Dissonant Voices: Noise and the Criminal Leitmotiv in Vidocq and Victor Hugo

In early nineteenth-century depictions of criminals in Eugène-François Vidocq’s Mémoires (1828) and Victor Hugo’s Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (1829), noise serves as a consistent feature of disobedient bodies. Beginning with an analysis of noise as a sociolinguistic marker, I argue that the association between criminality and dissonance in these works functions as a textual leitmotiv, one that relays important social information to the reader in a more immediate way than descriptions of criminal language or physiognomy. Furthermore, the eventual harmonization or cessation of criminal noise within these works functions allegorically, such that bourgeois parameters around aural control symbolize a reaffirmation of middle-class authority with regards to social uniformity. From this perspective, I show that the representation of noise as a product of marginalized bodies in Mémoires and Le Dernier Jour serves as a matrix of power that asserts bourgeois dominance over the ostensibly dangerous and uncontrollable criminal classes.

Eliza Jane Smith
Volume 48.1–2