Victor Hugo's loud dialectic

When people ask me to name my favorite novel, my go-to answer is always Les Miserables. I just finished re-reading it for the third time; I seem to do so once every decade. It’s a good stock answer for the “favorite book” question, less because it’s objectively the best novel I know and more because it checks off every deeply-embedded box I’ve got: revolutionary idealism and disillusionment; self-sacrificial melodrama; sweeping social history; heartfelt grappling with big philosophical questions; EXTRA FEELS. To be honest, I suspect it helped create at least half those boxes.

What I want to talk about today, though, is Hugo’s nuance.


Nuance is not a word we normally associate with Les Miserables. Everything about the novel is excessive: its word-count, its feelings, its coincidences (why yes, these two characters do just happen to keep bumping into one another in Paris, a city of eight hundred thousand!). Similarly, in the book’s hundreds of pages of social, historical, and philosophical commentary, Hugo’s opinions are decided. He declaims. Yet his declamations frequently manage, by their conclusion fifty pages later, to reach around several sides of a complex issue. Hugo’s technique for doing so is peculiar. Here’s a few examples of it, culled from chapter titles:

The Dead Are Right and the Living Are Not Wrong
Mire, But Soul
Supreme Shadow, Supreme Dawn

And here’s a few more, from that first chapter. Hugo is describing the failed 1832 rising, trying to explain why Parisians, initially so excited by the prospect of a revolt, failed to stand with the revolutionaries at the barricades:

Whom shall he accuse?
Nobody, and everybody.
The imperfect age in which we live…
Utopia, moreover, we must admit, departs from its radiant sphere in making war… Utopia in revolt fights the old military code in her hand; she shoots spies, she executes traitors, she eliminates living beings and casts them into the unknown dark… She strikes with the sword. But no sword is simple. Every blade has two edges; he who wounds with one wounds himself with the other. (1240–1)

And finally, Hugo’s most tongue-in-cheek use of the technique, in one of his five chapters on Paris’s sewers:

The sewer of Rome engulfed the world. This cloaca offered its yawning depths to the city and to the globe. Urbi et orbi. Eternal city, unfathomable sewer. In these things, as well as in others, Rome sets the example. Paris follows this example with all the stupidity peculiar to cities of genius… For we must flatter nothing, not even a great people; where there is everything, there is ignominy by the side of sublimity. (1259)

You see the pattern. Now imagine these opposing pairs surrounded, on either side, by ten pages vehemently endorsing one side or the other. Most of Hugo’s digressions into French history and culture are, at some level, diatribes. They take a side and defend it with absolute conviction, teasing out every piece of evidence Hugo can find to make his case. But then, five or fifty pages later, he changes his mind. And he does so completely, refuting his own earlier claims with contrary ones, buttressed with just as much evidence.

Les Miserables’s nuance is that of a very good compare/contrast essay. It works by block juxtaposition, and resolves itself through Hugo’s occasional dialectical admission that “every blade has two edges.” If Hugo were a less gifted author, this move might seem facile. His apparent ability to passionately believe two utterly contradictory things at once might read like sloppy logic. Instead, it’s deliberate: Hugo’s characters also endorse simultaneous contradictions, and when they do, he points it out and examines it (usually in a twenty-page dark night of the soul). Clearly, he knew what he was doing.

Given the scope of issues Les Mis attempts to tackle, I wonder if this technique was Hugo’s solution to the problem of how a capital-R Romantic, a writer whose emotions are always turned up past eleven, can present complex issues with the nuance they deserve. He was a writer to whom every question was worth caring about passionately, and he wanted his readers to care about even the most apparently mundane of them, right down to the question of how Paris should retool its sewage infrastructure. Impassioned speeches stir more emotions than careful proofs. So Hugo simply opts to drag his readers’ feelings through both sides of a muddy question. Then, when it’s over, he leaves them with a platitude acknowledging but not clarifying the issue’s complexity: “Every blade has two edges.” Suspended on the lip of that two-sided sword, readers have to remember that they’ve been cut by either edge—and bled.