Victor Hugo? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous French novelist Victor Hugo penned a vignette about a mother who selflessly gave food to her hungry children even though she was emaciated. An observer asked why she did this, and another observer replied: “Because she is a mother”. Would you please help me to find this passage?
Quote Investigator: Victor Hugo’s 1874 novel “Quatrevingt-Treize” (“Ninety-Three”) explored the counter-revolutionary revolts which occurred during the period of the French Revolution. A scene near the beginning of the book depicted a group of military men who encountered a woman with her baby and her two young children who were all starving. The following passage is presented in the original French. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Le sergent tira de sa poche un morceau de pain de munition et le tendit à la mère. La mère rompit le pain en deux morceaux et les donna aux enfants. Les petits mordirent avidement.
— Elle n’en a pas gardé pour elle, grommela le sergent.
— C’est qu’elle n’a pas faim, dit un soldat.
— C’est qu’elle est la mère, dit le sergent.
Hugo’s work was translated into English and published in the same year of 1874. Here is the rendered passage: 2
The sergeant took a bit of regulation bread from his pocket, and handed it to the mother. She broke the bread into two fragments, and gave them to the children, who ate with avidity.
“She has kept none for herself,” grumbled the sergeant.
“Because she is not hungry,” said a soldier.
“Because she is a mother,” said the sergeant.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1888 a different English translation of “Quatrevingt-Treize” (“Ninety-Three”) appeared containing the following alternative rendering: 3
The sergeant pulled from his pocket a piece of ration bread, and handed it to the mother. Taking the bread, she broke it in two and gave it to the children, who bit into it greedily.
“She has not saved any for herself,” growled the sergeant.
“Because she is not hungry,” remarked a soldier.
“Because she is a mother,” said the sergeant.
In 1914 an article titled “Feminine Sex Through Masculine Eyes: What Great Men Have Said About Women” published in “The Washington Herald” of Washington D.C. printed a version of the passage while crediting Hugo. The book “Ninety-Three” was not named: 4
She broke the bread into two fragments, and gave them to the children, who ate with avidity. “She has kept none for herself,” grumbled the sergeant. “Because she is not hungry,” said a soldier. “Because she is a mother,” said the sergeant.—Victor Hugo.
In 1916 a book praising motherhood titled “Our Mothers” compiled and edited by Mary Allette Ayer included an instance under the title “Because She Is a Mother”. The text matched that presented in the 1914 citation except for one alteration. The phrase “She has kept” was changed to “She hath kept”. 5
In 1959 “The Ministry: Official Journal of the Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists” published a description of the scene in Hugo’s novel together with the dialog. The description was not completely accurate. For example, the military ranks were different: 6
Before he could do so, an emaciated mother with her two children walked out. It was evident that all three were starving. The French captain reached into his knapsack, took out a long loaf of bread, and handed it to the mother. Immediately she broke it into two pieces and gave one to each child. The astonished corporal turned to his captain and said, “It is because the mother is not hungry, sir.” The wiser captain replied, “No, it is because she is a mother, corporal.”
In 1978 a paper in Louisiana printed an instance. The ellipsis was present in the original newspaper text: 7
In honor of Mother’s Day I’d like to share this with you from Victor Hugo… She broke the bread into two fragments, and gave them to the children, who ate with avidity. “She hath kept none for herself,” grumbled the Sergeant. “Because she is not hungry,” said a soldier. “Because she is a mother,” said the Sergeant.
In 2003 the book “Mothering Magazine’s Having a Baby, Naturally” employed the passage as a chapter epigraph. The text matched the version used in the 1916 citation. Unfortunately, the book incorrectly cited “Victor Hugo, Les Misérables”. 8
In 2010 the “Sunday News Journal” of Mansfield, Ohio printed the following instance: 9
There are some lines that are attributed to Victor Hugo: “She broke the bread into two fragments and gave them to her children, who ate with eagerness. ‘She hath kept none for herself,’ grumbled the sergeant. ‘Because she is not hungry,’ said a soldier. ‘No,’ said the sergeant, ‘because she is a mother.'”
In conclusion, Victor Hugo should receive credit for the passage he wrote in the 1874 novel “Quatrevingt-Treize” (“Ninety-Three”). The text can be translated into English in several different ways.
Image Notes: Depiction of a mother and children from an 1876 edition of “Quatrevingt-Treize” (“Ninety-Three”). Image has been cropped ad resized.
(Great thanks to Janice LeFevre whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1874, Quatrevingt-Treize by Victor Hugo, Tome I, Le Bois de la Saudraie, Quote Page 22 and 23, Michel Lévy Frères Éditeurs, Paris, France. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1874, Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo, Translation by Frank Lee Benedict and J. Hain Friswell, Part One, Book One, The Wood of La Saudraie, Quote Page 13, Dawson Brothers, Montreal, Canada. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1888, Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo, Translation by Mrs. Aline Delano, Part One, Book One, The Forest of La Saudraie, Quote Page 15, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1914 March 7, The Washington Herald, Feminine Sex Through Masculine Eyes: What Great Men Have Said About Women, Quote Page 9, Column 5, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1916, Our Mothers, Compiled and edited by Mary Allette Ayer, Section: Because She Is a Mother, Quote Page 43, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1959 May, The Ministry: Official Journal of the Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists, Volume 32, Number 5, Ideals for Mothers by William A. Fagal (Program Director, Faith for Today Telecast), Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Published for the Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists by the Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C. (Accessed ministrymagazine.org on August 16, 2019) link ↩
- 1978 May 11, The Delhi Dispatch (The Oakdale Journal), Mary’s Meddlin’s by Mary Eva Bagwell, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Oakdale, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2003 Copyright, Mothering Magazine’s Having a Baby, Naturally: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth by Peggy O’Mara (Editor and Publisher of Mothering Magazine), Chapter 9: Preparing for Breastfeeding, (Chapter 9 epigraph), Atria Books, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2010 May 9, Sunday News Journal, Opinion Shapers: Mother taught values by example by Peggy Clemens Lauritzen (News Journal columnist), Quote Page 9A, Column 2, Mansfield, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩