Exile and Hugo: The Theme of Exile in Victor Hugo's Works

The Theme of Exile in Victor Hugo's Works

Victor Hugo, a renowned French author of the Romantic era, explored various themes in his literary works. The theme of exile is a recurring motif in the work of Victor Hugo. He was exiled twice during his lifetime, and these experiences heavily influenced his writings. Through vivid characters and captivating narratives, Hugo tells tales of individuals forced into exile. Hugo uses the theme of exile as a metaphor for the social alienation that people face and he explores the various aspects of exile, including physical, emotional, metaphorical, and social. This article will examine the theme of exile in Victor Hugo's works.

Victor Hugo was exiled first in 1851. After he openly criticized the new regime of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he was forced to escape France to avoid imprisonment. He settled on the Channel Island of Jersey, where he spent fifteen years in self-imposed exile. After Napoleon III's fall in 1870, Hugo returned to France and was known as a national figure in the Paris Commune. However, he once again went into exile because of his political involvement after the fall of the Commune. He spent his final years in Guernsey. Victor Hugo's exiles not only shaped his own life but also influenced his writing, making him a symbol of resistance and a literary master.

The theme of exile appears in many of Hugo's works, particularly in his novels. In many of his works, Hugo portrays exile as a form of punishment or persecution. He creates characters who are innocent or who have been unjustly accused. In his novel Les Misérables, the character of Jean Valjean is a fugitive who lives in exile for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Later in the novel, Valjean is forced to hide away due to his criminal past and to avoid being arrested again. Valjean's exile from society is both physical and psychological. He is constantly on the run and must change his identity frequently to avoid detection, which leads to feelings of isolation and alienation. The theme of social exile is inevitable, as the characters struggle to find a place in a society that has rejected them. Also, In Les Misérables, the character of Fantine, a young mother who falls into poverty and prostitution, represents the marginalized members of society. Her exile from a stable and respectable life exposes the social injustices prevailing in nineteenth-century France. "There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher." (Hugo) This quote indirectly touches on the social consequences that can lead to exile. It illustrates the distinction between the wealthy upper class and the poor lower classes, indicating that the lower class’s condition usually results in a feeling of exile within their society. This experience of being ostracized from society is a central theme in the novel, which explores the struggle of the poor and the marginalized.

Whether physical or emotional, exile often leads to isolation and a sense of longing. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the character of Quasimodo, a deformed bell-ringer, is exiled from society due to his physical deformities, and his appearance. Quasimodo is forced to live in the bell tower of Notre Dame and he is marginalized by the people of Paris and is treated as an outcast. He experiences a deep sense of isolation. He is imprisoned in a literal way by his monstrous appearance and rejection from society, leading to a life of isolation from which he desires to escape. Quasimodo's exile highlights the human yearning for acceptance and belonging and the judgment and prejudice embedded in society. The novel also explores the exile of the gypsy Esmeralda, who is persecuted for her ethnicity. She is accused of a crime she did not commit and sentenced to death. Although she is eventually proven innocent, she is still forced to live in hiding and cannot return to her previous life. So, those characters are evident in how Hugo is affected by exile and how this shapes his protagonists.

Moreover, Hugo's writings often explore exile's psychological, internal, and emotional impact, portraying it as a profound and deeply personal experience. Toilers of the Sea tells the story of a fisherman named Gilliat who is exiled to the island of Guernsey after he is accused of a crime he did not commit. The theme of physical exile is prominent throughout the book, as Gilliat must fight to survive on the island to clear his name. The theme of exile is central to the novel, as it explores the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of being snatched from one's homeland and community. Gilliatt's exile is both literal and metaphorical. He is physically exiled to the island of Guernsey, where he is separated from his family, friends, and familiar surroundings. This physical isolation reinforces his emotional and psychological isolation, as he struggles to adapt to his new environment and make meaningful connections with others. 

 Overall, this article discussed the theme of exile in Victor Hugo’s novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Misérables, and Toilers of the Sea. Hugo's own experiences with exile, notably his political exile from France, deeply influenced his writings, making the theme a recurring motif in his literary masterpieces. The theme of exile in Victor Hugo's works highlights the injustice and suffering that can be inflicted upon individuals who are seen as outsiders or who fall out of favor with those in power. Hugo exposes individuals' hardships, challenges society's norms, and delivers a call for empathy, understanding, and a search for justice through physical, social, moral, and political exiles.


Hugo, Victor and Charles E. 1833-1896 Wilbour. Les Misérables. Modern Library ed. New York, Modern Library, 1992.

Hugo, Victor, 1802-1885. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame = Notre-Dame De Paris. London: New York: Dutton, Dent; 1973.

Hugo, Victor and W. Moy 1828-1910 Thomas. Toilers of the Sea. London: New York, J. M. Dent & sons, ltd., 1911.

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