Hugo and Flaubert at the barricades


Geoffrey Barto of


The below is excerpted from a dissertation in process.  It is copyright Geoffrey Barto 2000-2002.



                The ideal of redemption in Hugo’s Misérables takes on a special clarity when contrasted with Flaubert’s Education sentimentale.  Particularly at issue are Hugo’s barricades and those of Flaubert, the one ennobling in defeat, the other mocking in its at least short-term victory.

                Both Hugo and Flaubert were in Paris, of course, in the midst of the 1848 Revolution.  Hugo, however, was a peer of France, frustrated by the monarchy’s failure to move toward republicanism, but still clinging to it as a shell into which republicanism could grow.  Flaubert, on the other hand, was not especially partial to any form of government and came into Paris to see the spectacle.  Initially caught up in the high drama of Paris’ latest show, he soon lost interest.

                We have earlier chronicled Hugo’s comings and goings during the February Revolution as well as his ideas of government.  A few words need be said of Flaubert, however.  We have already noted that Flaubert was not tightly wedded to any particular form of government.  However, unlike Hugo, open to anything that could be taken as an aristocracy in its etymological sense, Flaubert was simply skeptical of government in general, distrusting the whims of kings and the passions of crowds alike:

Les bêtises de la République dépassent celles de l’Empire (Fl. Corr. 581).

L’avant-dernier Dieu, qui était le suffrage universel, vient de faire à ses adeptes une farce terrible en nommant « les assassins de Versailles » (Fl. Corr. 587)

Though a member of the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian war, his view of those in power was disgust, both for losing the war, and for government’s general tendency to limit individual liberty:

La guerre (je l’espère), aura porté un grand coup aux « Autorités ».  L’individus, nié, écrasé par le monde moderne, va-t-il reprendre de l’importance ?  souhaiterons-le ! (Fl. Corr. 580)

In 1848, he had even effectively stated that for him the only thing that mattered where government was concerned was its relationship with art – government that interfered with art was bad; government that did not was indifferent:

Je ne sais si la forme nouvelle du gouvernment et l’état social qui en résultera sera favorable à l’Art.  C’est une question.  On ne pourra être plus bourgeois ni plus nul.  Quant à plus bête, est-ce possible ? (Fl. Corr. 101)

However, Flaubert was not completely apolitical; he delighted in the collapse of the monarchy in 1848 (see below) but abhorred the socialistic notions of the leaders of the Commune in 1870:

La commune réhabilite les assassins, tout comme Jésus pardonnait aux larrons, et on pille le hôtels des riches, parce qu’on a appris à maudire Lazare, qui était, non pas un mauvais riche, mais simplement un riche (Fl. Corr. 587).

All told, Flaubert noticed government when it affected him, but was more wary of the harm it could do than optimistic about the good it might accomplish.  Thus, on February 23, 1848, Flaubert was in town not to support or oppose the king, but simply to revel in the silliness unleashed by people who thought such things mattered.

                As events unfolded, Flaubert did allow himself to get caught up in the moment, even volunteering for the National Guard and standing watch for a while on a relatively empty street.  And he would write to Louise Colet of the absolute glee he felt on seeing the frightened expressions of monarchists watching their world come crashing down around them:

Vous me demandez mon avis sur ce qui vient de s'accomplir.  Eh bien!  tout cela est fort drôle.  Il y a des mines de déconfit bien réjouissantes à voir.  Je me délecte profondément dans la contemplation de toutes les ambitions aplaties (Fl. Corr. 101). 

However, he would share the monarchists’ horror on witnessing the ransacking of the Tuileries.  The king was gone, to be sure, but replaced by barbarians whose appetite was for destruction and who showed no appreciation for art and things of beauty.

                A few months later, Flaubert found himself in Paris standing guard to assure order during parliamentary elections.  However, they were postponed for two weeks and Flaubert returned home.  Hugo, for his part, nearly won a seat though he had not even run.  In June he would run and would be handily elected.

                With the new parliament seated in June, the Ateliers Nationaux – National Workshops – overseen by Louis Blanc, were eliminated and Paris found itself again in revolt.  This time, however, the revolt would be put down by the government and the leader of the suppression, General de Cavaignac, would find himself at the head of the government in the wake of what we now call the June Days.  As indicated elsewhere, Hugo himself took part in the suppression, commanding troops and taking down a handful of barricades.  Flaubert, however, no longer saw the Republic as worth defending on account of the way it put down its people.  Disgusted with the turn of events and embarrassed that he had allowed himself to be drawn into the exercise – and further becoming weak with illness – he began planning a trip to the Orient, having resolved to never again involve himself in politics.

When Flaubert set out to write L'Education sentimentale, he began by going through archives and interviewing witnesses to the events of 1848.  He visited old sites to get a precise sense of the places he would be describing.  Nonetheless, Flaubert the researcher’s role in the crafting of this story is secondary to that of the Flaubert who in 1848 witnessed and formed his own impressions of the time.  The folly of the mob, the vanity of Moreau in running for office - notwithstanding his aimlessness and detachment, the backstabbing of Dambreuse, these are Flaubert’s impressions of the era, draped about a skeleton of fact.  Moreau and Flaubert are not entirely dissimilar, having both headed to the riots for the sake of the spectacle - to see what the fuss was all about - only to be momentarily taken in - Flaubert by the idea of serving in the Guard, Moreau by the idea of being an Assemblyman - only to drift off.  Flaubert justified Moreau's absence from or lack of complete participation in major events as necessary to prevent a weak character from getting lost among great men and happenings.  But it is just as plausible to argue that Hugo, Lamartine, Ledru-Rollin and others got lost in the mess of 1848, their momentary dreams of a new order supplanted by yet another government directed not by the people but by the strongman who had most recently demonstrated an ability to control them.  Sad but true, 1848 for all its promise became the opening act for Napoleon III.  In other words, the banal Frédéric, with his many love interests, momentary pretensions to importance, etc., characterizes 1848 better than the sound and fury signifying nothing that seemed so revolutionary at the time; he would risk fading into the backdrop not because he would be outshone but because he would blend in so well.

                Flaubert's realist style could only add to the sense of uselessness one gets not only about Frédéric, but also about the whole enterprise that was 1848.  Narrative is present, plot is present, but with the narrator effacing himself, the narrative too seems to fade, events cease to unfold and instead merely happen - there is no outside force, no destiny, not even the march of history, never mind progress.  Flaubert’s portrayal, however, for all its appearance of detachment, in truth marks a heavy investment in a particular worldview that he imprinted on most of his works.  Flaubert perceived 1848 as a futile, foolish venture.  In denying it narrative coherence, he denied it meaning and purpose - his detachment implied that there was little point in being passionate about an event to which he first reacted passionately, then passionately renounced. 

Flaubert further reveals himself by his shaping of events and characters.  Yet here he is again misleading, using the devices of the realist style to mask his voice, even as he used its form to amplify his overall view.  Flaubert's style was meant to emulate the writing of those historians who were attempting to study history systematically, not to say scientifically.  Such historians held to a detached style, believing that insufficient information precluded drawing conclusions.  With sufficient information, they believed, logical interpretations of history would emerge, even as the laws of physics seemingly revealed themselves when more and more experiments were made.  However, where historians avoided passing judgment, allowing dry narrations of events united with documents to reveal in some small measure a history they felt would naturally emerge but was not theirs to write, Flaubert used their style knowingly and deliberately to imply that there was no underlying narrative flow - rather than that flow being as yet unknowable.  In other words, Flaubert's detached style editorializes as forcefully by its lack of specific commentary as do Hugo's digressions:  it is a marked choice meant to influence what the reader takes from the work.  A proper analogy would be to the newspaper editor who never publishes unpleasant details about her preferred candidate for office; the evidence of Flaubert’s view is sometimes its absence in the text.  The way Flaubert accomplishes this is often subtle, but not always.  Consider the ranting of Dambreuse about the 1848 Revolution:

Un système si bon, un rois si sage !  était-ce possible !  La terre allait crouler ! (297)

As Flaubert discusses Dambreuse's panic, then his duplicity with respect to Frédéric, his opinions of the monarchists become as clear as in the letter to Louise Colet (cited above) in which he described his glee in watching them suffer when he himself was in Paris during the revolution.  The coincidence of Dambreuse’s panic and Flaubert’s initial delight at the chaos of 1848 reveal that his choice of how to portray Dambreuse, or for that matter, the sentiments he attributes to Hussonet, represent not coldly observed facts but Flaubert's own perceptions of events and people.  But unlike Hugo, who even notes his role at the barricades in 1848 while discussing those of 1832, Flaubert deletes himself from the story, suppressing the evidence of possible sources of bias.  Therefore, Flaubert goes beyond Hugo - if Hugo editorializes, the reader is well aware that it is his voice speaking.  On the other hand, Flaubert's use of the discours indirect libre takes on the feel of the first person account cited in an impersonal history - when in fact it is Flaubert's own creation.  Consequently, Flaubert seemingly leaps off the page for those who have read his correspondence while even those who have not might begin to tune in to the gap between the impression of objectivity and its lacking in reality - but at first glance his telling marks a departure from the omniscient narrator of times past.  To avoid being lulled into a sense of security about Flaubert’s objectivity, we would do well to remember the forthright narrator of Jacques le fataliste in order to remind ourselves of the power an author has over a story.  But where Diderot reminds us, Flaubert aims to make us forget.   

Flaubert mocks not only political progress but also mankind's vanity in general, intertwining an aimless life with a useless revolution – Frédéric returns in his mind to the brothel and France returns to absolute government, albeit as Empire, rather than monarchy.  On the other hand, Hugo the Romantic reveals his truest colors at the barricades in Les Misérables, celebrating doomed heroes, presumably because history was on their side, and his prophetic view of France did not end with Napoleon III.

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It should be noted that Hugo’s barricades were those not of 1848 but of 1832.  These riots did not merely fail to establish an enduring government; they didn't even overthrow the current government.  As in 1848, Hugo wasn’t so sure that revolution should succeed, casting aside the optimism of 1830 in noting:

Nous aurons un jour une république, et, quand elle viendra d’elle-même, elle sera bonne.  Mais ne cueillons pas en mai le fruit qui ne sera mûr qu’en juillet ; sachons attendre.  La république proclamée par la France en Europe, ce sera la couronne de nos cheveux blancs (119).

If the passage questions this revolt, it does not mean that the republic would never come; only that it was not the right moment.  As we know, Hugo responded essentially the same way in 1848.  But still there lurked in his worldview not merely the possibility, but a sense of inevitability, about the coming of a republic.  Preparing the ground for that day, he offers this advice to the bourgeoisie:

Messieurs, parlons un peu moins de Robespierre et un peu plus de General Washington (120).

Notwithstanding that Hugo had stated in 1830 that the July Revolution had accomplished the transition of France from England to America, at least in the minds of the left (99), at various twists and turns he becomes less sure.  Nonetheless, the confusions about France’s progress more than anything mirror Hugo’s vision – good ideas whose time will come, but not yet.  It is for this reason that a few days of futile clashes will yield heroes such as young Gavroche, elevated from scamp to hero as he demonstrates a rarely seen courage for the cause.  Among Les Amis de l’ABC, we see the cynical Grantaire rescued from his indifference to the world - Enjolras' death seemingly saves two souls.  Eponine, for her part, finds redemption in death, having saved her beloved Marius, and thus risen from a bothersome peasant girl, daughter of thieves and scoundrels, to a minor heroine in a minor revolution but a central character in the human drama of the moment.  Marius, too, finds a sort of redemption, discovering principle when he had gone to the barricades only out of despair at the loss of Cosette, and with the intention of dying there.  For him, the barricades represent a certain maturing not unlike Hugo's gradual move away from first Napoleon, then monarchy.  Marius will of course return to his monarchist uncle to recover before the two reconcile, something that happened in 1848 though for less noble reasons.

The most important redemption at the barricades is that of Jean Valjean.  Once the jealous father, he renounces Cosette and his possessiveness, just as he had moved beyond his anger and criminal past.  With the kindness of M. Myriel, Valjean knew redemption from without through a representative of God.  The first of Valjean’s risks and sacrifices – stepping forward to save Fauchelèvent and Fantine, and to absolve Champmathieu – expressly involved self-sacrifice for principle or redemption from within.  The saving of Marius marks the next step of his development, sacrifice for others.  But Valjean’s rescue of Marius will ultimately prove to be his truest redemption.  Here, he steels himself to losing someone he loves, and realizes that this he must do to show the full extent of his love.  As the anger, and we might add fear, he felt on seeing Cosette’s blotter[*] dissipated, he knew what he had to do, and he acted.  Valjean knew full well that saving Marius could mean losing Cosette while his disappearance would allow Valjean to “keep” her.  As it happens, saving Marius does, in the end, allow him to hold to Cosette, and even more strongly as the selfless father whose role he had taken.  With Marius’ scarf, presented by Thénardier[†], Valjean is redeemed, though only for the shortest of moments before his death.

                What is significant in Hugo and Flaubert is the degree to which their political approaches are present in the works.  Flaubert portrays meandering foolishness, Hugo the triumph of the human spirit.  Flaubert’s foolishness goes hand in hand with his pessimism about government and society.  Hugo’s triumph similarly follows his belief in redemption and progress.  Hugo’s triumph is particularly interesting in that it is not political, but personal.  Valjean’s acts – and Gavroche’s, Enjolras’, Eponine’s, etc. all speak to the betterment of humanity in a general sense.  But since for Hugo, the republic is the result of the spreading of the light of wisdom, this is fitting and proper.  Among politicians, by contrast, we must consider Hugo’s presentations of Napoleon and Louis-Philippe alongside his own narrative – the first two were great in their own time, and Hugo explains and understands their failures.  But Hugo ultimately rises above these two – though he would never show the necessary skill in calculating the right political move for the moment, he stands alongside the heroes of his barricades as both a prophet of things to come.


[*] A writing surface designed to absorb ink as it bleeds through paper.  Valjean learned of Marius when he saw the imprint of a letter Cosette had written to him.

[†] When Valjean rescues Marius, carrying him through the sewers of Paris, Thénardier sees him drop a scarf and presents that scarf to Marius as proof of Valjean’s attempt to abduct him.  However, Marius recognizes the scarf as proof that Valjean was the unknown man who had saved his life.  This reveals Thénardier’s treachery and simultaneously voids the obligation Marius feels to him for rescuing his (Marius’) father, while transferring a new obligation to Valjean.