Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Signs of Origin: Victor Hugo's Bug-Jargal

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Signs of Origin: Victor Hugo's Bug-Jargal

Article excerpt

Critics do not agree on how to read Victor Hugo's first work of narrative fiction, Bug-Jargal (published 18zo, revised 1826). Set during the 1791 slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Bug-Jargal relates the story of a white French aristocrat, Leopold d'Auverney, and an enslaved African prince, Bug-Jargal, who struggle to preserve their high-minded friendship although they fight on opposite sides of the insurrection. Readers argue heatedly about how to interpret the ways that Bug-Jargal represents the African and mixed-race characters who make up the majority of its cast. "Bug-Jargal est un tissu de lieux communs negrophobes" (Toumson 63), which amply demonstrate the "refus du narrateur--et de l'auteur--face a la litterature negrophile" (Gewecke 56). That is, unless the novel proclaims a refusal of another sort: a categorical "refus de la bassesse et de la barbarie" (Cauna 34), constituting a "veritable requisitoire contre la traite des Noirs et l'esclavage sous toutes ses formes" (Ntsobe, qtd. in Gewecke 61). Further complicating matters, the novel draws explicit parallels between the Saint-Domingue slave uprising and the mainland French Revolution, leading some readers to infer from the work Hugo's own social loyalties or political convictions at the rime of the writing. Here again, however, there is no consensus. To some, Bug-Jargal reveals "an obvious sign of Hugo's continued allegiance to an antimodern ideology of Restoration" (Bongie 236). The novel has been indicted as "un sarcasme, un pamphlet singulierement corrosif dirige contre la revolution, generiquement prise, et son cas d'espece, la revolution noire" (Toumson 32). Other readers, however, find in Bug-Jargal equally obvious proof of Hugo's emergent liberalism: "C'est avec Bug-Jargal que le grotesque, ne dans Han d'Islande, s'arme d'une maniere absolument definitive en vue d'un combat pour la liberte" (Seerbacher, qtd. in Gewecke 64). Kathryn M. Grossman similarly argues that within Bug-Jargal "the grotesque foreshadows the political sublime. In Bug-Jargal, history leads to a better world"--adding, however, that such an enlightened understanding of this novel escapes most readers: "Only for the 'happy few' is Hugo's own work likely to make much sense" (102, 104).

Negrophile or negrophobe, politically conservative or liberal, glaringly obvious or requiring rare insight: Bug-Jargal provokes sharply polarized readings because the work is fundamentally at odds with itself. (1) Indeed, even to refer to Bug-Jargal as a single work--as Hugo himself later would--is a problematic oversimplification, conferring an artificial unity to a novel that lacks a single, definitive point of origin. A novella version of the story appeared anonymously in Le Conservateur litteraire in 1820. In 1826, Bug-Jargal reappeared as a novel published under Hugo's own name, rive times longer and substantially revised in form and content. Yet the 1826 Bug-Jargal downplays the extent of these changes, as well as the changed frames of reference in which the altered work now appeared. "Ce sont les evenements qui se sont arranges pour le livre, et non le livre pour les evenements," declares the 1826 preface, flatly refusing to reconsider Bug-Jargal in light of current-day events (1: 277). Interestingly, this denial occurred during a period when Hugo emphatically stated his opposition to revising his early works, on principle. In the late 1820s and early 30s, Hugo made a regular practice of declaring that he never rewrote his previously-published material: (2) that in fact, the body of work which he was beginning to view as his oeuvres completes stood in its original form as a kind of public archive, possessing "cette sorte de valeur historique qui s'attache a tous les documents honnetes ou se retrouve la physionomie d'une epoque" (12: 48). In this way, Hugo's retrospective gaze at his own earlier works imparts a moral dimension to the issue of writing in its original form, necessarily tied to the contexts of its original production. …

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