An Idea Whose Time Has Come

by Lisa VanDamme


Using a passage from the great Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three, I will illustrate the difference between literary analysis as I learned it and as I teach it.

   “During the mother’s terrible supplications, other voices arose on the plateau and in the ravine:
   ‘A ladder!’ 
   ‘We have no ladder.’ 
   ‘We have no water.’ 
   ‘Up there in the tower, on the third floor, there’s a door!’ 
   ‘It’s made of iron.’ 
   ‘Break it open!’ 
   ‘That’s impossible.’ 
   And the mother redoubled her desperate appeals:
   ‘Fire! Help! Hurry! My children! If you won’t save them, kill me! The horrible fire! Take them out of it or throw me into it!’ 
   In the intervals between these clamors, the calm crackling of the flames could be heard.
   The marquis put his hand in his pocket and touched the key to the iron door. Then, stooping under the vault through which he had escaped, he went back into the passage from which he had just emerged.”

If this literary masterpiece somehow found its way into an American high school, the following, in my experience, is typical of how it would be analyzed. Please bear with me through this cold and merciless dissection:

Looking at the excerpt out of context, we would spend a great deal of time identifying and discussing the various literary devices Hugo employed. The dialogue, the teacher might tell us, conforms to the technique known as “stichomythia”—short, alternating lines featuring repetition or antithesis. We would then compare it to similar exchanges in the plays of Shakespeare. We would probably discuss Hugo’s use of “alliteration,” or repetition of sound: “between these clamors, the calm crackling of the flames could be heard.” Perhaps we would analyze the “mood” captured by his diction, the somber hopelessness conveyed with such descriptors as “terrible,” “impossible,” “desperate,” and “horrible.” We might talk about the onomatopoeic nature of the word “crackling”—the sort of word that imitates the sound to which it refers. And at the conclusion of the lesson, we would be left with nothing but the lifeless, fragmented remains of Hugo’s exquisite passage.

If the teacher made an effort not just to dissect, but to connect, we would examine the novel for “themes,” or abstract concepts that happen to recur within the story. We might talk about a theme of “conflagration, ” drawing out similarities and differences among various scenes involving fire—from the one featured in the passage above, to the burning ship at sea, to any metaphorical references Hugo might make to the “blaze” or “ignition” of battle.  We might discuss a theme of “doors” or “passages,” from the royalists’ impossible escape through the secret portal, to the marquis’s decision to re-enter the vault, to the idea of the door as a symbol for a departure point from one’s impassioned convictions. In essence, we would lump together the pieces of the carcass into mangled imitations of a whole.

Treating Hugo’s work in this manner, even to make a point, leaves me feeling traitorous and unclean. I will endeavor to purify myself with the following description of how I would teach this passage.

First, I would have helped my students to observe and to deeply admire the mother’s devotion to her children. This mother, who had suckled her baby and cared for her children in a war-torn-forest, desperate, starving, evading ambush and sleeping in a hollowed-out tree. This mother, who survived gunshots to the breast, and set out on a journey, barefoot and alone, to recover her kidnapped children. This mother, who is shown a rare and vitally needed act of kindness when a stranger offers her a piece of bread, and who then divides it in two for some urchin children who reminded her of her own. This mother, who arrives at the ravine overlooking the war-ravaged castle where her children are held captive, only to see it slowly enveloped by whirling, murderous flames. This mother, who curses God when she sees within the castle’s library three cradles holding her three sweetly sleeping children, and whose terrible desperation is captured in the only words possible for her to scream, “If you won’t save them, kill me! The horrible fire! Take them out of it or throw me into it!’

We would have understood and been moved by the marquis’s ruthless loyalty to his cause, and his willingness to devote everything to its realization. We would have watched him risk his life to stop a loose cannon that had been rolling over his ship’s deck, cutting down everything in its path, and leaving behind a pile of bloody corpses and a vessel at risk of shipwreck. We would have seen him besieged in a castle with a band of eighteen fanatic followers, and witness his steadfast determination to do battle with a vast enemy army rather than surrender. We would have seen this great general, zealous enough to sentence to death a man who had saved his life or to aim a bullet at the head of his own disloyal nephew, caught in a moment of conscience. We would have held our breaths as we waited to see whether he would flee to freedom knowing that he alone held the key to the iron door and that in doing so he would be betraying three innocent children to an inferno. And we would breathe again as he stooped to “return into the passage from which he had emerged.”

In this manner, we would arrive at a clear understanding of Hugo’s fundamental view of man’s potential and of the moral message in this masterful work. We would see that the mother, the marquis, the nephew, and others represent man’s capacity for heroic dedication to his values. And we would see that Hugo wove all the circumstances and dialogue and actions into one, basic, profound theme: “Above the revolutionary absolute there is the human absolute.” We would understand that for Hugo, revolution must come through liberation, and not through violence and oppression.

Subsequent to all my years of schooling, I discovered one teacher who taught literature by this method. He showed me to view a great work of literature as an integrated whole, to strive for an understanding of the characters’ basic natures, to carefully observe the arc of the plot, and to discover the underlying meaning that the author intends. He showed me that the goal of this effort was to feel the characters’ plight, to be riveted by their actions, and to be moved, or at least stirred to thought, by the author’s message. This method opened up to me the true and irreplaceable value of literature: its ability to convey a monumental idea in the form of a captivating story.

Hugo once said, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The time has come to abandon the conventional approach to literature, which leaves it mangled and mutilated. The time has come to once again understand that literature is art, meant to move and edify and inspire. May this idea, whose time has come, defy all the forces of modern education.