A Rhetorical Analysis Of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Letter To Napoleon Iii

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a brilliant writer who, in her Letter To Napoleon III, asks the Emperor for a hopeful pardon of Victor Hugo. Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel that many consider to be seditious. She wants to convince the Emperor that by forgiving Hugo, he will be more popular with the people. By using a soft tone and focusing on what her audience needs, she creates an urgency that Napoleon should act as soon as possible.

Browning has already stoked Napoleon’s self-esteem in the first few paragraphs, to make him agree with her. Browning cleverly convinces Napoleon that Hugo’s speech was not provocative by saying that she has read a book called “Contemplations” of a man that has deeply sinned against [Napoleon] and in [Hugo’s] writings. This procatalepsis shows her fairness, but she still concludes that Hugo is to be excused. This usage is a great way to show that Hugo deserves to be freed. She does not just argue for his freedom, but instead shows her complex knowledge. Napoleon may be convinced to listen if he sees things from his point of view. Browning also confessed that she “had no personal experience with this man” and that she was not here now to accept his apology. This further proves Browning as being balanced. To make Napoleon see her point of view that neither she nor Napoleon know Hugo, a underlying message of his fate is being conveyed.

Browning switches from establishing Browning’s credentials to explaining Hugo’s guilt. She uses anaphora in order to make Napoleon think about how Hugo’s punishment could affect him, because as the supreme ruler, Napoleon is more concerned with what people think. Browning’s essay concentrates on Napoleon rather than Hugo. In fact, Napoleon is the one who has caused Hugo to be punished because it will hurt his image with the people. Napoleon was reminded of the importance of being respected and listened by others when he repeated “What touches you”. He can’t just expel all those who disagree with him. Instead, he should accept them and appear more rational. Napoleon would not like to be viewed as a dictator who was intolerant over one derogatory comment. Instead, he prefers being regarded as the leader of modesty and freedom. Napoleon’s fear of not being able achieve his goals is also heightened by the use of “touch”. “Touch”, in fact, implies such sensitivity that even small things can influence the outcome of Napoleon’s reign. For example, his response to his political opponents. So, he has to take into consideration Hugo’s release.

Browning uses shock to reinforce her message. Browning’s use of paradoxes, “It may well be that precisely because you cannot excuse him, I believe he is worthy to be forgiven”, adds to the shock. Napoleon would not have believed his eyes if he had read the entire line. Napoleon will remember it because of the surprise in this line. Browning displays the scesis in her final words, “Forgiven this enemy, accuser, traducer.” To prove once more that, no matter how horrible the act, Napoleon will be remembered as a confident, generous leader if he pardons Hugo. This strategy works in a way that the more vile the deed, the greater the admiration Napoleon will receive.

Browning’s argument that saving Hugo against ridicule will save his reputation is convincing in the end. She convinces Napoleon through pathos and repetition. Understanding the argumentation techniques Browning uses is still important in modern times because it’s crucial to think about how a suggestion will benefit the reader. This increases the chances of that suggestion being implemented.


  • sofiamiller

    I am Sofia Miller, a 21-year-old blogger and student. I love writing, and I'm passionate about education and learning. I blog about a variety of educational topics, from student life to university admissions. I also write about parenting and lifestyle topics.

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