In addition to being well known as a novelist, Victor Hugo was also a poet. Les Contemplations, while not published until 1856, actually contained poems written as far back as 1830. The themes of the collection are evocative particularly because they pull on some very sad circumstances from his life. His daughter, Leopoldine, died at the age of 19 by drowning in the Seine, and the collection is in large part dedicated to her memory. Not incidentally, memory is a major theme of the collection, and through it Hugo explores the transfer of autobiography into verse.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Aside from Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is probably Hugo’s most famous work – it was even made into a Disney move in 1996. The plot is both exciting and tragic, full of sympathetic characters whose wellbeing you’ll find yourself wanting to protect – namely Esmerelda, a beautiful woman charged with a terrible crime, and Quasimodo, the eponymous hunchback. For Hugo, though, the book had another purpose. He had watched in dismay as city officials began to remodel and replace the old Gothic buildings, and Hugo wanted to point out the value of this kind of architecture by essentially making the Notre Dame cathedral a character in the book.
La Legende des Siècles
This work, called The Legend of the Ages in English, is a collection of poetry that tackles a fairly substantial topic – just the entire history of humanity. As such, many people mark it as the only true French epic, placing it on par with such works as The Odyssey or Beowulf. Instead of exhaustively researching real historical figures, Hugo chose to depict fictional characters who personify and symbolize the eras from which they come. It started as a much smaller project before growing into the expansive piece that it would eventually become, expanding to encompass everything from the biblical creation to the Inquisition to Hugo’s modern day – and that was only in the first of three series. The finalized collection was published in 1883, and is possibly the best way to truly witness Hugo’s range of talent.