Victor Hugo, born in 1802 in Besancon, France, was one of the leading French authors of the Romantic movement. Although he originally studied law, Hugo dreamed of writing. In 1819, he founded the journal Conservateur Litteraire as an outlet for his dream and soon produced volumes of poetry, plays, and novels. Hugo's most notable works include The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. Published in 1831, The Hunchback of Notre Dame appealed to the public's consciousness concerning society and the treatment of outcasts. It was with the publication of Les Miserables in 1862 that Hugo gained international fame. Another tale of outcasts, this story follows the life of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release from prison, Valjean is hunted by the policeman Javert. Full of intricate details, the story also describes the famous Battle of Waterloo. (Hugo's father had been an officer in Napoleon's army.) Both of these works have been adapted for the stage and screen many times. These adaptations include the Walt Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the award-winning musical sensation Les Miserables. In addition to his literary career, Hugo also held political office. In 1841, he was elected to the Academie Francaise. After political upheaval in 1851, he was exiled and remained so until 1870. He returned to Paris in 1871 and was elected to the National Assembly, though he soon resigned. During Hugo's life, he had suffered devastating losses, including the death of his daughter in 1843, his wife in 1868, one son in 1871, and another in 1873. He lived out the rest of his life as a national hero and symbol of excellence, dying on May 22, 1888.
Adam Gopnik is the author of Paris to the Moon and Through the Children's Gate and is a contributor to The New Yorker. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children. His most recent book is Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, a comparison about how those men changed our nation with their history-making actions.