In the 19th century, Victor Hugo was arguably the most renowned French author during that time. He was known for his controversial writings that portrayed the injustices of the contemporary French society. Because he possessed such radical sentiments, the emperor of France – Napoleon III – banished him. However, Hugo’s supporters were enraged by such decision and pressured the French emperor to pardon him. One of such supporters was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In her letter to Napoleon III, Browning urges Napoleon that he would receive approval from the French citizens if he pardons Victor Hugo quickly in order to help her contemporary Victor Hugo get pardoned for his controversial novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Browning appeals to Napoleon’s favor when endeavoring to justify Hugo’s writings and comments about the absolute leader in the beginning of the passage in order to persuade him to accept her views. The author concedes to Napoleon that his decision to push Hugo is not completely erroneous as Hugo did in fact portray the ruler poorly by confessing that she read a book where a man “sinned deeply against [Napoleon] in the political writings [of Hugo].” This establishes her credibility as it shows that although she seems to be in favor of Hugo, she is viewing the matter from an impartial perspective. Interestingly, such integration actually seems to hurt her case for Hugo’s release as she is still pursuing Hugo’s freedom. In fact, the most effective method to persuade Napoleon would be to portray her views as similar to those of Napoleon’s. Furthermore, the author also professes that she does not possess any “personal knowledge of [Hugo]” and that she will not merely “make his apology” for him. This further bolsters her earlier claim that she is viewing the matter from a fair perspective with no biases, highlighting her main assertion that Hugo should be pardoned. Browning’s grovelling pushes Napoleon to comprehend that he nor Browning truly know about Victor Hugo which portrays to the emperor Browning’s beliefs that various other factors point towards Hugo’s freedom.
After Browning establishes ethos with her audience, Napoleon, she elaborates on her reasons for forgiveness. Knowing Napoleon is extremely concerned with other people’s opinions, Browning utilizes anaphora to emphasize how his actions could lead to public disapproval. For example, Browning repeats the phrase “what touches you,” in a way to poke fun at Napoleon’s ego. This repetition emphasizes that Napoleon’s actions could have negative consequences that could harm not only himself but the entire French government. He cannot merely banish Hugo for speaking out against him, as that will create a negative portrayal that Napoleon does not wish to become. Browning notes that as a person in a high position of power, Napoleon should not abuse his power and merely punish all those that oppose him; rather, it would be wise to listen to his opponent’s viewpoints. This is especially significant for Napoleon, as he is especially concerned with his legacy; it would be unwise for him to seem an intolerant tyrant. In addition, her word choice of “touch” reminds Napoleon of his fears as a ruler because he associates negligence of approval with dubious failure. “Touch” has the connotation of sensitivity, symbolizing the fragility of his success; banishing Hugo would taint his perfect image as a just ruler. Overall, Browning successfully conveys the notion that Napoleon will be praised for releasing Hugo, tapping into his self-conceited obsession with approval.
Napoleon was angered at Hugo’s works and wanted to portray that he possessed absolute control over the nation, leading him to not want to pardon the renowned author. However, Browning is able to manipulate Napoleon’s values and sentiments towards accepting the request to pardon Victor Hugo.