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Realism and Its Vicissitudes

Essays in Honor of Sandy Petrey

Edited By Robert Harvey and Patrice Nganang

This collection honors the career of Donald «Sandy» Petrey, Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for over forty years. The diversity of essays – written by colleagues, friends, and former students, and ranging in subject from the traditional Festschrift theme of the honoree’s compelling contributions to the study of realism and the novel’s role in history, to chapters on Susan Sontag’s experimental films, the thought of the late Marxist philosopher André Gorz, silence in the graphic novel, and linguistic disparities between American and Standard Italian – attests to the plasticity of Sandy Petrey’s mind and the ample indications of his work. Best-known (and well-loved) for his often gruff, no-nonsense style in teaching and prose, Petrey is celebrated by those whose careers and ideas he has helped to nurture, inform, and embolden. This collection is a fine text for courses in nineteenth-century as well as contemporary French studies and literature.
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4. Victor Hugo as Realist in Notre-Dame de Paris

The Play’s the Thing

Extract



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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