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Fantine, by Victor Hugo

A review by Edwin Percy Whipple

July, 1862, The Atlantic Monthly

Fantine, the first of five novels under the general title of Les Misérables has produced an impression all over Europe, and we already hear of nine translations. It has evidently been "engineered" with immense energy by the French publisher. Translations have appeared in numerous languages almost simultaneously with its publication in Paris. Every resource of bookselling ingenuity has been exhausted in order to make every human being who can read think that the salvation of his body and soul depends on his reading Les Misérables. The glory and the obloquy of the author have both been forced into aids to a system of puffing at which Barnum himself would stare amazed, and confess that he had never conceived of a "a dodge" in which literary genius and philanthropy could be allied with the grossest bookselling humbug. But we trust, that, after our American showman has recovered from his first shock of surprise, he will vindicate the claim of America to be considered the "first nation on the face of the earth," by immediately offering Dickens a hundred thousand dollars to superintend his exhibition of dogs, and Florence Nightingale a half a million to appear at his exhibition of babies.

The French bookseller also piqued the curiosity of the universal public by a story that Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables twenty-five years ago, but, being bound to give a certain French publisher all his works after his first celebrated novel, he would not delight the world with this product of his genius until he had forced the said publisher into a compliance with his terms. The publisher shrank aghast from the sum which the author demanded, and this sum was yearly increased in amount, as years rolled away and as Victor Hugo's reputation grew more splendid. At last the publisher died, probably from vexation, and Victor Hugo was free. Then he condescended to allow the present publisher to issue Les Misérables on the payment of eighty thousand dollars. It is not surprising, that, to get his money back, this publisher has been compelled to resort to tricks which exceed everything known in the whole history of literature.

Fantine, therefore, comes before us, externally, as the most desperate of book-selling speculations. The publisher, far from drinking his wine out of the skull of his author, is in danger of having neither wine nor ordinary cup, and is forced into the most reckless charlatanerie to save himself from utter ruin and complete loss of the generous fluid. Internally, Fantine comes before us as an attempt both to include and to supersede the Christian religion. Wilkinson, in a preface to one of his books, stated that he thought that "Christendom was not the error of which Chapmandom was the correction,"--Chapman being then the English publisher of a number of skeptical books. In the same way we may venture to affirm that Christendom is not the beginning of which Hugoism is the complement and end. We think that the revelation made by the publisher of Les Misérables sadly interferes with the revelation made by Victor Hugo. Saint Paul may be inferior to Saint Hugo, but everybody will admit that Saint Paul would not have hesitated a second in deciding, in the publication of his epistles, between the good of mankind and his own remuneration. Saint Hugo confessedly waited twenty-five years before he published his new gospel. The salvation of Humanity had to be deferred until the French saviour received his eighty thousand dollars. At last a book-selling Barnum appears, pays the price, and a morality which utterly eclipses that of Saint Paul is given to an expectant world.

This morality, sold for eighty thousand dollars, is represented by Bishop Myriel. The character is drawn with great force, and is full both of direct and subtle satire on the worldliness of ordinary chuchmen. The portion of the work in which it figures contains many striking sayings. Thus, we are told, that, when the Bishop "had money, his visits were to the poor; when he had none, he visited the rich." "Ask not," he said, "the name of him who asks you for a bed; it is especially he whose name is a burden to him who has need of an asylum." This man, who embodies all the virtues, carries his goodness so far as to receive into his house a criminal whom all honest houses reject, and, when robbed by his infamous guest, saves the life of the latter by telling the officers who had apprehended the thief that he had given him the silver. This so works on the criminal's conscience, that, like Peter Bell, he "becomes a good and pious man," starts a manufactory, becomes rich, and uses his wealth for benevolent purposes. Fantine, the heroine, after having been seduced by a Parisian student, comes to work in his factory. She has a child that she supports by her labor. This fact is discovered by some female gossip, and she is dismissed from the factory as an immoral woman, and descends to the lowest depths of prostitution,--still for the purpose of supporting her child. Jean Valjean, the reformed criminal, discovers her, is made aware that her debasement is the result of the act of his foreman, and takes her, half dead with misery and sickness, to his own house. Meanwhile he learns that an innocent person, by being confounded with himself, is in danger of being punished for his former deeds. He flies from the bedside of Fantine, appears before the court, announces himself as the criminal, is arrested, but in the end escapes from the officers who have him in charge. Fantine dies. Her child is to be the heroine of Novel Number Two of Les Misérables, and will doubtless have as miserable an end as her mother.

From the bare abstract, the story does not seem to promise much pleasure to novel-readers, yet it is all alive with the fiery genius of Victor Hugo, and the whole representation is so intense and vivid that it is impossible to escape from the fascination it exerts over the mind. Few who take the book up will leave it until they have read it through. It is morbid to a degree that no eminent English author, not even Lord Byron, ever approached; but its morbid elements are so combined with sentiments abstractly Christian that it is calculated to wield a more pernicious influence than Byron ever exerted. Its tendency is to weaken that abhorrence of crime which is the great shield of most of the virtue which society possesses, and it does this by attempting to prove that society itself is responsible for crimes it cannot prevent, but can only punish. To legislators, to Magdalen societies, to prison-reformers, it may suggest many useful hints; but, considered as a passionate romance, appealing to the sympathies of the ordinary readers of novels, it will do infinitely more harm than good. The bigotries of virtue are better than the charities of vice. On the whole, therefore, we think that Victor Hugo, when he stood out twenty-five years for his price, did a service to the human race. The great value of his new gospel consisted in its not being published. We wish that another quarter of a century had elapsed before it found a bookseller capable of venturing on so reckless a speculation.