As Voltaire was the virtual sovereign and universal genius of French literature in the eighteenth century, so with even better right was Victor Hugo in the nineteenth. Both lived to a great age and maintained to the end their literary power and fertility. Both outlived most of the opposition and rivalry which had beset their respective careers, and toward the end enjoyed extraordinary personal triumphs in the capital from which they had long been exiled. Victor Hugo's exaltation was even greater than Voltaire's, for he received honors and congratulations not from Paris only, but from all parts of the world. Voltaire's body after his death was hurriedly conveyed to a distance and hastily committed to the grave, lest ecclesiastical authority might even then show its condemnation by depriving it of a decent burial. But Victor Hugo's remains were honored with a state burial and a spontaneous demonstration of public grief surpassing in pomp and magnificence any that had been awarded to departed royalty. What had this uncrowned king done to merit this unique tribute? He was, perhaps, regarded by many as the victorious champion and spokesman of the democracy of the world. But his real triumphs were not in his political career, which was full of inconsistency, but in his sublime odes, in his powerful dramas and his still more powerful novels, in which he pleaded the cause of the oppressed and outcast.
In his Feuilles d'Automne--Autumn Leaves--and in other writings Hugo has given sketches of his life, as he wished the world to see and admire it. The biography, professing to be "related by a witness of his life," and attributed to his wife, was largely written by himself with characteristic exaggerations and embelishments. With all his genuine love of humanity, extending to the vicious and degraded, there was joined an overweening vanity which demanded that mankind must be interested in him and his doings. As he lived long in public view in an era of unprecedented activity of the press, the records of his career are abundant from every point of view. But his literary works must be their own vouchers at the bar of the world's judgement.
For our purpose we cannot do better than give the substance of Prof. Brander Matthews' verdict on Victor Hugo's dramas. He finds that they are melodramas written by a poet, rather than poetic plays written by a dramatist. In Molière's works, as in Shakespeare's, the man is superior to the event; but in Hugo's, as in Calderon's and in Corneille's, the situation dominates the characters. Unlike Calderon's and Corneille's, Hugo's plays are not poetic in conception, however poetic they may be in verbal clothing. Neither for the plots nor the personages can this be claimed. The plot is melodramatic, but the best of melodrama, because of its simplicity and its strength, and because it is the work of a man of heavier mental endowment than is possessed by the common writer of melodrama.
Melodramatic as the situations and characters are, however, the best of Hugo's plays are still poetic; for Victor Hugo was a great poet, although not a great dramatic poet. His plays, while they are melodramas in structure, are the work of an artist in elaboration. The joints of the plot are hidden, and the hollowness of the characters is cloaked by the ample folds of a poetic diction of unrivalled richness. The splendor of this lyric speech blinds us at first to the lack of inner and vital poetry in the structure it decks so royally. Although, therefore, his plays are effective in performance, and his characters wear at times the externals of poetic conception, Victor Hugo was not a dramatic poet of the highest class.