Title : Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three)
Author : Victor Hugo
Publication date : June 1872

Quatrevingt-treize is a novel written by Victor Hugo in 1872. It mixes fiction and the historical background of the French Revolution of 1789. The action takes place in 1793, year when Louis XVI was guillotined. Like 1789, 1793 was a milestone in the post-revolution period : it was the apogée of the civil war and Robespierre's failure marked the advent of La Terreur.

A tripartite novel

Quatrevingt-treize is divided in three different parts, each of which focuses on a different aspect, rather than on a different period of 1793. what is characteristic about this novel is that the historical background plays an important role though the storyline is all but chronologic.

The first part is labeled En Mer (out at sea). A revolutionary column discovers a lost woman named Michelle Fléchard in the Saudraie forest. She is alone with her three children, her baby girl Georgette, and two boys Gros-Alain and René-Jean. Then Victor Hugo describes how a man manages to travel secretly across the Channel and unload at Couesnon (near the Mont Saint-Michel). This man is in fact the marquis de Lantennac and is supposed to support the budding uprising in Vendée and become the new King of France.

The second part is labeled A Paris and describes the magnificent political institution called La Convention. Victor Hugo goes on and on describing what every citoyen did Paris to rule the country and establish laws. The result is a sort of brouhaha that symbolizes the messy atmosphere of that period. This part ends with a secret surging meeting of Danton, Robespierre and Marat, the three key figures of the revolution, where they try do decide whether the vendéans or the foreigners are the most harmful to the Republic. They eventually meet an abbot named Cimourdain and send him to Vendée to look after his young disciple the commander Gauvain.

The last part is labeled En Vendée. It describes the civil war between people friendly to the revolution and those friendly to the monarchy. Two armies are fighting : one lead by Gauvain and the other by his uncle the marquis de Lantennac. Lantennac holds prisoner the children of la Flécharde who, helped by Gauvain tries to find them. Lantennac finally gets caught and Cimourdain orders him to be guillotined. But Gauvain is more lenient and will do anything to save his uncle...

The main characters

  • The Marquis de Lantennac, head of those friendly to the Monarchy. He is Gauvain's uncle.
  • The Vicomte Gauvain is head of those friendly to the Republic and nephew of Lantennac.
  • The abbot Cimourdain was Gauvain's mentor and must look after him. He has no mercy for the prisoners.
  • Michelle Fléchard lost her husband in the civil war and has to look after her three children Georgette, Gros-Alain and René-Jean.
  • Tellmarch is a tramp that helped Lantennac hide when he arrived in France. He also helped Michelle Flécharde recover from an assault of Lantennac.

Omnipresent war

89 et 93 ; les hommes du XIXe siècle sortent de là. C'est là leur père et leur mère. Ne leur cherchez pas d'autre filiation, d'autre inspiration, d'autre insufflation, d'autre origine.
Victor Hugo, from William Shakespeare

Quatrevingt-treize starts late in May 1793, just before the advent of La Terreur, a period of violence and fierce civil war. On the one hand, 1789 symbolizes liberty and will for freedom ; on the other hand 1793 is the image of conflict and destruction. This opposition forged the characters of the men of the 19th century.

While it is a historical novel, Victor Hugo focuses on minor characters. The key figures Robespierre, Danton and Marat are only named in one chapter. Hugo shows them around a table and describes the scene as if we were eavesdropping their conversation. They are only part of the background. In fact Hugo wanted to show what life was like for the masses, so he stays away from the historians' main characters and events. This also explains why the tramp Tellmarch is a main character.

Quatrevingt-treize opposes two different conceptions of the events. Firstly, Cimourdain is willing to fight and give no mercy every oponent to the Republic. On the second hand, Gauvain wants people to adopt the Republic because they like it, not because they are forced. Victor Hugo wrote Quatrevingt-treize in exile at Guernesey in (December 1871) because of a succession of political troubles starting with Louis Napoléon Bonaparte's coup d'etat. His conception of amnesty echoes the events of La Commune de Paris (18 March - 28 May 1871) when he was making a case for leniency.

Is the war for Republic an evil for a good ?

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