Here is a word which comes back very often in the correspondence of the author. But not necessarily where one would expect it from a romantic, in the sense that we understand it today. Love, for Victor Hugo, is a principle of communication with beings, with all beings, human or not, dead or alive. The passion in love is one of these ways. Love for one’s children, love of sea bathing are others. Of course, there are dissonances: anger, malice, death. But for Hugo it is always love that has the last word. On August 4, 1855, he wrote to George Sand:
“I learn that a misfortune has just struck you. You have lost a little child. You are suffering. Would you allow someone who admires you and loves you to take your hand in his and to tell you that all his heart is yours. (…) There is no death. All is life, all is love, all is light, or waiting for light.”
The world of Victor Hugo is prodigiously animated. It is at the antipodes of Descartes’ world, made up of decomposable mechanisms, where the living beings are very sophisticated machines. Everything thinks. Everything is full of souls. For Hugo, a rock thinks, like a grasshopper or a bird. As a result, the world becomes extraordinarily alive.
“Man! Around you the creation dreams
Thousand unknown beings surround you in your wall.
You come, you go, you sleep under their obscure glance,
And you do not feel them living around your life.
What you name thing, object, still life,
Knows, thinks, listens, hears. The lock of your door
Sees the fault coming and would like to close.
Your window knows the dawn, and says: See, Believe! Love!”
“Do you see this little flower, my beloved Toto? It took a whole big mountain to make it. It is the image of poetry in this world. Poetry is an exquisite and delicate thing, and it takes a big heart to produce it. (…) Keep also forever in your heart the love of God, of nature, of your mother and of your father. Let these four feelings be one. To be intelligent is to be good. To be good is to be everything.”
To his son François-Victor, Tolosa, August 9, 1843
If there is complexity in Hugo’s novels, it is in the construction, in the architecture, or in the detail. In terms of psychology, however, do not look for Dostoyevsky in Victor Hugo. The characters are simple, agitated by impulses of violence or goodness but not very nuanced. They are cartoon characters. Nothing is further from them, for example, than the characters neither good nor bad of Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale.
Hugo is simple, but not naive: he knows the violence of men, their cowardice, all the dark shades of our species. But he is carried by an indestructible faith: once a man has seen, felt the light of goodness, he is capable of redemption.
Victor Hugo is perhaps the only writer who loves the crowd. His colleagues in general shy away from it. He likes the power that emerges when it is angry, the rustling of humanity in the street, the titanic battles. Because he loves what is great, unfathomable, violent, unpredictable.
But he also loves the people in their humility, in their diversity. He believes in the original goodness of human beings, and will denounce all his life with great vigor the violence of the society towards the poor and the weak (Les Misérables). This was not a struggle shared by many writers in the 19th century, where holding the worker to be congenitally inferior was a commonplace opinion.