Commentary on Fable ou histoire

by Geoffrey Barto of

The third book of Les Châtiments carries the title La famille est restaurée (The family is restored). The title refers to the Restoration (of the monarchy in 1815) and implies that Louis-Napoleon had no more right to rule France than Louis XVIII - their power stemmed from a mixture of nostalgia and geneaology, not merit.

Throughout much of Les Châtiments Hugo's tone is bitter. But in the third poem of La famille est restaurée, rage gives way to mirth as Hugo reminds himself that the Restoration didn't last, and neither will Empire, for the illegitimacy of Napoleon III that is so plain to him will be revealed. The poem, Fable ou histoire, tells of a monkey in a tiger's suit - Louis-Napoleon clothed in the glory of his uncle, the mighty Napoleon Bonaparte. The monkey's royal appetite plainly represents the dynastic pretensions of Napoleon III. But those dynastic pretensions fall short: Napoleon III is no more Bonaparte than a monkey is a tiger. Consequently, the ferocity inherent in the awesome natural power of a tiger is atrocity when melded to the cunning of a monkey. The monkey knows this, of course, hence his boastings - that he is king of the night, that he is to be admired as a tiger, et cetera. Real tigers don't need to boast about being tigers. Finally, of course, he is exposed, though not until 18 years after Hugo composed this poem.

The assumptions of the poem raise one troubling question that in fact comes up throughout Les Châtiments. Lining up the symbols, it seems quite plain that the tiger is Napoleon Bonaparte? Why not Republican France? The short answer is that the people of France had confirmed Napoleon III as Emperor, so how could they be trusted to pick a government? Unfortunately, it's perhaps more complicated than that. Hugo's journals from the 1830s reveal both an undue fondness for Napoleon and a fear that the people of France weren't ready for self-government. In Hugo's ideal world - a world he tried to legislate - everyone would be educated and the key to the wisest government would be to form a republic where the wisdom of millions of intelligent and educated citizens could be combined. However, that world had not yet come - not in 1848, when Hugo pushed for a regency in place of the emerging Republic, and certainly not when the people turned around and made Louis-Napoleon their Emperor. Absent that universally educated populace, was Hugo chastising Napoleon III for subverting a democracy that would not be the best government anyway? Unfortunately, it seems that Napoleon III's greatest crime was failing to be Napoleon I.

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