has long been regarded as the finale of the Romantic literary school.
A century later, in 1971, Ayn Rand
published The Romantic Manifesto
), a collection of essays designed to re-launch the battle Hugo had lost: the battle to revive Romanticism. In a foreword to her essays, Rand declared: "There is no Romantic movement today. If there is to be one in the art of the future, this book will have helped it to come into being" (RM, p. v). Among the essays Rand included in her manifesto was an introduction she had written ten years earlier for an English translation of Ninety-Three
. In that introduction, Rand urged readers to discover Romanticism via Hugo, and Hugo via Ninety-Three
Thus if Rand's manifesto succeeds as she hoped, Ninety-Three will have played a splendid dual role in the history of Romantic literature, as a finale and as a beginning. In other words: Romanticism is dead! Long live Romanticism!
Plot Synopsis of Ninety-Three
To appreciate Ninety-Three's Romantic merits, one must first examine the novel's plot in some detail. The story unfolds against the backdrop of the French Revolution. A battalion of republican soldiers encounters a royalist mother with her three young children and adopts them as their own. At about the same time, the royalist Marquis de Lantenac returns from exile to take command of the peasant revolt in Vendeé, on the west coast of France. The ship carrying Lantenac is wrecked because a sailor fails to secure a cannon, which lurches about and shatters the ship. Lantenac orders the sailor shot for negligence. Shortly thereafter, the beleaguered ship is attacked and sunk by the republicans, but Lantenac and a sailor escape on a rowboat. The sailor, Halmalo, turns out to be the brother of the sailor who was shot at Lantenac's command, and he tells Lantenac that he intends to kill him to avenge his brother. But Lantenac dissuades Halmalo by invoking their common higher cause: the restoration of the monarchy.
After Lantenac comes ashore, an old beggar, Tellmarch, gives him shelter, although he knows Lantenac is a fugitive wanted by the republicans. The next day, the royalist peasants defeat the republican battalion that adopted the mother and children. Lantenac, who has just assumed command, orders that all prisoners, including the mother, be executed and takes the three children with him as hostages. The royalists shoot the mother and leave her for dead, but the beggar Tellmarch finds her and saves her life.
On the republican side, the commander of the army in Vendeé, Major Gauvain, is suspected of leniency toward the royalist rebels, so the government sends a delegate, Cimourdain, to supervise him. As it happens, Gauvain is Lantenac's great-nephew and only surviving relative. But he is also the former student of the republican delegate Cimourdain and the only person Cimourdain has ever loved. Both Gauvain and Cimourdain wish to bring the message of the Revolution to the royalist peasants, but while Gauvain wants to win them over, Cimourdain wants to crush their opposition. Stark opposites, Gauvain and Cimourdain stand for the two extremes of the French Revolution: utopian idealism and zealous fanaticism.
When the royalist and republican armies meet again in battle, Lantenac and several peasants take refuge in Lantenac's former mansion, La Tourgue. They have the children with them and threaten to kill them if not allowed safe passage. But Cimourdain and Gauvain refuse these terms, and the trapped royalists prepare to die fighting. At that moment, the sailor Halmalo arrives in the mansion through a secret underground passage, and Lantenac and his men escape. Lantenac's second-in-command, Imânus, volunteers to keep the charging republicans at bay and remains behind, where he is mortally wounded. Before he dies, however, he sets fire to the library, where the children are imprisoned.
Upon emerging into the open, Lantenac is transfixed by the screaming of the children's mother, who has been searching for her children and has just arrived at La Tourgue. She stands helplessly, seeing her trapped children in the window as the library burns. When the republican soldiers are unable to rescue the children, Lantenac returns through the underground passage, rescues them, and then surrenders to the republicans. Cimourdain arrests Lantenac and prepares to execute him as the leader of the counterrevolution. But Gauvain, who is overwhelmed by the nobility of Lantenac's act, sets him free. Cimourdain orders Gauvain executed as a traitor, but, as the guillotine's blade falls, Cimourdain shoots himself.
An Exemplary Romantic Novel
This narrative, Rand writes in The Romantic Manifesto embodies the two principles that distinguish Romanticism as a literary school:
First, Romantic literature presents events not as they occurred historically but as they could be and ought to be. Ninety-Three
uses the clash between royalists and republicans in northwestern France after the French Revolution as its backdrop, but casts three fictional leaders—Lantenac, Cimourdain, and Gauvain—against this setting. The historical background for the book apparently was meticulously researched; Hugo had forty-three books on the French Revolution in his library, all of them full of marginal notations. Yet the novel is not a recounting of the French Revolution. Rand explains: "To a Romanticist, a background is a background, not a theme. His vision is always focused on man—on the fundamentals of man's nature, on those problems and those aspects of his character that apply to any age and any country" (RM
, p. 156). (For further discussion of the historical aspects of Ninety-Three
, see Michelle Fram-Cohen, "Poetry and History: The Two Levels of Ninety-Three." In Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Fall 2001
The second defining principle of Romantic literature is its focus on human volition. In Ninety-Three, all the characters choose their values and fight for them. Gauvain is an aristocrat who comes to believe in the ideals of the revolution and joins the republicans. The priest Cimourdain also adopts the ideals of the Revolution and leaves the Church to become a delegate of the republican regime. Lantenac, though he remains a royalist, makes the choice to return from exile and lead the peasants against the revolution. These choices show the heroes rising above hereditary and environmental influences. Instead of following a path prescribed by outside forces, the characters pursue their convictions and accept the consequences: Lantenac knows that the republicans will execute him, yet he surrenders to them. Gauvain knows he will be executed for treason, yet he releases Lantenac. Cimourdain recognizes that he cannot live without Gauvain, yet he orders the execution—then commits suicide.
These two edicts of the Romantic literary school are diametrically opposed to those of the Naturalist school, which presents life "as it is" and holds that man is determined by his environment and heredity. Rand was therefore able to use her Romantic interpretation of Ninety-Three to illustrate the opposition between Romanticism and Naturalism, contrasting her reading with interpretations that stress the novel's historical background. By this means, too, she sought to rescue the novel and its author from their unappreciative Naturalist audience and set them before a new generation of readers in their proper Romantic light. In effect, she sought to win for Hugo the crusade he wrote Ninety-Three to wage.
Victor Hugo was a passionate advocate of Romanticism throughout his entire life. In 1827, at age 25, he wrote a preface to his first play, Cromwell, and called for the birth of Romantic drama. Literary historians, such as Graham Robb and Charles W. Eliot, regard the preface to Cromwell as the manifesto of the Romantic movement. (The similarity to the title of Rand's book is not coincidental.)
In his preface, Hugo defined the main principles of Romanticism in almost Randian terms: 1) Art should not copy reality but re-create it. 2) The artist must show not what is commonplace but what is characteristic. 3) Literature must have the latitude to embellish on history. To explain his selection of Cromwell as the subject of his play, Hugo invoked the two edicts of the Romantic school that Rand reformulated 144 years later. First, he claimed the freedom as a writer to create a motive for Cromwell's refusal of the English crown. The historical sources are unclear, contradictory, or mute about Cromwell's reason for refusing the crown when it was offered to him, so it is up to the writer to create it. In Hugo's words: "So much the better: the poet's liberty is the more complete, and the drama is the gainer" (Hugo,  1938, p. 379). Moreover, as Hugo explained, Cromwell's refusal of the English crown represents a tremendous volitional choice, Rand's second Romantic criterion: "This is, in truth, the decisive hour, the turning point in Cromwell's life. It is the moment when his chimera escapes from him… All of Cromwell is at stake in the drama being played between England and himself" (Hugo,  1938, p. 379). Unfortunately, the play failed to capture the French audience in 1827, or any audience since; literary historians agree that Hugo's dramatic ability was still in its infancy.
In 1830, however, the production of his second play, Hernani, took the French audience by storm and successfully challenged the sovereignty of Neo-classicism in the French theater, ushering in the Romantic era. But by this time, too, Hugo's notion of Romanticism was growing increasingly politicized. He had abandoned his royalist loyalties and thrown his support behind the republicans. And he argued that, just as Liberalism in politics would free the country from the tyranny of monarchy, Romanticism in the arts would liberate literature from the constraints of Neo-classicism. As Hugo put it in his preface to Hernani: "Romanticism, so often ill-defined, is only ... liberalism in literature." And in a letter to the poet Lamartine he further elaborated his view: "Our cause [Romanticism] is also one of liberty; it is a revolution, too: it will advance unharmed side by side with its political sister."
The emotional appeal of Hugo's writing captivated the French people, and he quickly became the undisputed leader of the Romantic movement in France. And though Romanticists saw political implications in their aesthetic theory, the adoration of Hugo transcended political loyalties, as was apparent following the coup d'état of Napoleon III in 1851. When the new emperor issued a warrant for Hugo's arrest as a member of the Liberal opposition, Hugo attempted to escape the country by disguising himself and presenting a forged passport at the border. The officer in charge saw through the ruse, but merely bowed and said, "Mr. Hugo, I greatly admire your work. You may pass!" (André Maurois, Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo, 1956, p. 270). Napoleon III quickly pardoned Hugo, recognizing his stature as a national literary icon, but Hugo refused to return to France until the republic was restored. His political exile lasted nineteen years. During that time, he published three of his greatest novels: Les Miserables in 1862, Toilers of the Sea in 1866, and The Man Who Laughs in 1869.
On September 3, 1870, Napoleon III capitulated. On September 4 a new republic was proclaimed, and on September 5 Hugo arrived in Paris to the welcomes of a crowd of 500,000 admirers outside the train station. He remained the nation's uncontested literary idol. His great Romantic plays, Hernani and Ruy Blas, were revived, and Hugo grew confident that the Romantic movement could also be resumed. Evidently, he did not know how profoundly the literary climate in France had changed during his exile. While the French people still worshipped him (one admirer challenged a critic of Hugo to a duel), his fellow-Romanticists were gone. By the 1870s, according to Graham Robb, "[t]he young Hernanistes of 1830 had been decimated by death, respectability and madness" (Graham Robb, Victor Hugo: A Biography, 1997, p. 450). Past rebels like O'Neddy and Gautier now held government positions and avoided the literary realm.
In the absence of successors to take up the Romantic cause, the literary arena lay open to a new wave of thought. In 1871, Emile Zola launched the Naturalist movement with the publication of The Fortunes of the Rougons, a merciless portrayal of the sordid everyday life of a lower-class family. In contrast to Romanticism, Zola focused on hereditary and environmental factors as controlling the fates of several generations of the family. Naturally, Hugo was dismayed with the rise of Naturalism, and he criticized the graphicness of the new literary school in harsh words: "Certain pictures should not be made. Certain nudities should not be exposed" (Richard F. Grant, The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo, 1968, p. 304).
It was to combat this literary atmosphere that Hugo wrote Ninety-Three. This, his last novel, was a conscious, passionate attempt to present the best of Romanticism and revive the Romantic movement. He knew exactly what he wanted to say and he worked to a precise timetable. On December 16, 1872, he noted that he had begun the novel that day and intended to complete it on June 10, 1873. His work habits were so faithful that he finished the novel one half-day ahead of schedule.
Nevertheless, his effort to resuscitate Romanticism failed.
At first, public enthusiasm for Hugo carried over to Ninety-Three, but in time reaction to the book changed. As Samuel Edwards writes:
The first printing . . . was sold out within two weeks. Subsequent editions sold just as rapidly . . . [But] after enjoying an initial success that was sustained through the 1870s, the book went into a decline in the 1880s . . . . By the 1890s, the indifference gave way to active criticism. Ninety-Threecame to be regarded as a lesser Hugo work, a novel marred by too much violence. . . . (Samuel Edwards, Victor Hugo: A Tumultuous Life, 1971, p. 295).
Edwards offers this explanation for the novel's drop in popularity:
By the 1880s, a relatively stable France was trying to forget the horrors of [the Paris Commune.] . . . [People] had no desire to be reminded of the French Revolution, and of the later insurrection that had disgraced the country. France looked at its recent history passively in the 1880s, and by the 1890s rejected it (Edwards, p. 296).
Rand, by contrast, dismissed the theory that the French people were not sympathetic to a novel that seemed to glorify the Revolution, because, she reasoned, a Romantic novel is not concerned with history. But there can be no doubt that the novel's historical aspects struck French readers. An advertisement for the novel, dated 1882, reads like revolutionary propaganda: "The object of the book is to show how, from that sanguinary atmosphere, from that merciless strife, progress and humanity rose up and showed themselves triumphant" (Alfred Barbou, Victor Hugo and His Times, 1882, p. 246). Thus, while Ninety-Three is certainly much more than an account of the French Revolution, its timeless, Romantic features could not eclipse its historical setting in the mind of the French public, and Ninety-Three became the low-key finale of the Romantic era. In the words of Hungarian scholar György Lukács: "In a certain sense Ninety-Threeis a last echo of the Romantic historical novel. At a time when it is considered particularly modern to slander the French Revolution—Victor Hugo writes a glorification of it" (György Lukács, The Historical Novel,  1962, p. 256)
A Misfit Among the Socialists
Hugo's aversion to the Naturalist movement in literature was reciprocated by the movement's prominent members—and not just on literary grounds. The leading Naturalists were Socialists who turned to gritty fiction to galvanize the public for social reform. Hugo, although not a member of the Socialist movement, openly supported their ideals on humanitarian grounds. After the publication of Les Miserables, he expressed his social concerns in a letter to Lamartine: "Yes, a society that admits misery, a humanity that admits war, seems to me an inferior society and a debased humanity. It is a higher society and a more elevated humanity at which I am aiming. . . . I want to universalize property. . . . I want to see every man a proprietor, and no man a master" (Barbou, p. 198).
But the Socialists were suspicious of Hugo. As Naturalists, they disparaged Romanticism's idealistic rhetoric, which did not highlight the social and political problems of France. One of the founders of the Naturalist movement, Edmond de Goncourt, unequivocally expressed this resentment: "When I think of all the mystical, sonorous, empty mumbo-jumbo by means of which men like Hugo pontificate, seeking to impose themselves on their environment, as though they were having the ear of the Gods…" (Maurois, p. 407).
Despite Hugo's unpopularity with the Socialists, Rand suggests that his Socialist sympathies lay at the root of Ninety-Three's failure to win public acclaim. Although she does not directly address the novel's lack of success, she does give an implicit explanation when discussing Hugo's philosophical shortcomings:
With so magnificent a view of man and of existence, Hugo never discovered how to implement it in reality. He professed conscious beliefs, which contradicted his subconscious ideal and made its application to reality impossible... [A] professed altruist, he worshiped man's greatness, not his suffering, weaknesses or evils; a professed advocate of socialism, he was a fiercely intransigent individualist (RM, pp. 158, 160).
Rand is here pointing out the contradiction between Hugo's political involvement on behalf of the egalitarians and his admiration for man and human greatness. For example, in 1882 he gave a speech at the Socialist Worker's Congress in which he envisioned the future: "In the twentieth century, war will be dead; the scaffold, hate, royalty, frontiers and dogmas will all be dead. Man will live" (Robb, p. 512). Though Hugo is speaking to egalitarians and collectivists, he refers to man the individual, not to human society or the community. His implicit Romantic sense of life is struggling against his explicit socialist sympathies, and this conflict (Rand suggests) prevented the ideas of Ninety-Three from coming across with sufficient power to transfix the French audience.
Certainly, many Socialists were aware of the inconsistencies in Hugo's thinking. The founder of the French Socialist movement, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, accused Hugo of being "unable to grasp, and adhere to, the movement of history" (Victor Brombert,Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel, 1984, p. 226). Karl Marx criticized Hugo for being "more concerned with individual moral conflicts, involving heroes and villains, than … in understanding the realities of the class struggle" (Brombert, p. 226).
Of course, Hugo himself did not recognize the disparity between his Romantic attitudes and his moral-political leanings. But something of the clash between two senses of life did manifest itself in the pages of Hugo's novels, in the disparity between his characters' heroic aspirations and their ultimate doom. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is hounded his entire life by Inspector Javert and, after Javert's death, by Thénardier. In Notre Dame de Paris, Esmeralda is abandoned by Captain Phoebus, the man she loves. The priest Frollo has her executed because she will not sleep with him, and Quasimodo is unable to save her. He finds peace only by having himself buried in the same coffin with her. The hero of The Man Who Laughs, Gwynplaine, is deformed for life in childhood. The blind Dea is the only woman who can make him happy, but she dies when he is ready to marry her, and Gwynplaine commits suicide. In Toilers of the Sea, the hero Gilliatt is a social outcast who rescues a shipwrecked engine to win the heart of the woman he idolizes. However, she rejects him and Gilliatt commits suicide. Despite their noble, individualist ideals, these protagonists are never entirely in charge of their own destinies, and suffer at the hands of outside social forces—thus, their heroic Romantic potential is lost to a near-Naturalist fate.
In contrast, however, the leading characters of Ninety-Three evoke only admiration, not pity. And they do more than escape persecution or preserve their spirit—they are powerful leaders who control the turn of events. To be sure, two of them do not survive. But they perish reasserting their values, unlike the protagonists of Hugo's other novels, who die because they cannot achieve their values. In Ninety-Three, Hugo's sense of life emerges undimmed.
Unfortunately, it is nowhere made explicit, and only an explicit identification of the novel's exalted philosophy can reveal Ninety-Three's greatness clearly. That is the statement Rand sought to make.
In her introduction to Ninety-Three in The Romantic Manifesto, Rand defined the novel's theme as "man's loyalty to values, whatever these values might be" (RM, p. 157). Thus, it is possible to regard both the republican and royalist characters as heroic because they are all fully dedicated to their values—even though those values clash. The message of the novel, according to Rand, is not "what great values men are fighting for" but "what greatness men are capable of when they fight for their values" (RM, p. 157).
To say this is not quite enough, however. For when Lantenac and Gauvain act in defiance of their political values, they do not fall in moral stature. They rise. They show themselves capable of greatness because they fight for a value higher than politics. What value?
We first learn the answer from the beggar Tellmarch, at a time when the novel's leading characters are still swept up in their political creeds. The novel's highest value, he suggests, is apolitical benevolence. When Lantenac asks Tellmarch: "Which side are you on? Are you a republican? Are you a royalist?" Tellmarch replies: "I am a poor man." Lantenac persists: "Are you for or against the king?" Tellmarch responds: "I don't have time for that." Still, Lantenac insists: "What do you think of what's happening?" To which Tellmarch replies: "I have nothing to live on" (Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three, 1983, p. 64). For Tellmarch, there are no royalists or republicans, only human beings. He saves Lantenac from the pursuing republicans and also saves the mother whom Lantenac ordered to be shot.
The effect of this on Marxist scholars of the twentieth century may be imagined. Like the socialists of the nineteenth century, they have denounced Hugo's work as counterrevolutionary and claimed that inNinety-Three Hugo abandoned his commitment to the plight of the lower classes. György Lukács condemns the book's ideology as suicidal for the Marxist class struggle. American Marxist Jeffery Mehlman writes that the notion of apolitical benevolence leads to a series of class betrayals by the main characters. He labels Tellmarch and Halmalo traitors to their class for sparing Lantenac and argues that their actions reveal Hugo's political thinking to be bankrupt. French Marxist Pierre Barbéris writes that Hugo's portrayal of reconciliation between the royalists and the republicans was merely an attempt to justify bourgeois liberalism.
But the Marxists' frustration with Ninety-Three goes deeper than they know. It is not class betrayal that upsets them; it is the absence of an oppressed class. The beggar Tellmarch defies class allegiances and grandly serves as host to his former landlord, Lantenac. The peasant mother, too, is resilient and determined simply to get her children back . . . and she gets them back without government help! The children are not oppressed either, for they face their ordeal with curiosity, not fear. They explore the library where they are locked up and discover many diversions, such as watching an insect, riding a toy wagon, and tearing to shreds a gigantic book. In Ninety-Three, the lower classes refuse to be miserable or helpless.
Nor is there an oppressor to subjugate them in Ninety-Three, an absence unique among Hugo's novels. Lantenac is too majestic to stand for the evils of the monarchy, and Cimourdain is too righteous to stand for Robespierre's reign of terror. Hugo makes it clear that Cimourdain's fellow revolutionaries are not worthy of his dedication: "Scoundrels felt that he was honest and were satisfied. Crimes are flattered at being presided over by virtue" (Hugo, p. 93).
But if Ninety-Three does not have a villain, why do Gauvain and Cimourdain die in the end? The answer is Cimourdain's inability to embrace the value of apolitical benevolence, though he wrestles with it. To save the revolution, he must execute Gauvain. But the night before the execution, Cimourdain gazes at Gauvain with a look "as tender and ineffable as that of a mother gazing at her sleeping baby" (Hugo, p. 319). The next day, when Cimourdain is about to give the signal for the execution, the republican army stands up as one man and demands mercy for their commander. Cimourdain has the legal authority to pardon Gauvain. The choice is his: the revolution, or a sanction on Gauvain's apolitical benevolence. He proceeds with the execution, against everything that is human within him. The only appropriate response is the one that he embraces: suicide.
Objectivist scholar Ron Merrill posits in his book The Ideas of Ayn Rand that Cimourdain is the spiritual and moral equivalent of Andrei Taganov in We The Living. Like Taganov, Cimourdain dedicates his life to liberating his people, while repressing his personal needs. The same is true of Cimourdain. "His family had been taken away from him: he adopted his country; a wife had been refused to him: he espoused humanity. Such enormous plenitude is, at bottom, emptiness" (Hugo, p. 89). Cimourdain's total indifference to the fate of the children reflects this emptiness. But when he sees that the revolution demands he sacrifice his one human attachment—Gauvain—he realizes that life is impossible on such terms. That, ultimately, is what redeems him.
What would Cimourdain have become if he had not redeemed himself through suicide? Presumably, he would have been an even more zealous Robespierre. The following anecdote provides confirmation: In the 1890s, Cimourdain's ideological zeal made an enormous impression on a young Russian seminarian called Dzhugashvili, who was confined to his cell for reading Ninety-Three. Dzhugashvili left the church to become a revolutionary and changed his name to Stalin.
Naturalism does not dominate today as it did when The Romantic Manifesto was published in 1971. The renewed interest in Hugo and his work signals a change for the better in the literary climate. Graham Robb's Victor Hugo: A Biography (published in 1997), the bilingual edition Selected Poems of Victor Hugo (published in 2001), and the success of the Broadway musical Les Miserables (now in its fourteenth year) all reflect Hugo's reviving popularity. Ninety-Three, however, is still widely unknown to the public. It is sometimes taught in the academic world, but usually in courses on the French Revolution.
What will be required to raise the novel's stature in the public eye? Despite Rand's claim that a Romantic novel is not concerned with history, American readers must become familiar with the novel's historical background in order to understand and appreciate it. Therefore, a new edition with information about the novel's historical events, personalities, locations, and institutions would be helpful. A new translation may also be in order, as Lowell Bair's version is in places inaccurate or even misleading. For example, when Lantenac is released he exclaims, "Ma foi!"—an expression of incredulity that Bair translates as, "After all, why not?" reducing Lantenac to a shallow opportunist.
Also helpful, in today's culture, would be a stage or screen version of Ninety-Three. An unabridged audio recording is available from Amazon.com, and a black and white silent movie was made in France in 1920. But to my knowledge, no recent attempt has been made to turn Ninety-Three into a play or a movie. Yet the brisk dialogue, swift action, and war scenes make it an ideal candidate for such an adaptation. In addition, the novel is relatively short compared with Hugo's other novels, and it does not suffer from lengthy digressions and commentaries as his other works do. This, as well as the novel's lighthearted sense of humor, would make it more accessible to younger audiences. So perhaps we may hope to see an adaptation of Ninety-Three on screen or on stage in our lifetime.
In any case, the advent of Hugo's 200th birthday in 2002 should be used, along with The Romantic Manifesto, to promote the novel and introduce it to a new generation. Were it to spark a renewed interest in Romanticism among younger readers, that would be the final victory of Hugo's crusade—and Rand's.
Michal (Michelle) Fram Cohen holds a Ph.D in Hebrew Literature from Bar-Ilan University and an M.A. in comparative literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton. She works as a freelance translator/interpreter. This article is adapted from her talk on Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three at TOC's twelfth annual summer seminar in 2001.
This article was originally published in the January 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.