13 September, 2004

Hugo vs. Dostoevsky, rounds 2 and 3

I've put it off long enough, mostly because I can't seem to force myself to read Hugo, and it doesn't seem fair to talk too much about him if I can't complete even one of his novels, whereas by now I've read four of Dostoevsky's.

Nevertheless, lately I've been reflecting on how the two take different approaches to female characters and to salvation. I'll try to be brief, partly because I don't want to bore anyone, but also because I really don't want to talk too much about something I know very little about. Here I'm more interested in readers' thoughts and comments.

Round 2: Female characters
Here I am definitely in trouble with Hugo, because (again) I haven't read very much of his work.

A feminist math professor of mine once said she didn't like Disney movies because the man always rescues the woman, or the woman always needs a man for romantic reasons, and this conditions women to wait for a prince charming who will rescue them from their problems, instead of taking care of themselves.

Whether you agree with her premise or not, it's not an inaccurate description of classical Disney films. That's stayed in my mind ever since, and it's frightening how Hugo is most certainly a Disney-style author: Jean Valjean first rescues Fantine, then Cosette. In the latter's case, her worst nightmare is the Thenardiess, who eerily resembles the wicked witches of Disney-style movies.

I am informed by an anonymous gentleman who posted to my first comparison of the two authors that

The digressions sure are onerous sometimes, and they seem to get weightier and less interesting as the book progresses. (Just wait until he starts going on about romantic love!)
This is not exactly something I'm going to look forward to.

I wouldn't write about this, but I realized a few days ago that Dostoevsky is completely different, "enlightened" even, if you such a term can be applied to a rabid conservative (and I'm not going to argue that it generally can). But consider the following examples of leading women in Dostoevsky's novels:
  • In Crime and Punishment it is the Christian prostitute Sonia who saves Raskolnikov.
  • In The Idiot, prince Myshkin tries to save Nastasya from Rogozhin, and fails: the latter two end up dead, and Myshkin ends up as, well, a raving idiot.
  • In Demons, one could argue that the "leading" women are minor characters who need men, but for the facts that (a) there aren't any leading women, and (b) all the leading men end up dead, in prison, or in flight. In any case one of the leading men (Stepan Trofimovich) has spent nearly his entire life living off the patronage of a widowed friend, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, whom he loves and wishes would love him back, sending her daily emotional letters, whereas she finds the notion offensive, and tries to arrange his marriage with another woman.
  • It's been too long since I've read The Brothers Karamazov, but I don't recall finding the old "man rescues helpless woman" routine. More likely the opposite, although I can't at the moment find what I recall.
Round 3: Salvation
What saves man? What does man need more than anything else?

Both Hugo and Dostoevsky lived in countries, and addressed situations, where there was incredible poverty and misery, and where the rich and powerful frequently abused their power to increase the misery of the poor.

Hugo believed in God, but only vaguely as far as I can tell. For Hugo, charity is more important than Christ. He repeats throughout Les Misérables that if the poor received an education, and if they received the basic starting capital necessary, they would certainly rise above their conditions. An education would teach them what was right and what was wrong, and surely they would live by that and never sin again. Of course, Hugo granted that human justice ensure that people were treated fairly. Classic example: Jean Valjean.

Contrast this to Dostoevsky's well-educated men: Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov; The Idiot's Rogozhin; Stepan Trofimovich and the conspirators of Demons; and Ivan Karamazov. These are at best laughable characters; more likely men possessed with a demonic idea of superiority.

Dostoevsky's heroic characters - Sonia, Myshkin, Shatov, and Alyosha - aren't necessarily well-educated men; sometimes they are poorly educated. They often have no effective intellectual argument to the objections posed by the wicked men. However, they are humble and religious men (or women). What is perhaps most important to Dostoevsky, salvation comes through love, grace, and divine justice, not through charity, education, and human justice.

This is not so trivial. Our Western culture is dominated by Hugo's idea of what is good for man: if we provide a "safety net" for the poor, an education, and "an equitable distribution of resources," then everyone will do well, and there will be no more misery, no more sorrow.

I'm convinced that Hugo was wrong. But would I want to live in a world that sought only Dostoevsky's salvation, and not Hugo's? I don't know the answer to this question.


Anonymous said...

The "anonymous gentleman" was me.

Cosette and her mother are both quite passive, aren't they. But there is an active female character who ends up saving Marius' life a bit further on...

Perhaps Hugo wasn't wholly wrong but just unbalanced, too optimistic? It doesn't have to be either/or, does it? Either love & grace OR material and social improvement?

PS: Well, I HAD started reading The Idiot but now that I know how it turns out, what's the point? ;-)


jack perry said...

Ah, I didn't realize it was you. Thanks :-)

But there is an active female character who ends up saving Marius' life a bit further on...Do you mean Eponine? My strongest memories are of the musical, not of the abridged version I read in high school. I had thought Eponine might be a counterexample, but I don't remember Eponine being terribly active, and besides she's always pining after Marius, in the musical anyway.

If you mean someone else, then suddenly I'm interested in the novel again.

I'd also wondered about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I know next to nothing about that book, and commenting from the Disney adaptation (which I didn't think was so anti-Catholic as some said) is probably not a good idea.

Perhaps Hugo wasn't wholly wrong but just unbalanced, too optimistic?"Unbalanced" has a nice ring to it, but I'm not sure my connotation is quite the same as yours ;-)

It doesn't have to be either/or, does it?No, and that's a really good point. It could be just a matter of emphasis, but I don't think that's all there is to it. Hugo emphasizes charity over Christ, whereas Dostoevsky seems to reverse the emphasis.

If I'd read more Hugo, I could either discuss it better, or know enough not to talk about it at all. :-)

I HAD started reading The Idiot but now that I know how it turns out, what's the point? ;-)I guess you won't want to read Demons or Crime and Punishment either, then ;-) I don't think I gave that much away. What I liked most about The Idiot was getting to know the characters, and the smart, biting conversation.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I just meant Eponine. She pines, but does a lot of things to help him out, including saving his life. Maybe being infatuated with Marius disqualifies her from being a feminist.

One of the characters, in dying, says "Christ - he was the greatest martyr." That seems to be the best thing Hugo says about him, so I'm not sure he was an orthodox Christian. I think you're right - he seems to have thought that as long as people practice Christian charity they needn't worry about Christ himself, which hasn't really worked out. Hugo's God seems more like some Hegelian principle than anything else, though in his understanding of mercy, forgiviness, repentance, and so forth he strikes me as being fairly Catholic.

Well, I've already read Crime and Punishment even though I knew how it turned out, so I guess I'll carry on with The Idiot!


jack perry said...

Thanks. I've always liked Eponine from the musical; I'll have to read the book & see if I still like her.

When you get done with The Idiot, come back & tell me what you think about it.