Figuring Transcendence in Les Miserables: Hugo's Romantic Sublime

Figuring Transcendence in Les Miserables: Hugo's Romantic Sublime

Figuring Transcendence in Les Miserables: Hugo's Romantic Sublime

Figuring Transcendence in Les Miserables: Hugo's Romantic Sublime


In this first book-length study of Les Misérables,Kathryn M. Grossman, with an authoritative command of Hugo's work and Hugo criticism, situates the novelist's masterpiece in relation both to his earlier novels- up to and including Notre-Dame de Paris- and to the poetry published during his exile under the Second Empire. Drawing on Paul Ricoeur's theory of metaphor and on Thomas Weiskel's analysis of the romantic sublime, Grossman illustrates how the novel's motifs and structures correspond to a closely connected set of ethical, spiritual, political, and aesthetic concerns.

The religious motifs in Les Misérables identify the sublime not just with utopian ideals (and the overthrow of Napoleon III's grotesque Second Empire) but with artistic death and resurrection. Examining the ways the novel is largely concerned with the monstrous "brutalities of progress" called revolutions that must precede the advent of heaven on earth, Grossman traces that link to a mythos of sin and redemption and shows how the moral concerns of the plot also illuminate Hugo's aesthetics.

Les Misérables explores the tensions between heroes and scoundrels, chaos and order, law and lawlessness. Grossman painstakingly follows the novel's ethical hierarchy from the grotesque (criminality) to the conventional (bourgeois complacency) and the sublime (sainthood), demonstrating how that hierarchy corresponds to two other hierarchies: the literary and the political.


Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat'ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n.

--Milton, Paradise Lost 4.73-78

While Jean Valjean, the young revolutionaries, and the conventionnel G. may qualify as great outlaws, much of Les Misérables is concerned with ordinary malefactors and with lawlessness in general. Hugo's villains share a cluster of repeating patterns connected to bestial hunger and the insatiable urge to harm others. To achieve their ends, they systematically hide their egotism under the guise of respectability and even compassion. But their obsessive calculations often overestimate their own intellectual strength and misread the motivations of others; and the little comedies they stage may have tragic consequences for themselves as well as for their victims.

After exploring the primitive appetites, theatricality, and moral economics of the criminal element, I discuss the grotesque dimensions of this ethos and the structural role of Hugo's Inferno in the development of more principled characters. I go on to show the connection of ethical, political, and aesthetic lawlessness through the notion of fictionality.

Ravening Appetites and the Social Jungle

The primacy of the outlaw in Les Misérables corresponds to an extensive thématique--including numerous musings on utopia and its opposite, dystopia--and to a variety of powerful images. My study of criminality in the novel begins with the motif of rapaciousness. The vicious mongrel Thénardier embodies this relentless hunger in a universe dominated by . . .

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