previous sub-section
5 The Terrible Years
next sub-section


La Révolution littéraire et la Révolution politique ont fait en moi leur jonction.
Victor Hugo, Océan

The literary Revolution and the political Revolution have joined in me.

The power of Hugo's portrait of Paris in Quatrevingt-treize lies in its idealization and in the way that the city, like the Revolution, is placed beyond dispute. Personification is no longer adequate to render the idea of Paris that sustains this novel. Hugo forswears the traditional images of Paris. The most grandiose personification cannot convey the immensity of the city. By 1874 Hugo's Paris is an idea, the idea of the Revolution that Hugo dramatizes in Quatrevingt-treize. (Literally as well, since '93, the dramatic adaptation of 1881, had over 100 performances.)

A further comparison with Notre-Dame de Paris illuminates the striking transformation in Hugo's conception of the city. Forty years, two failed revolutions, and an extraordinary metamorphosis in the city as place separate the two novels. Notre-Dame de Paris is a novel of urban places, a novel that hears and sees and feels the city. Notre-Dame de Paris bespeaks the optimism of 1830 that produced the myth of Paris, the sense of discovery of the city, its present and its history. It is this myth that sustains Balzac's artist-flâneur as he takes hold of the city,


explores its furthest reaches and lays bare its secrets. Notre-Dame de Paris too stages the city. Despite the 348 years that separate Hugo's Paris of 1830 from the Paris of Claude Frollo and Quasimodo, Notre-Dame de Paris is firmly anchored to place. Strongly delineated particular places structure the novel: the cathedral in the center of the city that centers the novel; the Latin Quarter, where the students throng; the Place de Grève, where Quasimodo is pilloried and Esmeralda is hung; the Court of Miracles, the city-state within the city governed by the band of gypsies; and, finally, brooding over all, the prison-fortress of the Bastille. Notre-Dame de Paris gives life to the stones of the city. Hugo even claims the origins of the novel in the mysterious inscription that he saw carved in a stone within the cathedral. Notre-Dame de Paris not only reads the old Paris beneath the new, it resurrects the old text in the new. The new Paris that we see is the city of this text as well as the topography before our eyes. "For those who know that Quasimodo existed," Hugo maintains, "Notre-Dame is today deserted, inanimate, dead."

The Paris of Quatrevingt-treize utterly lacks this sense of place. Its primary space, as the title indicates, is not topographical but chronological. The Revolution that Notre-Dame de Paris foreshadows, Quatrevingt-treize enacts, but the revolution is peculiarly detached from the city in which it is nevertheless incarnated and in which it originates. Where the Revolution foreshadowed in Notre-Dame de Paris is fixed in the city by the Bastille, the Revolution in Quatrevingt-treize is embodied by a distinct and movable object, the guillotine. The mobility of this instrument of revolution figures perfectly the mobility of the Revolution itself, an idea that can take hold anywhere. Modernity and the Revolution are rendered by movement and thought. The Convention as Hugo presents it in Quatrevingt-treize is an endless flux of words; "intemperance of language reigned" (169), speeches multiplied. Continual movement submerged the contributions of the individual members, "even the greatest" among them. "To impute the revolution to men is to impute the tide to the waves" (171). The chapter entitled "The Streets of Paris in Those Days" begins with a paragraph lasting almost five pages in which Hugo endeavors to encompass the sense of public life in revolutionary Paris through a succession of sentences and phrases beginning with the impersonal "on" and rendered in the imperfect. The reader comes away with a sense


of perpetual motion, of effervescence, a sense of movement, not of site.

People used to live in public, they ate on tables set up in front of doorways, the women seated on the church steps made bandages while singing "The Marseillaise," the Parc Monceau and the Luxembourg gardens were drill fields . . .; No one seemed to have time. Everyone was in a hurry. . . Everywhere newspapers . . . On all the walls, posters, big, small, white, yellow, green, red, printed, handwritten, where one read this cry: Long live the Republic! (111-14 )

Hugo had long associated the Revolution with movement. The whole of Notre-Dame de Paris is structured by the opposition of the medieval civilization imprinted on the cathedral and the modern civilization that will come from the printing press (see bk. 5, chap. 1, "Ceci tuera cela"). Any number of images and metaphors contrasts the stasis of the cathedral, where knowledge is bottled up in the secret researches of Claude Frollo, with the volatility of the printed word. The word will eventually bring down the Bastille just as the guillotine will vanquish La Tourgue. The marquis de Lantenac does not have Hugo's sympathy, but he voices Hugo's belief in the power of the word. "When I think," the marquis laments, "that none of this would have happened if Voltaire had been hung and Rousseau sentenced to hard labor" (352). "No scribblers! as long as there are Voltaires, there will be Marats" (353).

The triumph of print is assured and the connection to revolution is confirmed because movement is life. Thus Hugo ties his properly sociological and political analysis of the connection between the printed word and revolution to his belief in nature and the eternal forces of the divine. The word is, for Hugo, the ultimate manifestation of the divine: "Words are the Word, and the Word is God" ("Suite" à la "Réponse à un acte d'accusation"). Hugo's identification with the movement of the word, his belief in the efficacy of the printed word, inevitably detach him from that which is fixed. The writer inhabits words not places. Moreover, the words that he inhabits—better still, the word by which he accedes to a higher realm—necessarily detach him from place. Paris is powerful less as a place that individuals inhabit than as an idea that produces the words of revolution. Whence its power. "Paris, being an idea as much as a city, is ubiquitous."[15]

The staggering self-confidence of Hugo in these matters may keep us from appreciating an important truth. The story of Paris and its


place in his thought is peculiarly enabling both as device and resource. All of his assurance flows from his recognition that Paris is both place and idea, both context and word. Only by accepting Hugo's utter faith in this power of the word can we understand the extraordinary claim that "the literary Revolution and the political Revolution have joined in me."[16]Quatrevingt-treize stages this juncture. Whereas the introduction to Paris-Guide historicizes the Revolution as idea, Quatrevingt-treize dramatizes the movement that propels the idea. For both texts, Hugo writes from the distance of the far removed Hauteville House, and in both instances he has chosen exile. Thus the imperatives of performance drive a mythology that is at once personal and historical and a rhetoric that requires for its effect the excessive, the monumental, even the monstrous. The Terrible Years of 1793 and 1871 were all of these. Quatrevingt-treize contains the Terror, and it does so by proposing a cosmology in which evil is a temporary but vital, even positive, element in the good that necessarily follows. The city of progress, this novel reassures us, will itself progress and will carry that progress to the world beyond. In this way Hugo not only fuses literature and revolution, as he claims, but also subsumes both into the encompassing myth of Paris.

previous sub-section
5 The Terrible Years
next sub-section