Poet, dramatist, and novelist, the most important of the French Romantic writers and, in later life, a politician and noted political writer.
Hugo was the son of an officer in Napoleon's army. From 1816, at least, Hugo had conceived ambitions other than the law, in which he was matriculating. He founded a review, the Conservateur Litteraire(1819-21), in which his own articles on the poets Alphonse de Lamartine and Andre de Chenier stand out. In 1822 Hugo married a childhood friend, Adele Foucher. In that same year he published his first book of poems, Odes et poesies diverses, which earned him a pension from Louis XVIII. In 1823 he published his first novel, Han d'Islande (Hans of Iceland, illustrated by George Cruikshank). During this time Hugo was drawn into a group of friends, all devotees of Romanticism, who met regularly at the Arsenal Library and who were known as the Petit Cenacle. He emerged as a true Romantic with the publication in 1827 of his verse drama Cromwell.
The defense of freedom and the cult of an idealized Napoleon in such poems as "Lui" and the ode "A la Colonne" brought Hugo in touch with liberal writers on the newspaper Le Globe, and his move toward liberalism was strengthened by Charles X's restrictions on the liberty of the press as well as by the censor's prohibiting the performance of his play Marion de Lorme (1829), the story of a courtesan purified by love. He immediately retorted with Hernani, the first performance of which, on Feb. 25, 1830, gained victory for the young Romantics over the traditional classicists in a literary battle.
Hugo gained wider fame in 1831 with his historical novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; Hunchback of Notre Dame, The), an evocation of medieval life under the reign of Louis XI. The book touched the public consciousness more deeply than had his previous novel, Le Dernier Jour d'un condamne (1829; The Last Day of a Condemned Man), in which Hugo launched a humanitarian protest against the death penalty. He later renewed this theme in Claude Gueux (1834).
Hugo produced four books of poems in the period of the July Monarchy: Les Feuilles d'automne (1831; "Autumn Leaves"), intimate and personal in inspiration; Les Chants du crepuscule (1835; "Twilight Songs"), overtly political; Les Voix interieures (1837; "Inner Voices"), both personal and philosophical; and Les Rayons et les ombres (1840; "Lights and Shadows").
Having at last achieved a production of Marion de Lorme in 1831, he continued to pour out plays, in part as vehicles for a young and beautiful actress, Juliette Drouet, with whom he had begun a liaison in 1833.
In 1841 Hugo was elected, after three unsuccessful attempts, to the Academie Francaise. Two years later his daughter was accidentally drowned with her husband. His intense grief is revealed in poems that later appeared in Les Contemplations (1856).
When in December 1851 a coup d'etat took place, Hugo fled to Brussels and then to Jersey and Guernsey. Enforced at the beginning, exile later became a voluntary gesture and, after the amnesty of 1859, an act of pride. During his exile of nearly 20 years he produced the most extensive part of all his writings and the most original. These included Chatiments, Les (1853; "The Punishments"), which ranks as one of the most powerful collections of satirical poems in the French language; such epic or metaphysical poems as LaFin de Satan ("Satan Redeemed") and Dieu ("God")--poems of vast scope that, written between 1854 and 1860, were not published until after his death; and the first two volumes of short epics based on history and legend, the "Petites Epopees" of La Legende des siecles (1859; The Legend of the Centuries). These, which for Hugo himself formed a single poem with the metaphysical epics, are the summit of his art; they display all his piritual power without sacrificing his exuberant capacity to tell a story.
He then turned to prose and took up his abandoned novel, Miserables, Les (1862), which he had begun shortly after his daughter's death. Its extraordinary success with readers of every type brought him instant popularity in his own country and its speedy translation into many languages won him fame abroad.
The defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the proclamation of the Third Republic brought Hugo back to Paris. Though he still fought for his old ideals, he no longer possessed the same energy. Increasingly detached from life around him, the poet of L'Annee terrible (1872), in which he recounted the siege of Paris during the "terrible year" of 1870, had become a national hero. He was in Brussels during the period of the Paris Commune, and he was expelled for giving shelter to the defeated rebels. After a temporary refuge in Luxembourg he returned to Paris, where he was elected senator. During 1872-73 he was in Guernsey for the writing of Quatre-vingt-treize (1874; Ninety-three) and the preparation of his remaining works for publication. At his death he was given a national funeral and was buried in the Pantheon.