1831. 416 pages. Hardcover. The Modern Library.
From: the public library
For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself
In a nutshell:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame takes place in fifteenth century Paris. The title character, named Quasimodo, was discovered as a foundling in the Notre Dame Cathedral, unwanted because of extreme physical deformities. He is raised by the archdeacon, Claude Frollo, whose spiritual profession does not counterbalance the fact that he creeps out all the other characters. At the center of the tale is Esmerelda, a pretty Gypsy girl of sixteen who performs amusements to the Parisian crowds with a trained little goat. Frollo desires to possess her, but she has a heart only for Phoebus, the vain womanizing captain of the archers. When Esmerelda is accused of a witchcraft and murder, it sets off a series of tragic events that will culminate at the Notre Dame cathedral.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I saw Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dark as it was for a children’s movie, I was told afterward by a cousin that the book was even darker. Namely, more people die in the book. I haven’t ever rewatched the movie, but I did buy the soundtrack. The opening song is my favorite:
So when I was researching 1830’s books for my personal challenge list, and saw this title, I thought it was time I read this classic, and found out the ‘real’ story. (I totally listened to the soundtrack while reading it too.)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a tragedy set in a cruel world. There is the cruelty of obsession as depicted by Frollo, of course, but more prevalent and arguably more evil, is the cruelty of indifference. Esmerelda is doomed to be judged unfairly because people just can’t be bothered to find out the truth. The fickle crowds will root for whatever will provide them with the best spectacle.
Esmerelda’s innocence of character could be cloying on occasion, as she has the role of the suffering lamb. But she is not a saint. Though she shows kindness to Quasimodo, she is still largely repulsed by him and doesn’t hide it. Esmerelda’s eternal pining for the worthless Phoebus made me want to shake her.
Quasimodo is a character of simple desires and motivations. He is cut off from the world not only because of his ugliness but because his beloved bells have made him deaf. His loyalty is wholly to Frollo, though that will be tested when Frollo seeks to harm Esmerelda, the object of the hunchback’s humble adoration.
Victor Hugo tells his story with a mixture of satire and sentiment, two tones that work to balance each other out. For instance, in the height of a wrenching scene, Hugo might insert some unexpected levity. In one such scene, a woman is trying to hide Esmerelda and lies about a cart smashing into her window a year ago. (She is trying to explain its current broken state.) The commander accuses her of making it up, when an archer pipes up:
“‘Tis true,” said another archer, “I was there.”
Always and everywhere people are to be found who have seen everything.
I love that line, the comical mock-weariness of it. Hugo gifts us with many such snarks throughout the book.
Victor Hugo did have an irritating habit of screeching the story to a halt on several occasions. The story gets off to a great start, introducing us memorably to its vast array of characters. Suddenly, Hugo stops the story completely to describe the architectural history of Paris, lamenting about the modern styles that have corrupted such edifices as the venerable Notre Dame Cathedral. On an earlier post, Lit Omnivore alerted me to the fact that Victor Hugo wanted to save the cathedral from its decrepit state at the time. All well and good, but did he really have to make me slog through two chapters of the developments of each quartier and avenue?
The only payoff was that this narrative break concluded with an exquisite description of the bells pealing all over Paris. It’s a passage that is wonderful to read aloud too, and one of many reasons why I find myself quite fond of the book. As a conclusion to my review, I will leave you with this excerpt:
First come scattered strokes, running from one church to another, as when musicians give warning that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, behold!–for it seems at times, as though the ear also possessed a sight of its own,–behold, rising from each bell tower, something like a column of sound, a cloud of harmony. First, the vibration of each bell mounts straight upwards, pure and, so to speak, isolated from the others, into the splendid morning sky; then, little by little, as they swell they melt together, mingle, are lost in each other, and amalgamate in a magnificent concert. It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations.
Reading with Tequila – who is not a fan of the book
If you have reviewed this book, let me know, and I’ll add a link to it.