“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” The spark Victor Hugo ignited in the literary world made him one of the greatest French writers. He was among the leaders of the Romantic literary movement, and during a career that spanned over 60 years, he wrote numerous novels, poems, critical essays, political speeches, and dramas in prose and verse. Many of his works deal with social and political issues, and even though Les Misérables is undoubtedly his most famous novel, there are plenty of titles in his vast opus that deserve a mention.
1. Hans of Iceland
Written in 1821, Hans of Iceland is Hugo’s first novel. It has all the characteristics of a gothic novel–horrific murders done by the hand of a monster, a young knight in love with a servant, trickery among royals, and rebellious uprising. All of this takes place in dark towers and dungeons of Norway, contributing to the atmosphere of mystery and terror. The novel’s lengthy narrative joins different stories together, establishing Hugo’s role as a master storyteller. It’s also a perfect example of romanticism in literature, a glorification of nature and emotion.
2. Les Misérables
Considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, Les Misérables took 17 years to be recognized. The novel follows the lives and interactions of several characters, with a focus on ex-convict Jean Valjean and his struggle to redeem himself and lead a normal life. Hugo explores many themes in this novel, including his country’s history, politics, religion, justice, and different types of familial and romantic love. The novel’s popularity only grew as the years passed, and the story has been adapted numerous times for film, television, and stage.
3. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
One of Hugo’s most well-known works, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is a gothic novel set in Paris in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI. It follows the story of a beautiful gypsy named Esmeralda, who captures the hearts of many men, especially the one of Quasimodo, the Notre-Dame’s bellringer. Quasimodo was born with a hunchback, which makes local people fear him as a monster, but he finds comfort in an unexpected way. Hugo wrote this novel with the aim of raising people’s awareness of the value of Gothic architecture which, at the time, was being destroyed and replaced by new buildings. The book succeeded in its mission, renewing the public’s interest in the restoration of the Gothic style and making Notre-Dame de Paris a national icon.
4. The Man Who Laughs
Although it was met with negative reactions upon publication in 1869, The Man Who Laughs is considered one of Hugo’s greatest works. The story follows Gwynplaine, a young nobleman whose face was mutilated as a child, resulting in a permanent laugh. The novel takes place in England in the period between 1680s and 1700s and it presents English royalty and aristocracy of the time as cruel and obsessed with power. It’s interesting to note that the character of Gwynplaine was one of the original inspirations for Batman’s Joker.
5. Claude Geux
Claude Geux, the titular character of Hugo’s 1834 short story, is a destitute social outcast who received no education, work opportunities, or any help whatsoever from his country. After stealing firewood and bread for his family, he is caught and condemned to five years in prison. There he works everyday as a tailor, spending nights in dirty cells and getting barely enough food to survive. However, he manages to forge friendships, which irritates the prison’s arrogant director. Claude Geux is considered to be an early example of “true crime” fiction, and it expresses Hugo’s early views on social injustice, which would be fully refined in Les Misérables some 30 years later.
6. The Toilers of the Sea
Being a firm opponent of Napoleon III’s regime, Hugo decided to leave France in 1851 after Napoleon III seized complete power and re-established the French Empire. During his political exile, Hugo spent 15 years on Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel. He dedicated The Toilers of the Sea to the hospitality of the people in Guernsey, transforming seemingly banal, day-to-day events into a rich drama.
The story follows Gilliatt, an outsider who falls in love with Deruchette, the niece of Lethierry, a local shipowner. When Lethierry’s ship ends up wrecked on a dangerous reef, Deruchette promises to marry whoever manages to retrieve the ship’s steam engine. Gilliat gladly accepts the challenge, but his mission won’t be an easy one.
Bug-Jargal is considered one of the most important works of 19th century colonial fiction. It depicts the turbulent early years of the Haitian Revolution, led by self-liberated slaves against the French colonial rule. The story centers on the friendship between the enslaved African prince Bug-Jargal and a French military officer Leopold D’Auverney, and their struggle to preserve their relationship, despite the fact that they fight on opposite sides. The novel takes place in 1791 and draws parallels between the slave uprising and the French revolution. Some see it as a monarchist, others as a pro-revolution piece–you can judge for yourself.
8. How to be a Grandfather
How to Be a Grandfather is a book of poems that offers a unique insight into the familial relations of the famous author. The collection of poems was inspired by tragic events, namely the deaths of Hugo’s son and daughter-in-law, which left Hugo the guardian of his grandchildren. Despite the grim circumstances, Hugo’s poems are a celebration of love and tenderness, in which the joy and innocence of youth triumph over the bleakness of old age. Although originally published in 1877 in France, it took over a century for this book to be translated to English, with the first English version appearing in 2012.
9. The History of a Crime
The History of a Crime is a political essay in which Hugo details Napoleon III’s rise to power and overtaking of France, and it contains fierce attacks on the French ruler. It was written during Hugo’s political exile and published in 1877, following Hugo’s return to France. The essay was banned in France, but it still had a profound impact on the public. Hugo expressed his support for the working class and his contempt for Napoleon III and his relentless pursuit of power, which often came at the expense of human lives.
Ninety-Three is Hugo’s last novel and it deals with the counter-revolutionary revolts during the French Revolution in 1793. The book is divided into three parts, but the events are not presented in chronological order. Each part tells a different version of historical events. Although Hugo clearly favors the revolutionaries, his writing remains unbiased. Both Royalists and Republicans are depicted as idealistic people, devoted to their causes, and prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.
11. The Last Day of a Condemned Man
Hugo was a fierce advocate for the abolishment of capital punishment, and The Last Day of a Condemned Man expresses his views on the guillotine. The nameless protagonist of the novel has been condemned to die for a crime he doesn’t reveal, and he recounts his life as he waits for execution, knowing there’s little he can do to change his fate. Although short, this is a profound and moving story that acts as a social commentary on 19th century France, while also featuring tie-ins with Les Misérables.