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|Translator||E. B. d'Espinville Picot|
|Translator||E. B. d'Espinville Picot|
Ninety-Three (Quatrevingt-treize) is the last novel by the French writer Victor Hugo. Published in 1874, shortly after the bloody upheaval of the Paris Commune, the novel concerns the Revolt in the Vendée and Chouannerie – the counter-revolutionary revolts in 1793 during the French Revolution. It is divided into three parts, but not chronologically; each part tells a different story, offering a different view of historical general events.
The action mainly takes place in western France, and in Paris, and to a lesser extent at sea off the Channel Islands, where Hugo latterly lived.
The year is 1793. In Brittany during the Royalist insurrection of the Chouannerie, a troop of “Blues” (soldiers of the French Republic) encounter Michelle Fléchard, a peasant woman, and her three young children, who are fleeing from the conflict. She explains that her husband and parents have been killed. The troop’s commander, Sergeant Radoub, convinces them to look after the family.
Meanwhile, at sea, a group of Royalist “Whites” are planning to land the Marquis de Lantenac, a Breton aristocrat whose leadership could transform the fortunes of the rebellion. Their corvette is spotted by ships of the Republic. Lantenac slips away in a boat with one supporter, and the corvette distracts the Republican ships by provoking a battle it cannot win. The corvette is destroyed, but Lantenac lands safely in Brittany.
Lantenac is hunted by the Blues, but is protected by a local beggar, to whom he gave alms in the past. He meets up with his supporters, and they immediately launch an attack on the Blues. Part of the troop with the family is captured. Lantenac orders them all to be shot, including Michelle. He takes the children with him as hostages. The beggar finds the bodies, and discovers that Michelle is still alive. He nurses her back to health.
Lantenac’s ruthless methods have turned the revolt into a major threat to the Republic. In Paris, Danton, Robespierre and Marat argue about the threat, while also sniping at each other. They promulgate a decree that all rebels and anyone who helps them will be executed. Cimourdain, a committed revolutionary and former priest, is deputed to carry out their orders in Brittany. He is also told to keep an eye on Gauvain, the commander of the Republican troops there, who is related to Lantenac and thought to be too lenient to rebels. Unknown to the revolutionary leaders, Cimourdain was Gauvain’s childhood tutor, and thinks of him as a son.
Lantenac has taken control of Dol-de-Bretagne, in order to secure a landing place for British troops to be sent to support the Royalists. Gauvain launches a surprise attack and uses deception to dislodge and disperse them. Forced to retreat, Lantenac is constantly kept from the coast by Gauvain. With British troops unavailable his supporters melt away. Eventually he and a last few fanatical followers are trapped in his castle.
Meanwhile Michelle has recovered and goes in search of her children. She wanders aimlessly, but eventually hears that they are being held hostage in Lantenac’s castle. At the castle Sergeant Radoub, fighting with the besiegers, spots the children. He persuades Gauvain to let him lead an assault. He manages to break through the defences and kill several rebels, but Lantenac and a few survivors escape through a secret passage after setting fire to the building. As the fire takes hold, Michelle arrives, and sees that her children are trapped. Her hysterical cries of despair are heard by Lantenac. Struck with guilt, he returns through the passage to the castle and rescues the children, helped by Radoub. He then gives himself up.
Gauvain knows that Cimourdain will guillotine Lantenac after a military trial. He visits him in prison, where Lantenac expresses his uncompromising conservative vision of society ordered by hierarchy, deference and duty. Gauvain insists that humane values transcend tradition. To prove it, he allows Lantenac to escape and then gives himself up to the tribunal that was convened to try him. Gauvain is tried for treason. The tribunal comprises Cimourdain, Radoub and Gauvain’s deputy, Guéchamp. Radoub votes to acquit, but the others vote to condemn Gauvain to be executed. Visited by Cimourdain in prison, Gauvain outlines his own libertarian vision of a future society with minimal government, no taxes, technological progress and sexual equality. The following morning he is executed by guillotine. At the same moment, Cimourdain shoots himself.
Hugo makes clear where he himself stands—in favour of the revolutionaries—in several explicit comments and remarks made by the omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, the Royalist counter-revolutionaries are in no way villainous or despicable. Quite the contrary: Republicans and Royalists alike are depicted as idealistic and high-minded, completely devoted to their respective antagonistic causes (though, to be sure, ready to perform sundry cruel and ruthless acts perceived as necessary in the ongoing titanic struggle). Among the considerable cast of characters, there is hardly any on either side depicted as opportunistic, mercenary or cynical.
However, while being fair to both Republicans and Monarchists, Hugo has been criticised for his portrayal of the Bretons, whom he describes as "savages" and as speaking "a dead language". A sympathetic portrait is however made of Michelle Flechard, the young Breton mother, who is originally loyal to the king, but is "adopted" by a revolutionary battalion. Her children are later saved by the French royalist leader. Michelle Flechard is a classical "civilian caught between parties".
The former priest who is considered by some to be the novel's villain, Cimourdain, purportedly "made a deep impression on a young Georgian seminarian named Dzhugashvili, who was confined to his cell for reading Ninety-Three and later changed his name to Stalin", according to a biographer of Hugo.
Ayn Rand greatly praised this book (and Hugo's writing in general), acknowledged it as a source of inspiration, and even wrote an introduction to one of its English-language editions. Its influence can be especially discernible in the passages describing the Russian Civil War in Rand's We the Living—where, highly uncharacteristic for this staunchly anti-Communist writer, "Reds" as well as "Whites" are given the courage of their convictions and presented as courageous and heroic.