François-Nicolas Chifflart, The Conscience (La Conscience)

Date: 1877
Technique: Charcoal on paper, 56.7 x 41.4 cm

Illustration for Victor Hugo's La Conscience

The famous Cain poem, written in 1853 and appearing in the 1859 first edition of La Légende des siècles, is an apt rendering of Victor Hugo's moral preoccupations, in this case, the first recordered Biblical murder, when Cain killed his brother Abel. Hugo's short narrative (sixty-eight lines) traces the itinerary of the fleeing Cain who, with his family, seeks asylum from the powerful wrath of Jehovah. The motif of a long voyage, filled with suffering, already exploited by Hugo in the Mazzepa poem of Les Orientales (1829) is here reiterated as a frightening exodus, as Cain, his family, and his descendants seek calm and peace. But for Cain there is none, for he is pursued by the Eye of God. Thus, even when he attempts to bury himself underground, the eye is always there, menacing and judging: L'oeil était dans la tombe et regardait Cain (The eye was in the tomb and kept looking at Cain). This poignant and persistent symbol of a bad conscience, hence the title of the poem, is somewhat akin to similar symbolismus found in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Helmut Hatzfeld in his Initiation à l'explication de textes français (Munich: Max Hueber, 1957) speaks of Hugo's success in fusing history and symbolism, making Cain's murder of Abel a very typical Romantic and visionary text.
(John Andrew Frey, A Victor Hugo encyclopedia)


1 comment:

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