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Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three
by Cameron Pritchard

Victor Hugo is best known for Les MisÚrables and Notre Dame de Paris, two classics of Romantic literature. But Hugo's final novel, Ninety-Three, is a work of such power, scope and passion that it ranks with the most famous of his works.

The theme of the novel, as Ayn Rand wrote in her own 'Introduction to Ninety-Three' (republished in The Romantic Manifesto) is "man's loyalty to values." The background: 1793, France. It is the year of the Terror, of Robespierre, of the guillotine, of Louis XVI's head. The forces of revolution will stop at nothing to continue their progress and eradicate the counter-revolutionaries who would seek to return France to monarchy. The future of France, and indeed of Europe, lies in the balance.

A monarchist insurrection led by the Marquis de Lantenac is attempting to open the door for an invasion by England. De Lantenac is a formidable character--smuggled on a boat from England, he saves the life of a seaman who stops the destruction of the ship by a loose cannon, and then executes him for endangering the lives of all aboard by letting the cannon go loose in the first place. A hero among monarchist peasants, de Lantenac is made to shine with the glow of an immense nobility, despite Hugo's anti-monarchist sentiment.

The novel pits de Lantenac against two republican warriors--one a former priest, Cimourdain, who has replaced his religious devotion with devotion to the revolution, to which he brings a similar religiosity and a total lack of mercy. His only love is Gauvain, the boy he brought up, who is now one of the republic's finest. But Gauvain's devotion to the revolution is matched with a conscience. The two men have very different conceptions of the kind of republic they want, and the means by which they are prepared to achieve it. Hugo brilliantly portrays their differing visions. Take this piece of dialogue, where Gauvain begins:

"Your Republic weighs, measures, regulates man; mine lifts him into the open sky. It is the difference between a theorem and an eagle."

Cimourdain replies, and the dialogue continues:

"'You lose yourself in the clouds.'
'And you in calculation.'
'Harmony is full of dreams.'
'There are such, too, in algebra.'
'I would have man made by the rules of Euclid.'
'And I,' said Gauvain, 'would like him better as pictured by Homer.'"

A master Romantic, Hugo never fails to show the motivations behind his characters. And those motivations are always values. Vastly different values motivate de Lantenac, Cimourdain and Gauvain. The defence and glory of monarchy for de Lantenac; for Cimourdain the ruthless pursuit of a perfect republic; for Gauvain, a republic of benevolence and humanism. But because Hugo shows both the three men's values and their commitment to fighting for them in the fierce heat of battle, he presents each man as an awesome human being.

Rand once wrote that Hugo's radiant sense of life made it impossible for him ever to depict a totally believable villain. And so it is in Ninety-Three. All three men are heroic in their own ways, and perhaps this demonstrates Hugo's own background: his political leanings began as monarchist before he became a staunch republican. He knew that both the old order and the new had their heroes. He knew that any time humans fought for values heroism would result. But he knew as well as many the wrath the revolution and its aftermath brought--he himself fled Napolean. It appears that he was unable to see progress as coming about through anything other than imperfect, violent and brutal means. Such knowledge deeply burdened him.

So it is with the character of Gauvain, whose showing of mercy to de Lantenac shows the strength of the commitment he has to his own conscience above all else. Cimourdain, who believes the revolution must show no mercy, finds a response of his own to Gauvain's treachery that allows him to remain loyal both to the republic and to his beloved Gauvain--but it is not without tragedy.

The dramatic climax of the novel pits the characters against each other, and against themselves, in a brilliant dramatisation of self-reflection and integrity towards one's own convictions. We may not necessarily sympathise with those convictions, but as a great work of art Ninety-Three emboldens us by demonstrating the importance of values in human life, and the nobility of fighting for them.

In his introduction to the second Carroll and Graf edition of Ninety-Three (1998), Graham Robb notes that "A writer of Hugo's stature and versatility is unimaginable in our own time." This is sadly true at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But Victor Hugo remains as a shining example of what is possible when the novel is based on glorifying the human spirit through both strong plot and strong characterisation. The only problem with Hugo is that his habit of taking several chapters to outline in excruciating detail such things as the architecture of a building, or the characteristics of a particular local dialect may, for many readers, serve as stumbling blocks in their enjoyment of his otherwise fast-moving and dramatic plots. My advise to Hugo novices: skip those bits. The most important thing is that you enjoy Hugo's work. It would be a shame to give up on Hugo simply because one tires of such parts.

That said, Victor Hugo remains a towering figure in literature. If you admire the novels of Ayn Rand, and seek to find the same depiction of human heroism in literature elsewhere, go to where Rand herself began-- the works of Victor Hugo. Among them, Ninety-Three is romanticism at its finest.
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