Key Text: Bug-Jargal by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo, Bug-Jargal, trans. Charles Wilbour, 1866, Carleton, New York
Hugo’s novel of the Haitian Revolution first appeared in Le Conservateur litteraire (1820); the 1826 novel follows the 1825 Franco-Haitian Accord (Augustyn 2006). Five editions between 1829 and 1866 mark important moments related to slavery and its abolition in Britain as well as the conclusion of the American Civil War (Hugo, tr. Bongie). Leitch Ritchie’s English translation, The Slave-King, from the Bug-Jargal of Victor Hugo (1833), though altered, was also the first American publication and one of several with changes to the title. Chris Bongie’s 2004 translation includes a production history noting that the novel’s fin-de-siècle resurgence follows the death of this literary giant in 1885.
The narrator, Leopold D’Auverney, is a young planter just arrived from France to learn the plantation business from his agronomist uncle. But the telling takes place in retrospect when D’Auverney is a Captain encamped with his troops fighting the British for control of Saint-Domingue. Over the campfire, he recalls the eve of his wedding to his cousin Maria, which coincides with the August 1791 revolution. A mysterious slave named Pierrot (later revealed as Bug-Jargal) abducts her, and an odyssey in the mountains unfolds. Bug-Jargal, at first D’Auverney’s enemy, is instead shown to be both a fierce maroon and a loyal ally to the young Frenchman with an equal affection for Maria that motivates him to protect her from the rebellion’s violence.
Hugo is recognized as a French author with global impact, but Bug-Jargal long remained marginalized because early reviews thought it immature or the product of an inscrutable combination of unverifiable historical sources (Bach 1964). Contemporary reviews reveal the way the novel’s ultimately ambiguous attitude toward abolition complicated its reception. While one critic asserts that the very idea of a noble, moral African was “too violent” a call on the reader’s imagination (Shoberl 1831), another avoids the central role of the revolution within the novel altogether (Sainte-Beuve 1832).
Since Bongie’s translation of 2004, the novel has gained renewed interest. Susan Gillman shows that Hugo’s French Atlantic is one that “models a way of reading that extends the reach of Haiti, as the ongoing center of Euro-colonial faiture,” and at once, brings readers to “a point of departure for a deeper and longer French-Creole-Spanish presence in trans-American literary culture” (2015). Gillman and Kirsten Silva Greuz place the novel within a “text-network” that displaces the dominance of the United States or Europe in critical paradigms by requiring continual translation as well as cultural and geographic reorientation through use of French, English, Creole(s), and Spanish (2011). Overall, Bongie explains that the novel is an “exploration of themes related to the historical, to the direction and shape of history, to sovereignty, and to territory that coalesce between 1789-1804” (Hugo, tr. Bongie 2004).
Gillman and Gruesz have suggested that critical focus on sources and originality slight the richer approach to building a text-network (2011). But I have argued elsewhere that Hugo’s complex interweaving of source materials supports their mapping and presents a way back into the text’s circulation and translation in a way that puts Makandal on the map; in turn, Makandal aligns Hugo’s work with the project of reading the centrality of Afro-Caribbean counter-modern expression to knowledge production in the Atlantic (Simpkins 2014).
For further information see the secondary bibliography below.
Saint-Domingue; Creole; Haitian Revolution; Abolition; August 1791; Bois-Caïman
Augustyn, Joanna. “Bug-Jargal (Review).” Nineteenth Century French Studies 34, no. 3 (2006): 421–22. doi:10.1353/ncf.2006.0001.
Bach, Max. “The Reception of V. Hugo’s First Novels.” Symposium 18.2 (1964): 142-55.
Bongie, Chris. Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.
Bonin, Kathrine M. “Signs of Origin: Victor Hugo's ‘Bug-Jargal.’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 36, no. 3/4 (2008): 193–204. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23538547. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
Gaitet, Pascale. "Hybrid Creatures, Hybrid Politics, in Hugo’s 'Bug-Jargal' and 'Le Dernier jour d'un condamné'", Nineteenth-Century French Studies 25, no. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 1997): 251–265.
Gillman, Susan. “Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal, Translationally,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth Century Americanists 3, no. 2, (2015): 377.
Gillman, Susan and Kirsten Silva Gruesz, “Worlding America: The Hemispheric Text-Network,” A Companion to American Literary Studies (2011): 228–247.
Hugo, Victor. “Bug-Jargal, Trans. & Ed.” Chris Bongie, Peterborough, 2004.
Hugo, Victor. “The Slave-King, from the Bug-Jargal of Victor Hugo, Trans.” Leitch Ritchie, 1833.
Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin. “Les Romans de Victor Hugo,” Journal des débats (24 July 1832). Reprinted in Hugo, Victor. “Bug-Jargal, Trans. & Ed.” Chris Bongie, Peterborough, 2004. Appendix D: Contemporary Reviews.
Schoberl, Frederic. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Tr. with a Sketch of the Life and the Writings of the Author. 1831.
Simpkins, Patricia Catherine “Kate.” The Absent Agronomist and the Lord of Poison: Cultivating Modernity in Transatlantic Literature, 1758-1854. Northeastern University, 2016.
Bongie, Chris. Islands and Exiles: The Creole Identities of Post/Colonial Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Cauna, Jacques. Haïti: L’éternelle révolution. Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1997.
Cauna, Jacques. “Les sources historiques de Bug-Jargal: Hugo et la révolution haitienne.” Conjonction 166 (1985): 21-36.
Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Debien, Gabriel. “Marronage in the French Caribbean.” Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities, ed. Richard Price. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979.
Debien, Gabriel. “Un roman colonial de Victor Hugo: Bug-Jargal, ses sources et ses intentions historiques.” Revue d’historie littéraire de la France 52.3 (1952): 298-313.
Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “Reassembling the Novel: Kinlessness and the Novel of the Haitian Revolution.” Nove 47, no. 1 (2014): 167–85. doi:10.1215/00295132-2414120.
Fick, Carolyn E. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
Hugo, Victor. Oeuvres completes. 18 vols. Ed. Jean Massin. Paris: Le Club français du livre, 1967-71.
Grégoire, Henri. De la littérature des nègres. Paris: Maradan, 1808.
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 1938. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2001.
Neufchâteau, Nicolas François de. Dictionnaire d’agriculture pratique. 1836.
Piroué, Georges. “Les deux Bug-Jargal.” Victor Hugo, OC, vol. 1. Paris: Le Club francais du livre, 1967, i-viii.
Robb, Graham. Victor Hugo: A Biography. London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Saint-Domingue; Creole; Haitian Revolution; Abolition; August, 1791; Bois-Caïman
Kate Simpkins, Auburn University, January 2020.