 19th century. As a young man, Hugo vowed to be "Chateaubriand or nothing," and in many ways, he got his wish. Like his hero, Hugo became both an icon of Romanticism and an involved party in politics, which eventually led to his exile from his homeland.

Although the youthful, spontaneous nature of his early poems put him on the map, Hugo’s later work soon evolved to show off his remarkable skill and craftsmanship. In 1826, he published his second volume of poetry, this one titled Odes et Ballades. This work, in contrast to his more precocious first work, was more technically skillful and contained several well-received ballads and more.

Hugo’s early writings were not solely confined to poetry, though. He became a leader in the Romantic Movement with several plays during this time as well. His plays Cromwell (1827) and Hernani (1830) were at the epicenter of literary debates about the Romantic Movement’s tenets versus the rules of neoclassical writing. Hernani, in particular, sparked intense debate between traditionalists and Romantics; it came to be considered the vanguard of French Romantic drama. Hugo’s first work of prose fiction was also published during this time. Le Dernier jour d'un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man) was published in 1829. Telling the story of a man condemned to death, the short novel was the first appearance of the strong social conscience that Hugo’s later works would be known for.

First Novel and Further Writing (1831-1850)

  • Notre-Dame de Paris (1831)
  • Le roi s'amuse (1832)
  • Lucrezia Borgia (1833)
  • Marie Tudor (1833)
  • Ruy Blas (1838)
  • Les Rayons et les Ombres (1840)
  • Le Rhin (1842)
  • Les Burgraves (1843)

In 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was published; it was Hugo’s first full-length novel. It became a huge hit and was quickly translated into other languages for readers across Europe. The novel’s biggest legacy, though, was much more than literary. Its popularity led to a surge of interest in the real Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which had fallen into disrepair as a result of ongoing neglect.

Because of the stream of tourists who loved the novel and wanted to visit the real cathedral, the city of Paris began a major renovation project in 1844. The renovations and restorations lasted for 20 years and included the replacement of the famous spire; the spire built during this period stood for nearly 200 years, until it was destroyed in the 2019 Notre Dame fire. On a broader scale, the novel led to a renewed interest in pre-Renaissance buildings, which began to be cared for and restored more than they had in the past.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
The renovations to Notre Dame inspired by Hugo saved the cathedral from ruin.  IAISI/Getty Images

Hugo’s life during this period was also subject to some immense personal tragedy, which influenced his writing for some time. In 1843, his oldest (and favorite) daughter, Leopoldine, drowned in a boating accident when she was a 19-year-old newlywed. Her husband also died while trying to save her. Hugo wrote "À Villequier,” one of his most famous poems, in mourning for his daughter.

During this period, Hugo also spent some time in political life. After three attempts, he was finally elected to the Académie française (a council on French arts and letters) in 1841 and spoke in defense of the Romantic Movement. In 1845, he was raised to the peerage by King Louis Philippe I and spent his career in the Higher Chamber speaking out for issues of social justice—against the death penalty, for freedom of the press. He continued his political career via election to the National Assembly of the Second Republic in 1848, where he broke ranks with his fellow conservatives to denounce widespread poverty and to advocate for universal suffrage, the abolition of the death penalty, and free education for all children. However, his political career came to an abrupt end in 1851, when Napoleon III took over in a coup. Hugo strongly opposed Napoleon III’s reign, calling him a traitor, and as a result, he lived in exile outside of France.

Writing While in Exile (1851-1874)

  • Les Châtiments (1853)
  • Les Contemplations (1856
  • Les Misérables (1862)
  • Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866)
  • L'Homme qui rit (1869)
  • Quatre-vingt-treize (Ninety-Three) (1874)

Hugo eventually settled in Guernsey, a small island under British jurisdiction in the English Channel off the French coast of Normandy. Although he did continue to write political content, including several anti-Napoleon pamphlets that were banned in France yet still managed to make an impact, Hugo went back to his roots with poetry. He produced three volumes of poetry: Les Châtiments in 1853, Les Contemplations in 1856, and La Légende des siècles in 1859.

Victor Hugo sitting in a chair
Portrait of Victor Hugo later in life. pictore/Getty Images

For many years, Hugo had planned a novel about social injustices and the misery suffered by the poor. It wasn’t until 1862 that this novel was published: Les Misérables. The novel sprawls over a few decades, interweaving stories of an escaped parolee, a dogged policeman, an abused factory worker, a rebellious young rich man, and more, all leading up to the June Rebellion of 1832, a historical populist uprising that Hugo had witnessed himself. Hugo believed the novel to be the pinnacle of his work, and it became immensely popular among readers almost instantly. However, the critical establishment was much harsher, with almost universally negative reviews. In the end, it was the readers who won out: Les Mis became a genuine phenomenon which remains popular in the modern day, and has been translated into many languages and adapted into several other mediums.

In 1866, Hugo published Les Travailleurs de la Mer (The Toilers of the Sea), which pivoted away from the themes of social justice in his previous novel. Instead, it told a quasi-mythic tale about a young man trying to bring home a ship to impress his father, while battling natural forces and a giant sea monster. The book was dedicated to Guernsey, where he lived for 15 years. He also produced two more novels, which returned to more political and social themes. L'Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs) was published in 1869 and took a critical view of the aristocracy, while Quatre-vingt-treize (Ninety-Three) was published in 1874 and dealt with the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. By this time, realism and naturalism were coming into vogue, and Hugo’s Romantic style decreased in popularity. Quatre-vingt-treize would be his last novel.

Literary Styles and Themes

Hugo covered a wide variety of literary themes throughout his career, ranging from politically charged content to much more personal writings. In the latter category, he wrote several of his most acclaimed poems about his daughter’s untimely death and his own grief. He expressed his concerns for the welfare of others and of historical institutions, with themes reflecting his own republican beliefs and his anger at injustices and inequality.

Hugo was one of the most notable representatives of romanticism in France, from his prose to his poetry and plays. As such, his works largely embraced Romantic ideals of individualism, intense emotions, and a focus on heroic characters and actions. These ideals can be seen in many of his works, including some of his most notable ones. Sweeping emotion is a hallmark of Hugo’s novels, with language that drops the reader into the intense feelings of passionate, complicated characters. Even his most famous villains—Archdeacon Frollo and Inspector Javert—are permitted inner turmoil and strong feelings. In some cases, in his novels, Hugo’s narrative voice goes into immense detail about specific ideas or places, with intensely descriptive language.

Later in his career, Hugo became notable for his focus on themes of justice and suffering. His anti-monarchical views were on display in The Man Who Laughs, which turned a harsh eye on the aristocratic establishment. Most famously, of course, he focused Les Miserables on the plight of the poor and the horrors of injustice, which are depicted both on an individual scale (the journey of Jean Valjean) and a societal one (the June Rebellion). Hugo himself, in the voice of his narrator, describes the book thusly towards the end of the novel: “The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details ... a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul.”

Death

Hugo returned to France in 1870, but his life was never quite the same. He suffered a series of personal tragedies: the death of his wife and two sons, the loss of his daughter to an asylum, the death of his mistress, and he suffered a stroke himself. In 1881, he was honored for his contributions to French society; a street in Paris was even renamed for him and bears his name to this day.

Street sign for Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris
The sign for Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris's 16th arrondissement.  Jupiterimages/Getty Images

On May 20, 1885, Hugo died of pneumonia at the age of 83. His death sparked mourning across France due to his immense influence and the affection the French held for him. He had requested a quiet funeral but was instead given a state funeral, with over 2 million mourners joining the funeral procession in Paris. He was buried in the Panthéon, in the same crypt as Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola, and left 50,000 francs to the poor in his will.

Legacy

Victor Hugo is widely considered an icon of French literature and culture, to the point where many French cities have streets or squares named after him. He is, certainly, among the most recognizable French writers, and his works continue to be widely read, studied, and adapted in the modern day. In particular, his novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables have had a long and popular life, with multiple adaptations and entry into mainstream popular culture.

Even in his own time, Hugo’s work had influence beyond just literary audiences. His work was a strong influence in the music world, especially given his friendship with composers Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz, and many operas and other musical works were inspired by his writing—a trend which continues into the contemporary world, with the musical version of Les Misérables becoming one of the most popular musicals of all time. Hugo lived through a time of intense upheaval and societal change, and he managed to stand out as one of the most notable figures of a notable time.

Sources

  • Davidson, A.F. Victor Hugo: His Life and Work. University Press of the Pacific, 1912.
  • Frey, John Andrew. A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 1999.
  • Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.