When I was making my list for Classics Club, I thought I should finally read something by Victor Hugo. The obvious choices were Les Miserables or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I had tried Les Mis some years ago only to put it down in disgust when Jean Valjean hits the priest who has tried to help him over the head with the candlesticks he wants to steal. So, it was Hunchback for me.
I was interested to read in the Introduction that the French title of this novel was Notre-Dame de Paris and that Hugo hated the English title. And truly, the focus of the novel is more on Notre Dame and 15th century Paris than it is on the story we’re familiar with. In fact, one entire chapter just describes Paris as it looks from the tower of the cathedral in 1482, street by street. I have to say, though, that the chapter was almost meaningless to me, since I found myself unable to visualize what he describes, at least not in that detail.
The novel has many characters, not just the three emphasized in all the movies. It begins with Pierre Gringoire, a hapless poet who is attempting to put on a play he wrote in celebration of Epiphany and the Festival of Fools. This great (and long) production is supposed to pay tribute to the betrothal of the Dauphin with Margaret of Flanders. The problem is that the people have been waiting since dawn to see it. It is past noon, when the play is supposed to have started, but the Cardinal and the Flemish ambassadors haven’t arrived yet. The crowd, egged on by the student Jehan Frollo du Moilin and his buddies, is getting disruptive.
Gringoire decides to start the play, and the crowd settles down, but the actors are still reciting the prologue when the Cardinal and the Flemish arrive, making a lot of noise. The students turn their attention to making rude remarks. Soon the crowd begins trying to select the Pope of Fools instead of watching the play. They choose the hideously deformed hunchback Quasimodo, the bellringer at Notre Dame, and everyone leaves. Poor Gringoire will not be paid, so will not be able to pay his lodging, and he goes off homeless to wander the street.
So, we meet Quasimodo, who was taken in as a child by Claude Frollo, the severe Archdeacon of Josas and older brother of Jehan Frollo. Claude Frollo is obsessed by his studies of alchemy until his eye lights on Esmeralda, a young gypsy dancer and street performer. He becomes infatuated and lustful and so (with the typical logic of zealotry) decides she must be a witch who has enchanted him. On the other hand, when Quasimodo is sentenced to the stocks simply because he is too deaf to hear the judge, the only person who is kind to him is the gypsy dancer. So are sewn the seeds of tragedy.
And make no mistake, there is tragedy in store for most of the characters in this novel. Justice is solely dependent upon the whims of powerful men, and the more powerful they are, the more scathingly Hugo treats them. We even spend some time with the king, Louis XI, who is depicted as grasping, arbitrary, and vicious. Hugo pretty much skewers everyone except Quasimodo and the gypsy girl, who are basically cardboard figures.
Hugo is interested in many things in this novel—the cathedral itself, its own architecture, and the architecture of Paris are strong presences. The transmission of culture from century to century is a preoccupation, as are the themes of the nature of love, loyalty, and not judging by appearances. As a son of the revolution, he also has an axe to grind about the aristocracy and the corruption in the church.
I have to confess, though, that I only mildly enjoyed this gothic novel. The only highly developed character is Claude Frollo, and he is a sickening person.