Great People

Victor Hugo

From The Memoirs of Victor Hugo by Victor Hugo

Parts: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15



BESIDES misdeeds, robberies, the division of spoils after an ambuscade, and the twilight exploitation of the barriers of Paris, footpads, burglars, and gaol-birds generally have another industry: they have ideal loves.

This requires explanation.

The trade in negro slaves moves us, and with good reason; we examine this social sore, and we do well. But let us also learn to lay bare another ulcer, which is more painful, perhaps: the traffic in white women.

Here is one of the singular things connected with and characteristic of this poignant disorder of our civilization:

Every gaol contains a prisoner who is known as the "artist."

All kinds of trades and professions peculiar to prisons develop behind the bars. There is the vendor of liquorice-water, the vendor of scarfs, the writer, the advocate, the usurer, the hut-maker, and the barker. The artist takes rank among these local and peculiar professions between the writer and the advocate.

To be an artist is it necessary to know how to draw? By no means. A bit of a bench to sit upon, a wall to lean against, a lead pencil, a bit of pasteboard, a needle stuck in a handle made out of a piece of wood, a little Indian ink or sepia, a little Prussian blue, and a little vermilion in three cracked beechwood spoons,--this is all that is requisite; a knowledge of drawing is superfluous. Thieves are as fond of colouring as children are, and as fond of tattooing as are savages. The artist by means of his three spoons satisfies the first of these needs, and by means of his needle the second. His remuneration is a "nip" of wine.

The result is this:

Some prisoners, say, lack everything, or are simply desirous of living more comfortably. They combine, wait upon the artist, offer him their glasses of wine or their bowls of soup, hand him a sheet of paper and order of him a bouquet. In the bouquet there must be as many flowers as there are prisoners in the group. If there be three prisoners, there must be three flowers. Each flower bears a figure, or, if preferred, a number, which number is that of the prisoner.

The bouquet when painted is sent, through the mysterious means of communication between the various prisons that the police are powerless to prevent, to Saint Lazare. Saint Lazare is the women's prison, and where there are women there also is pity. The bouquet circulates from hand to hand among the unfortunate creatures that the police detain administratively at Saint Lazare; and in a few days the infallible secret post apprises those who sent the bouquet that Palmyre has chosen the tuberose, that Fanny prefers the azalea, and that Seraphine has adopted the geranium. Never is this lugubrious handkerchief thrown into the seraglio without being picked up.

Thenceforward the three bandits have three servants whose names are Palmyre, Fanny, and Seraphine. Administrative detentions are relatively of short duration. These women are released from prison before the men. And what do they do? They support them. In elegant phraseology they are providences; in plain language they are milch-cows.

Pity has been transformed into love. The heart of woman is susceptible of such sombre graftings. These women say:

"I am married." They are married indeed. By whom? By the flower. With whom? With the abyss. They are fiancées of the unknown. Enraptured and enthusiastic fiancées. Pale Sulamites of fancy and fog. When the known is so odious, how can they help loving the unknown?

In these nocturnal regions and with the winds of dispersion that blow, meetings are almost impossible. The lovers see each other in dreams. In all probability the woman will never set eyes on the man. Is he young? Is he old? Is he handsome? Is he ugly? She does not know; she knows nothing about him. She adores him. And it is because she does not know him that she loves him. Idolatry is born of mystery.

This woman, drifting aimlessly on life's tide, yearns for something to cling to, a tie to bind her, a duty to perform. The pit from amid its scum throws it to her; she accepts it and devotes herself to it. This mysterious bandit, transformed into heliotrope or iris, becomes a religion to her. She espouses him in the presence of night. She has a thousand little wifely attentions for him; poor for herself, she is rich for him; she whelms this manure with her delicate solicitude. She is faithful to him with all the fidelity of which she is still capable; the incorruptible emanates from the corruptible. Never does this woman betray her love. It is an immaterial, pure, ethereal love, subtile as the breath of spring, solid as brass.

A flower has done all this. What a well is the human heart, and how giddy it makes one to peer into it! Lo! the cloaca. Of what is it thinking? Of perfume. A prostitute loves a thief through a lily. What plunger into human thought could reach the bottom of this? Who shall fathom this immense yearning for flowers that springs from mud? In the secret self of these hapless women is a strange equilibrium that consoles and reassures them. A rose counterbalances an act of shame.

Hence these amours based on and sustained by illusion. This thief is idolized by this girl. She has not seen his face, she does not know his name; she sees him in visions induced by the perfume of jessamine or of pinks. Henceforward flower-gardens, the May sunshine, the birds in their nests, exquisite tints, radiant blossoms, boxes of orange trees and daphne odora, velvet petals upon which golden bees alight, the sacred odours of spring-tide, balms, incense, purling brooks, and soft green grass are associated with this bandit. The divine smile of nature penetrates and illumines him.

This desperate aspiring to paradise lost, this deformed dream of the beautiful, is not less tenacious on the part of the man. He turns towards the woman; and this preoccupation, become insensate, persists even when the dreadful shadow of the two red posts of the guillotine is thrown upon the window of his cell. The day before his execution Delaporte, chief of the Trappes band, who was wearing the strait-jacket, asked of the convict Cogniard, whom, through the grating in the door of the condemned cell, he saw passing by: "Are there any pretty women in the visitors' parlor this morning?" Another condemned man, Avril (what a name!), in this same cell, bequeathed all that he possessed--five francs--to a female prisoner whom he had seen at a distance in the women's yard, "in order that she may buy herself a fichu a la mode."

Between the male and female wretch dreams build a Bridge of Sighs, as it were. The mire of the gutter dallies with the door of a prison cell. The Aspasia of the street-corner aspires and respires with the heart of the Alcibiades who waylays the passer-by at the corner of a wood.

You laugh? You should not. It is a terrible thing.


The murderer is a flower for the courtesan. The prostitute is the Clytia of the assassin sun. The eye of the woman damned languourously seeks Satan among the myrtles.

What is this phenomenon? It is the need of the ideal. A sublime and awful need.

A terrible thing, I say.

Is it a disease? Is it a remedy? Both. This noble yearning is at the same time and for the same beings a chastisement and a reward; a voluptuousness full of expiation; a chastisement for faults committed, a recompense for sorrows borne! None may escape it. It is a hunger of angels felt by demons. Saint Theresa experiences it, Messalina also. This need of the immaterial is the most deeply rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before bread, one must have the ideal. One is a thief, one is a street-walker--all the more reason. The more one drinks of the darkness of night the more is one thirsty for the light of dawn. Schinderhannes becomes a cornflower, Poulailler a violet. Hence these sinisterly ideal weddings.

And then, what happens?

What I have just said.

Cloaca, but abyss. Here the human heart opens partly, disclosing unimaginable depths. Astarte becomes platonic. The miracle of the transformation of monsters by love is being accomplished. Hell is being gilded. The vulture is being metamorphosed into a bluebird. Horror ends in the pastoral. You think you are at Vouglans's and Parent-Duchâtelet's; you are at Longus's. Another step and you will stumble into Berquin's. Strange indeed is it to encounter Daphnis and Chloe in the Forest of Bondy!

The dark Saint Martin Canal, into which the footpad pushes the passer-by with his elbow as he snatches his victim's watch, traverses the Tender and empties itself into the Lignon. Poulmann begs a ribbon bow; one is tempted to present a shepherdess's crook to Papavoine. Through the straw of the sabot one sees gossamer wings appearing on horrible heels. The miracle of the roses is performed for Goton. All fatalities combined have for result a flower. A vague Rambouillet Palace is superposed upon the forbidding silhouette of the Salpêtrière. The leprous wall of evil, suddenly covered with blossoms, affords a pendant to the wreath of Juliet. The sonnets of Petrarch, that flight of the ideal which soars in the shadow of souls, venture through the twilight towards this abjection and suffering, attracted by one knows not what obscure affinity, even as a swarm of bees is sometimes seen humming over a dungheap from which arises, perceptible to the bees alone and mingling with the miasms, the perfume of a hidden flower. The gemoniae are Elysian. The chimerical thread of celestial unions floats 'neath the darkest vault of the human Erebus and binds despairing hearts to hearts that are monstrous. Manon through the infinite sends to Cartouche a smile ineffable as that with which Everallin entranced Fingal. From one pole of misery to the other, from one gehenna to another, from the galleys to the brothel, tenebrous mouths wildly exchange the kiss of azure.

It is night. The monstrous ditch of Clamart opens. From it arises a miasm, a phosphorescent glow. It shines and flickers in two separate tarts; it takes shape, the head rejoins the body, it is a phantom; the phantom gazes into the darkness with wild, baleful eyes, rises, grows bigger and blue, hovers for an instant and then speeds away to the zenith to open the door of the palace of the sun where butterflies flit from flower to flower and angels flit from star to star.

In all these strange, concordant phenomena appears the inadmissibility of the principle that is all of man. The mysterious marriage which we have just related, marriage of servitude with captivity, exaggerates the ideal from the very fact that it is weighed down by all the most hideous burdens of destiny. A frightful combination! It is the From it rises a miasm, a phosphorescent glow. It shines meeting of these two redoubtable words in which human existence is summed up: enjoy and suffer.

Alas! And how can we prevent this cry from escaping us? For these hapless ones, enjoy, laugh, sing, please, and love exist, persist; but there is a death-rattle in sing, a grating sound in laugh, putrefaction in enjoy, there are ashes in please, there is night in love. All these joys are attached to their destiny by coffin-nails.

What does that matter? They thirst for these lugubrious, chimerical glimpses of light that are full of dreams.

What is tobacco, that is so precious and so dear to the prisoner? It is a dream. "Put me in the dungeon," said a convict, "but give me some tobacco." In other words: "Throw me into a pit, but give me a palace." Press the prostitute and the bandit, mix Tartarus and Avernus, stir the fatal vat of social mire, pile all the deformities of matter together, and what issues therefrom? The immaterial.

The ideal is the Greek fire of the gutter. It burns there. Its brightness in the impure water dazzles the thinker and touches his heart. Nini Lassive stirs and brightens with Fiesehi's bilets-doux that sombre lamp of Vesta which is in the heart of every woman, and which is as inextinguishable in that of the courtesan as in that of the Carmelite. This is what explains the word "virgin," accorded by the Bible equally to the foolish virgin and to the wise virgin.

That was so yesterday, it is so to-day. Here again the surface has changed, the bottom remains the same. The frank harshness of the Middle Ages has been somewhat softened in our times. Ribald is pronounced light o' love; Toinon answers to the name of Olympia or Imperia; Thomasse-la-Maraude is called Mme. de Saint Alphonse. The caterpillar was real, the butterfly is false; that is the only change. Clout has become chiffon.

Regnier used to say "sows "; we say "fillies."

Other fashions; same manners.

The foolish virgin is lugubriously immutable.


Whosoever witnesses this kind of anguish witnesses the extreme of human misfortune.

Dark zones are these. Baleful night bursts and spreads o'er them. Evil accumulated dissolves in misfortune upon them, they are swept with blasts of despair by the tempest of fatalities, there a downpour of trials and sorrows streams upon dishevelled heads in the darkness; squalls, hail, a hurricane of distress, swirl and whirl back and forth athwart them; it rains, rains without cease: it rains horror, it rains vice, it rains crime, it rains the blackness of night; yet we must explore this obscurity, and in the sombre storm the mind essays a difficult flight, the flight of a wet bird, as it were.

There is always a vague, spectral dread in these low regions where hell penetrates; they are so little in the human order and so disproportionate that they create phantoms. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a legend should be connected with this sinister bouquet offered by Bicêtre to La Salpêtrière or by La Force to Saint Lazare; it is related at night in the cells and wards after the keepers have gone their rounds.

It was shortly after the murder of the money-changer Joseph. A bouquet was sent from La Force to a woman's prison, Saint Lazare or the Madelonnettes. In this bouquet was a sprig of white lilac which one of the women prisoners selected.

A month or two elapsed; the woman was released from prison. She was extremely enamoured, through the white lilac, of the unknown master she had given to herself. She began to perform for him her strange function of sister, mother, and mystic spouse, ignorant of his name, knowing only his prison number. All her miserable savings, religiously deposited with the clerk of the prison, went to this man. In order the better to affiance herself to him, she took advantage of the advent of spring to cull a sprig of real lilac in the fields. This sprig of lilac, attached by a piece of sky-blue ribbon to the head of his bed, formed a pendant to a sprig of consecrated box, an ornament which these poor desolate alcoves never lack. The lilac withered thus.

This woman, like all Paris, had heard of the affair of the Palais-Royal and of the two Italians, Malagutti and Ratta, arrested for the murder of the money-changer.

She thought little about the tragedy, which did not concern her, and lived only in her white lilac. This lilac was all in all to her; she thought only of doing her "duty" to it.

One bright, sunny day she was seated in her room, sewing some garment or other for her sorry evening toilet. Now and then she looked up from her work at the lilac that hung at the head of the bed. At one of these moments while her gaze was fixed upon the sprig of faded flower the clock struck four.

Then she fancied she saw an extraordinary thing.

A sort of crimson pearl oozed from the extremity of the stalk of the flower, grew larger, and dripped on to the white sheet of the bed.

It was a spot of blood.

That day, at that very hour, Ratta and Malagutti were executed.

It was evident that the white lilac was one of these two. But which one?

The hapless girl became insane and had to be confined in La Salpêtrière. She died there. From morn to night, and from night to morn, she would gibber: "I am Mme. Ratta-Malagutti."

Thus are these sombre hearts.


Prostitution is an Isis whose final veil none has raised. There is a sphinx in this gloomy odalisk of the frightful Sultan Everybody. None has solved its enigma. It is Nakedness masked. A terrible spectacle!

Alas! in all that we have just recounted man is abominable, woman is touching.

How many hapless ones have been driven to their fall!

The abyss is the friend of dreams. Fallen, as we have said, their lamentable hearts have no other resource than to dream.

What caused their ruin was another dream, the dreadful dream of riches; nightmare of glory, of azure, and ecstasy which weighs upon the chest of the poor; flourish of trumpets heard in the gehenna, with the triumph of the fortunate appearing resplendent in the immense night; prodigious overture full of dawn! Carriages roll, gold falls in showers, laces rustle.

Why should I not have this, too? Formidable thought!

This gleam from the sinister vent-hole dazzled them; this puff of the sombre vapour inebriated them, and they were lost, and they were rich.

Wealth is a fatal distant light; woman flies frantically towards it. This mirror catches this lark.

Wherefore they have been rich. They, too, have had their day of enchantment, their minute of fête, their sparkle.

They have had that fever which is fatal to modesty. They have drained the sonorous cup that is full of nothingness. They have drunk of the madness of forgetfulness. What a flattering hope! What temptation! To do nothing and have everything; a]as! and also to have nothing, not even one's own self. To be slave-flesh, to be beauty for sale, a woman fallen to a thing! They have dreamed and they have had--which is the same thing, complete possession being but a dream--mansions, carriages, servants in livery, suppers joyous with laughter, the house of gold, silk, velvet, diamonds, pearls, life giddy with voluptuousness--every pleasure.

Oh! how much better is the innocence of those poor little barefooted ones on the shore of the sea, who hear at nightfall the tinkling of the cracked bells of the goats on the cliffs!

There was a disastrous morrow to these brief, perfidious joys that they had savoured. The word love signified hatred. The invisible doubles the visible, and it is lugubrious. Those who shared their raptures, those to whom they gave all, received all and accepted nothing. They--the fallen ones--sowed their seed in ashes. They were deserted even as they were being embraced. Abandonment sniggered behind the mask of the kiss.

And now, what are they to do? They must perforce continue to love.


Oh! if they could, the unhappy creatures, if they could put from them their hearts, their dreams, harden themselves with a hardness that could not be softened, be forever cold and passionless, tear out their entrails, and, since they are filth, become monsters! If they could no longer think! If they could ignore the flower, efface the star, stop up the mouth of the pit, close heaven! They would at least no longer suffer. But no. They have a right to marriage, they have a right to the heart, they have a right to torture, they have a right to the ideal. No chilling of their hearts can put out the internal fire. However cold they may be they burn. This, we have said, is at once their misery and their crown. This sublimeness combines with their abjection to overwhelm them and raise them up. Whether they will or not, the inextinguishable does not become extinguished. Illusion is untamable. Nothing is more invincible than dreams, and man is almost made up of dreams. Nature will not agree to be insolvable. One must contemplate, aspire, love. If need be marble will set the example. The statue becomes a woman rather than the woman a statue.

The sewer is a sanctuary in spite of itself. It is unhealthy, there is vitiated air in it, but the irresistible phenomenon is none the less accomplished; all the holy generosities bloom livid in this cave. Cynicism and the secret despair of pity are driven back by ecstasy, the magnificences of kindness shine through infamy; this orphan creature feels herself to be wife, sister, mother; and this fraternity which has no family, and this maternity which has no children, and this adoration which has no altar, she casts into the outer darkness. Some one marries her. Who? The man in the gloom. She sees on her finger the ring made of the mysterious gold of dreams. And she sobs. Torrents of tears well from her eyes. Sombre delights!

And at the same time, let us repeat it, she suffers unheard-of tortures. She does not belong to him to whom she has given herself. Everybody takes her away again. The brutal public hand holds the wretched creature and will not let her go. She fain would flee. Flee whither? From whom? From you, herself, above all from him whom she loves, the funereal ideal man. She cannot.

Thus, and these are extreme afflictions, this hapless wight expiates, and her expiation is brought upon her by her grandeur. Whatever she may do, she has to love. She is condemned to the light. She has to condole, she has to succour, she has to devote herself, she has to be kind. A woman who has lost her modesty, fain would know love no more; impossible. The refluxes of the heart are as inevitable as those of the sea; the lights of the heart are as fixed as those of the night.

There is within us that which we can never lose. Abnegation, sacrifice, tenderness, enthusiasm, all these rays turn against the woman within her inmost self and attack and burn her. All these virtues remain to avenge themselves upon her. When she would have been a wife, she is a slave. Hers is the hopeless, thankless task of lulling a brigand in the blue nebulousness of her illusions and of decking Mandrin with a starry rag. She is the sister of charity of crime. She loves, alas! She endures her inadmissible divinity; she is magnanimous and thrills at so being. She is happy with a horrible happiness. She enters backwards into indignant Eden.

We do not sufficiently reflect upon this that is within us and cannot be lost.

Prostitution, vice, crime, what matters!

Night may become as black as it likes, the spark is still there. However low you go there is light. Light in the vagabond, light in the mendicant, light in the thief, light in the street-walker. The deeper you go the more the miraculous light persists in showing itself.

Every heart has its pearl, which is the same for the heart gutter and the heart ocean--love.

No mire can dissolve this particle of God.

Wherefore, there, at the extreme of gloom, of despondency, of chill-heartedness and abandonment; in this obscurity, in this putrefaction, in these gaols, in these dark paths, in this shipwreck; beneath the lowest layer of the heap of miseries, under the bog of public disdain which is ice and night; behind the eddying of those frightful snowflakes the judges, the gendarmes, the warders and the executioners for the bandit, the passers-by for the prostitute, which cross each other, innumerable, in the dull grey mist that for these wretches replace the sun; beneath these pitiless fatalities; beneath this bewildering maze of vaults, some of granite, the others of hatred; at the deepest depths of horror; in the midst of asphyxiation; at the bottom of the chaos of all possible blacknesses; under the frightful thickness of a deluge composed of expectorations, there where all is extinct, where all is dead, something moves and shines. What is it? A flame.

And what flame?

The soul.

O adorable prodigy!

Love, the ideal, is found even in the Pit.

Continue: The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, Part 8

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