Published in 1874, shortly after the terrible bloody upheaval of the Paris Commune, the novel concerns the Revolt in the Vendée - the suppression of the counter-revolutionary revolt 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 Paris and in the Vendée region of western France, and to a lesser extent at sea off the Channel Islands, where Hugo latterly lived. Hugo has been criticized for his portrayal of the Bretons, whom he describes as "savages" and as speaking "a dead language".
Hugo makes clear where he himself stands - in favor of the revolutionaries - in several explicit comments and remarks made by the omniscient writer. 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 (as there surely were in reality).
The historical civil war is dramatized (as in other books depicting various historical civil wars) by making it a war between the members of a single family (which did happen in reality, though perhaps not as often as in literature).
The commander of the Republican forces is a young nobleman, himself originating from the region, who had completely gone over to the Revolution during his studies in Paris. The leader of the Royalist rebels is his uncle, who came back secretly from exile in England. The nephew places a price on his uncle's head and imposes a death punishment on anybody who would give him aid and comfort.
The book concludes with a whole string of noble self-sacrifices and acts of idealistic self-negation. The royalist forces are forced to withdraw from a castle and set it on fire, leaving a Republican-sympthising peasant woman and her children to burn to death. The republicans cannot break down the gate in time to save them, but the Royalist leader -who could have escaped safely via a secret passage -comes out and opens the gate. (A Royalist nobleman sacrificing himself to save a Republican peasant woman!).
The uncle is placed in prison and is to be executed, but his Republican nephew feels that it would be unjust - and helps him escape. Whereupon the nephew is court-martialled under his own decree.
The court is divided, one judge imposing a death punishment and the other supporting acquittal because of the circumstances. The casting vote is up to the President of the Court - an ex-priest who is the accused's beloved and loving tutor who introduced him to revolutionary principles and who is in essence his adoptive father. Precisely because of this he decides for the death penalty, since revolutionary principles must be placed before personal feelings.
The condemned young man fully accepts the justice of the verdict, marches proudly to the guillotine and cries out "Long Live the Republic!" before placing his head on the bloc. At the moment when the verdict is executed, the tutor/judge pulls out his pistol and shoots himself, and - as Hugo puts it - "The two souls go to Heaven locked in embrace".
Ayn Rand believed the book to be the last stand of the Romantic movement against the rising tide of naturalism. She wrote that her The Romantic Manifesto was an attempt to continue the themes of Ninety-Three.
The former priest who is considered by some to be the novel's villain is believed to have been a hero of Josef Stalin in his youth, when Stalin was studying for the priesthood.
- In fact, the book's name is an anachronism, since at the time the French Republican Calender was in use in France.
- ↑ The correct spelling of 93 in French is "quatre-vingt-treize", but the title is spelled Quatrevingt-treize.