Essays in Honor of Sandy Petrey
Edited By Robert Harvey and Patrice Nganang
4. Victor Hugo as Realist in Notre-Dame de Paris
KATHRYN M. GROSSMAN
As the leader of the French romantic movement, Victor Hugo has taken his share of knocks for his idealist approach to social issues—not to mention for his lofty rhetoric and melodramatic, highly digressive narrative style. Yet while critics long relegated Hugo’s work to the shelf of a fusty, old-fashioned aesthetic, with its “romantic emphasis on feeling, imagination, and the transcendent that is inherited from the late eighteenth century,” scholars have more recently begun to consider the realist aspects of his prose fiction.1 After all, the “realist interest in materiality, observation, and the everyday,” associated with Stendhal and Balzac in the 1830s and later with Flaubert, derives directly from the historical novel as invented by Sir Walter Scott.2 Turning their focus to contemporary society, realist writers used such tools as “local colour and visual detail” supplied by historical fiction to root their narratives in the “historicized reality”3 of the here and now.
But they were not the first in France to derive inspiration from Scott’s work. Following his literary idol, Hugo had produced the first French historical novels in his early twenties with the publication of Han d’Islande (1823), set in late seventeenth-century Norway, and Bug-Jargal (1826), set in late eighteenth-century Santo Domingo.4 If Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829), which is situated in contemporary France, constitutes an example more of psychological than of historical realism, Hugo soon returns to the latter in his widely celebrated medieval tale, Notre-Dame de...
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