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A Book to Hold the Event: "Acting Out" and "Working Through" Loss in Victor Hugo's Bug-Jargal


This paper examines Victor Hugo's Bug-Jargal (1826) and considers why a text that focuses on French losses incurred during the Haitian Revolution in the colony then known as Saint Domingue also opens and closes its narrative with reference to the French Revolution. Utilizing Dominick LaCapra's understanding of "acting out" and "working through" trauma, as well as Freud's distinction of "conscious" and "unconscious" loss, I argue that the novel functions as an attempted "working through" of the conscious loss of French lives and colonial wealth in Saint Domingue. It is by drawing the violence of both revolutions into comparison that Bug-Jargal produces evidence of an unconscious loss also at work in the text: a general destabilization of French identity as the meaning of "whiteness" is rendered uncertain in Saint Domingue, and the privileges of the aristocracy are eliminated in France. In its struggle to reinvest the figure of the French aristocrat with discursive, racial, and social authority, Hugo's novel inadvertently exposes that its French narrator acts in imitation of other races; that possibilities for life exist outside of the aristocrat's death-driven narrative; and that the French aristocrat's limited insight as narrator causes the voices of others, collaborative and contradictory, to reveal their own losses resulting from encounters with the French.

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