Victor Hugo on Things That Matter


You are viewing an older version of the Yalebooks website. Please visit out new website with more updated information and a better user experience:

A Reader

Edited by Marva A. Barnett

View Inside Format: Paper
Price: $62.00
Our shopping cart only supports Mozilla Firefox. Please ensure you're using that browser before attempting to purchase.

Also Available in:

Visit Marva A. Barnett's homepage.

Victor Hugo on Things That Matter gives English speakers the social, historical, cultural, and biographical context that is essential for enjoying the writing and art of this genius of nineteenth-century France. The book’s topical organization lets readers investigate Hugo’s ideas about private and personal concerns—love, children, grief, nature, God—as well as public and politically important issues—liberty and democracy, tyranny, social justice, humanity, peace, and war. 

Unlike other Hugo anthologies, Victor Hugo on Things That Matter offers introductions and notes in English and includes twenty-five of Hugo’s watercolors and drawings.  Readers will find key Hugo texts in the original French, along with the following supplemental information in English:
  • an overview of Hugo’s importance and his private and public personas;
  • introductions to each chapter;
  • historical and cultural explanatory notes;
  • a time line of Hugo’s life and work;
  • suggestions for further reading.

Marva Barnett is professor at the University of Virginia, where she also serves as director of the Teaching Resource Center.

With Victor Hugo’s On Things That Matter, Marva Barnett gives us a much-needed tool to experience, understand, and appreciate Hugo’s multifaceted literary and artistic production. Barnett’s book is truly impressive in its clarity, comprehensiveness, and insight. Her gift for synthesis makes Barnett the ideal interpreter of such a prolific writer as Hugo, and her intellectual curiosity for every facet of Hugo’s creativity and genius allows Barnett’s synoptic views to never fall into simplification or loss of meaningful detail.

While offering a sense of Hugo’s encyclopedic production and wide-ranging creativity, Barnett’s organization along topic lines provides her book with a solid sense of structure and makes it very reader-friendly. Victor Hugo on Things That Matter is a fundamental book for Hugo scholars and instructors who teach Hugo in their courses. Hugo was such a massive presence in 19th century culture that references to his work abound in disciplines as varied as literary and cultural studies, art history, politics, and history. Barnett’s volume is a valuable tool for those of us who work on authors who have been influenced by Hugo. Since the book’s publication, I’ve consulted it several times in reference to artists as diverse as Italian film maker Federico Fellini (who is indebted to Hugo’s ideas on the grotesque), Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (on dreams and the fantastic), and French director Alain Corneau (on the exotic). 

Cristina Della Coletta, Author of World’s Fairs Italian Style: The Great Expositions in Turin and their Narratives 1860-1911 (U of Toronto Press, 2007)

It’s superb! Very impressive! I think it’s magnificent, with no equal in any other language, and I don’t tire of leafing through it. I hadn’t realized to what extent the book overall would be so comprehensive, complete, and beautiful.

The idea of commenting on the drawings in the same way as the texts is inspired, nowhere else done that way. When I see the quality of the presentations (of all the presentations: preface, introduction, short intros, etc.), I say to myself that there should really be another edition with all Hugo’s texts translated into English, so that a wider public could benefit from them: it’s really a shame to “limit” this book to Francophones alone. Is such an edition planned?


The layout is truly splendid (from the cover to the page layout. I’m sure that VH would have liked it, despite his aversion to anthologies.


Jean-Marc Hovasse, French National Center of Scientific Research, Paris; author of Victor Hugo. Avant l’exil, 1802-1851 (Paris: Éd. Fayard, 2001) and Victor Hugo. Pendant l’exil I, 1851-1864 (Paris: Éd. Fayard, 2008)


Translated from the original French (below):
Il est superbe ! Très impressionnant ! Je le trouve magnifique, sans équivalent dans aucune autre langue, et je ne me lasse pas de le feuilleter. Je ne m'étais pas rendu compte à quel point l'esemble serait ainsi cohérent, complet, et beau.

 L'idée de commenter les dessins au même titre que les textes est géniale, jamais faite ailleurs, par exemple. Quand je vois la qualité des présentations (de toutes les présentations : préface, introduction, introductions partielles, etc.), je me dis qu'il faudrait vraiment faire une autre édition avec tous les textes de VH traduits en anglais, pour que le public le plus large puisse en bénéficier : c'est trop dommage de le "limiter" aux seuls francophones. Est-ce que c'est prévu?


 La maquette est vraiment splendide (de la couverture à la mise en page). Je suis sûr que VH aurait aimé, malgré son aversion des anthologies.

Through the great Hugo’s poetry, novel excerpts, essays, letters, political speeches, and even drawings, Marva A. Barnett takes the reader into a tremendous anthology where all the cherished themes of this important author and humanist can be found.


It’s clear that this ambitious book (one doesn’t tackle Hugo without some ambition) comes from both an immense passion for, and profound knowledge of, Victor Hugo and his work.


Beyond the judicious choice of texts, one of the best qualities of Victor Hugo on Things That Matter, I may add, are the introductions to the excerpts of Hugo’s work. With immeasurable finesse and absolutely no stylistic heaviness, Marva Barnett communicates her knowledge and love of Hugo, enlightening us sometimes about an historical period, sometimes about the author’s biography and thought.


Marva A. Barnett helps curious readers who are in love with the French language discover a universal, timeless genius who, while a leader in his time, remains nonetheless contemporary with our world, a world which still needs his unique, essential light.
Alain Lecompte, composer and singer, Hugo Live


Translated from the original French (below):

C’est à travers la poésie, des extraits de romans, d’essais, de lettres, de discours politiques et même de dessins du grand Hugo, que Marva A. Barnett entraîne le lecteur dans une formidable anthologie où tous les thèmes chers au grand auteur et humaniste se retrouvent.


On voit que cet ambitieux recueil (on ne s’attaque pas à Hugo sans une quelconque ambition) est porté à la fois par une grande passion et une profonde connaissance de Victor Hugo et de son œuvre.


D’ailleurs une des grandes qualités de Victor Hugo on Things That Matter en plus du choix judicieux des textes, est dans la mise en situation des extraits d’œuvre. C’est avec grande finesse et sans lourdeur aucune que Marva A. Barnett communique son savoir et son amour  d’Hugo, nous éclairant tantôt sur l’aspect historique d’une époque, tantôt sur l’aspect biographique et la pensée de l’auteur.

 Marva A. Barnett fait découvrir au lecteur curieux, amoureux de la langue française, un génie universel et intemporel qui, même s’il fut chef de file de son époque, n’en demeure pas moins actuel dans notre monde qui a encore besoin de sa lumière unique et essentielle.

"Marva Barnett pulls of a neat trick: in grouping Hugo's writings across genres by themes with universal resonance and timeless appeal, it proves that what ought to matter to the modern reader is Victor Hugo. . . . This book . . . succeeds strikingly in showing how and why Hugo still speaks to us today. And this without oversimplifying or ignoring the contradictions inherent in his work; on the contrary, Barnett's meticulously researched and carefully organized reader provides a nuanced picture of Hugo's life and body of work. . . . The strength here is how she artfully presents from the themes selected for each main section Hugo's multilayered and multi-genre engagement with life's biggest questions. . . . This type of project is refreshingly alive, and Barnett;s fluid prose and clear passion for this undertaking additionally demonstrates the pleasure that can be derived for scholars from engaging with a public other than themselves."—Isabel Roche, French Review

"[A] bountiful volume of Hugo's writings. . . . Barnett reveals herself to be exactly the kind of reader that Hugo wanted to attract to his works. The result is both meticulously organized and compellingly informative. . . . Barnett is careful to stress the character of her portrait as representative rather than exhaustive. In turn, this volume stands as both a helpful composite of Hugo's oeuvre and an exciting introduction of what remains one of the modern age's most extensive bodies of literature. Indeed, Barnett structures the vast array on offer with enviable poise, striving for the kind of thematic coherence that should appeal to aficionados and newcomers alike. . . . The kind of invitation for readers to go further that Hugo would have appreciated."—Bradley Stephens, French Studies: A Quarterly Review

"Much carful thought has gone into the book's organisation, making it a pleasure to explore. . . . This theme-based approach  is ideal for realising the author's intention of helping the reader 'make contact' with Hugo the man through his writings and engage with his ideas and thoughts on 'things that matter.' . . . Barnett's overview of Hugo's life and ideas is lively and illuminating, valuable in its own right independently of the anthologized pieces. The author achieves the difficult balance of including a wealth of information without excessive detail or denseness. . . . Throughout, the book is animated with Barnett's own love and appreciation of Hugo's work and what emerges is not just a showcase of the writer's literary creations but an insight into 'one great, intriguing mind.' The reader gains an appreciation not only of the writer but the man himself: his feelings, his character, his thoughts and his ideas that still speak to us today with their enduring optimism. Victor Hugo on Things That Matter is an important step in bringing Hugo to a deservedly wider world readership."—Andrea Beaghton, L'Echo Hugo
ISBN: 9780300122459
Publication Date: September 29, 2009
528 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
26 b/w illus.

Table of Contents (PDF)