Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo is set during the civil war that occurred in France after the revolution. There was an uprising against Paris’ revolutionary government by the Chouannerie region. The peasants in this region tended to support the Catholic Clergy and the local nobility, so they opposed attempts by the Revolutionary government in Paris to secularize the country and to unseat the nobility. The plot revolves around the military conflict between Gauvain, a former noble and leader of a Republican army in the region and his uncle, the Marquis de Lantenac, the leader of one of the royalist insurrectionist groups. Cimourdain is a former Catholic priest turned firebrand Republican, who is apparently committed to the cause at any cost. (These main characters all appear to be fictional.)
The conflict between the teacher/”father” Cimourdain and the student/”son” Gauvain was quite good. It’s easy to write a story where the good guy is in conflict with a bad guy. Everybody knows who you’re supposed to root for. It’s much more difficult to set up a situation where the good guy is in conflict with another good guy. (Parenthetically, I think that’s why everyone likes to see the comics where one superhero is in conflict with another superhero -like “Wolverine versus The Hulk”: they’re both good guys, so how will the conflict be resolved?) This conflict centered around Cimourdain’s desire to obey the Revolutionary government’s ordinance that no quarter was to be given to the rebels, which were regarded as “brigands”, and Gauvains desire to show mercy towards defeated enemy soldiers. Cimourdain had been sent to the conflict to oversee Gauvain, who was reputed to be ignoring the revolutionary government’s decrees on this matter. Cimourdain promises Robespierre and Marat that he will guillotine any officer who disobeys the governments orders. Then he discovers that he will have to oversee the man that he views as his “adopted son”, Gauvain. Thus, there was not just external conflict between Cimourdain and Gauvain, but Cimourdain also had enormous internal conflict between his desire to see the revolution succeed and his desire to protect Gauvain.
I also liked the main bad guy, Marquis de Lantenac. He was Gauvain’s great-uncle and raised by him, which, once again, gave the feeling of the “father” and “son” in conflict, which seems so contrary to the “natural order of things” that it makes for a good story. The Lantenac often spoke of duty, and he was portrayed as totally disinterested in his welfare or the welfare of others. He was prepared to die in his efforts to restore the King, but he was also prepared to kill anyone else who stood in the way of that end. Even though it is clear in my mind that Lantenac would be a morally bad person, he gives a speech to Gauvain that is probably the best justification I think possible for the reason he is a Royalist. (Basically that social stability is best served by maintaining the monarchy and the feudal order.) Unfortunately, I think the biggest weakness of this novel is the fact that there was no well-developed character on the Republican side who was equally as ruthless as Lantenac. The only character that comes close is Marat, an actual historical figure from that time, who seems prepared to guillotine anyone in the name of the revolution. But, that character is undeveloped, probably because he was a real person. This meant that Hugo was probably somewhat constrained from making him anything but a minor character.
Some themes touched on in the story include justice versus mercy and duty versus love of life. The themes related somewhat to two questions: Does “the ends ever justify the means”? and When should someone be forgiven? The themes were illustrated fairly well by the major conflicts. For instance, Cimourdain stood for “justice” (strictly following the rules) because he wanted to follow the revolutionary decree that Lantanac was to be guillotined if captured, while Gauvain wanted to give him an honorable military death by shooting him. The conflict of Gauvan and Cimourdain also delt with the issue of when does “the ends justify the means”, if ever? Specifically, they debate whether the revolutionary government was wrong to institute the reign of terror. Cimourdain says it is necessary to save the Republican government from external invasion and counter-revolution internally, while Gauvan said that such measures tainted the principles on which the revolution was founded. Gauvain’s own internal conflict about how to deal with a captured Lantanac illustrates the question of forgiveness.
The main thing I did not like about this novel was the author’s tendency to give long-winded descriptions of certain scenes and situations. He spent far too long describing three children (several chapters). It probably was necessary to show how cute and lovable these children were, since they were facing danger, and Hugo probably wanted the reader to care about what happened to them. But, after about a chapter, I thought: “Alright, I get it, these children are cute, adorable, and completely innocent.” This is more of a stylistic criticism on my part, though, since I simply prefer writing that is more to “to the point”.
Overall, the conflicts presented, and the interesting historical setting make it obvious to me why Victor Hugo is still read over a hundred years later.