Perhaps no one in history more poetically communicated the abstract concepts of justice and injustice better than Poetic Justice Warrior Victor Hugo.
As Poetic Justice Warrior Lisa VanDamme teaches us, “With a symphonic integration of all the resources of language, great poets take the most elusive nuances, thrills, mysteries, and motifs of love and throw them into sharp relief.”
Victor Hugo did this masterfully through the fictional characters he brought to our lives. Great literature is essential for showing us the heights of virtue and the depths of depravity. It teaches the richness of lives with purpose and the despair caused by ignorance or injustice. It gives our lives gravity.
In 1831 Hugo published his first novel, Notre Dame de Paris (aka Hunchback), in which he captured the grief of misfortune and injustice with his characterization of Paquette, a vibrant teenage girl who became orphaned, resorted to prostitution, began to age, and joined a monastery.
As she could not have a lover, she gave herself up to longing for a child. The good God had pity on her, and gave her a little girl. I cannot describe to you her delight; she covered it with a perfect rain of tears, kisses, and caresses. She grew handsome again. Her old friends came back to see her, and she readily found customers for her wares.
Upon leaving her daughter at home and asleep for a few moments, she returned to find the baby missing.
My pretty little daughter! If anyone will give me back my daughter, I will be his servant, the servant of his dog. When night came, she went home. A child’s cries were heard coming from Paquette’s room. Instead of her lovely little Agnes, so rosy and fresh, there was a hideous little monster, blind, deformed, and crawling about the floor.
The only thing remaining for Paquette to cling to was one little shoe that had adorned Agnes’ tiny foot. Poetic justice would be to see her daughter thriving again.
Thirty three years later Hugo published his last novel, Ninety Three. It is the story of a peasant revolt during the French Revolution. Central to the narrative are the exploits of the “Blues,” the soldiers of the French Republic, and their encounter with a peasant woman and her three young children. Sergeant Radoub and his battalion dedicated themselves to the safety of the children. When they are taken hostage during a battle with the Royalist “Whites,” Radoub owned it,
You see, commander, our babies are in that tower. Do you understand this, master? We do not want any harm to happen to them. I took advantage of the truce to go up on the plateau, and I saw them through a window. I swear a thousand times by all that is holy that I, Sergeant Radoub, that I will do something desperate. And this is what all the battalion say: ‘We want the children saved, or we want to be all killed. This is our right, yes, to be all killed.
Its important to emphasize that Radoub’s battalion had no use for the arbitrary self-sacrifice required by collectivism; it was about their freely chosen values. Their virtue was selfishness. The novel’s philosophy is about the humane values of individualism that transcend tradition and duty to hierarchy.
An even more stark example of intransigent devotion to traditional hierarchies and systems of justice is in the character of police Inspector Javert in Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables, published in 1861.
In the characters of the innkeepers who enslave a young child they are hired to care for, Cosette, Hugo does a marvelous job depicting the depths of human depravity in Les Misérables. The Thenardier’s extort her mother Fantine over Cosette’s care. As only Hugo can explain,
In all Thénardier’s outpourings, this explosion of an evil nature brazenly exposed, the mixture of bravado, arrogance, pettiness, rage, absurdity; the shamelessness of a vicious man rejoicing in viciousness, the bare crudity of an ugly soul – in this eruption of all suffering and hatred there was something which was hideous as evil itself and still as poignant as truth.
Unfortunately, the hugely successful and brilliant Broadway musical version makes light of their cruelty. Instead, it portrays them as cartoon characters. In the personage of Fantine, Hugo revisits Paquette’s despair, but he also introduces Fantine to a character of justice, courage, and virtue. Poetic justice was served by the one who saves her daughter Cosette – Jean Valjean.
In Jean Valjean, Hugo creates the ultimate self-made man. Destitute, he is arrested for stealing bread for his starving sister’s family, and his sentence is extended to 19 years because of escape attempts. Once released he is still destitute, and also a convict. Ultimately, Valjean has a spiritual epiphany, adopts an alias, and after six years of living dedicated to honor and virtue, he becomes a wealthy factory owner and mayor of his city. As Hugo explains about the transformation:
Before going to the galleys, I was a poor peasant, with very little intelligence, a sort of idiot; the galleys wrought a change in me. I was stupid; I became vicious: I became a firebrand. Later on, indulgence and kindness saved me, as severity had ruined me.
His company hired Fantine, but the manager eventually fired her without cause. This destroyed her ability to send money to the Thénardier’s, and it destroyed her spirit. Valjean found her in the direst of straits, recognized her, and did everything possible to redeem his manager’s decision. He knew despair as well as anyone, and he knew redemption even more. He paid it forward with the morality and resources of a successful capitalist. As the novel marvelously illustrates, Valjean had respect and compassion for his employees, customers and strangers.
Depth of Soul
As Poetic Justice Warrior Frederic Bastiat explained, justice is achieved only when we rid ourselves of injustice. Victor Hugo was a keen observer of injustice and he understood that the solution is within us individually. It is spiritual, then cultural, and lastly political. As Hugo tells us about Les Misérables:
The book which the reader has before him, in its entirety and details, is a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from corruption to life, from hell to heaven. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul.
Here Hugo states clearly that metaphysics is the essential fundamental in the philosophy for human flourishing. In ethics, justice manifests itself in the compassion and benevolence of the individual self-made man and woman. Great artists have perfected their ability to integrate these ideals into a philosophical theme and present them in concrete form. Like Beethoven‘s Eroica and Ode to Joy, great romantic novels and poetry educate us about our deepest human emotions and our greatest potentialities. They give us depth of soul.
British Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson saluted Hugo by saying: “Victor in Poetry. Victor in Romance. Victor in Life.” It is poetic justice that nearly 1 million mourners participated in Victor Marie Hugo’s funeral procession in 1885.