The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

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.

Other reviews:

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.


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19 responses to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

  1. Erin Leigh

    I love the Disney version of the story, with Hellfire being my favorite musical number (Bells is second). I went out and bought the book after seeing the movie but am nervous to actually start reading it because I am hit or miss with books written in those early 1800s.

    • I am hit or miss with 19th century literature too. Off the top of my head though, it seems that I tend not to like 19th c. American literature, but usually enjoy British (and apparently French) literature of the same century. For this challenge, I think the only 19th c. American novel I plan to read is Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett.

  2. I read The Hunchback of Notre Dome when I was twelve or thirteen, and I was extremely unimpressed. I vastly prefer Les Miserables–Hugo still grinds to a halt to tell you the whole history of the Battle of Waterloo and things like that, but overall I think the book’s better.

  3. She

    What a great copy you’ve found! I tried to read this but had to put it down, well, leave it in a hotel room, as it were. I really should pick it up again, though.

    Also, as for the movie, I saw it for the first time this past year and was quite surprised at how Disney portrayed the desire of Frollo. It was much more sexual than I was expecting, but hey, go Disney!

    see the following:

  4. I have always been very interested in this story but I think that one day Ill pick up Les Miserables first.

  5. I have wanted to read this book for so long. Thank you for the wonderful review, I think you have convinced me!! I always put it in the too hard basket but I think I could actually read it now!!

  6. Jason

    I empathize with your frustration with the tangent on the history of the cathedral. I just re-read Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates this year and was reminded of how many chapters Dodges devotes to explaining the history of Holland to the detriment of an actual plot.
    BTW, Hugo’s commentary on the archer was awesome! I hope the rest of your 19th century reading goes well.

  7. Jenny – I have no idea what I would have thought of the book when I was twelve or thirteen. Strangely, I’ve seen the musical version of Les Miserables, and at least for now, the story doesn’t interest me enough to read the book.

    She – Oh yes, I remember there was such a stir about “Hellfire” at the time. It’s this dark song all about lust and how Frollo blames Esmerelda for his lust. And it’s in a Disney film!

    Jessica – As Jenny commented above, she preferred Les Miserables, so that may be the way to got with Hugo. This being my first of his books, I don’t know.

    Elise – Yay! Glad to have convinced you. I was a little daunted at reading Hunchback but it is actually pretty accessible, at least I found it to be so.

    Jason – Hey, I think you were with the group of us that saw Hunchback in the theaters. It was the summer when we were down in Virginia. But yeah, I don’t know why writers felt this compulsion to throw in all this history, when it is not necessary to the story and hurts the flow. Glad you enjoyed the excerpt about the archer! 🙂

  8. Jason

    OK — that was the summer you were down in Virginia; seems so long ago (and now when don’t you spend at least part of your summer in Virginia 🙂 )! I do remember the movie came out the summer I first went to Russia, since I had the opening song stuck in my head for about a week.

  9. Eva

    I loved Les Mis, and I’ve been curious about Hunchback for a couple years now. Sounds like I need to give it a go! 🙂

  10. I’ve been meaning to read this for years as well. I loved Les Mis, but I can’t remember now if I read the unabridged version.

    How often, and how bad are the plot screeching to a halt moments?

    • For me, there were two major plot-screeching moments. I think there were some smaller ones, but I don’t remember where. The first is a two-chapter history of Parisian architectural and urban development, especially as pertains to the Notre Dame Cathedral. The second was near the end, in the midst of a battle at Notre Dame. Suddenly, the plot diverts for at least a chapter to focus on the king, who is visiting Paris. He is far from the action and has not only been mentioned in passing thus far. Hugo goes on for a while with the king’s doings and eventually connects the king with the main plotline but he takes his time. I kind of get what Hugo was doing there satirically, but I still chafed at the digression.

      • Thanks – I can see the frustration but I’m glad it wasn’t constant, and it sounds like it had a purpose in the end. I’ll definitely be adding this to my ever growing TBR (classics) list!

  11. Vamshi

    Just finished reading those book. Awed, Stunned at the ending. Why can’t Victor Hugo, just make a happy ending? I weep inside. Her beauty comes out the most only in a tragic ending. But still…it’s not fair. Sob….

    • Haven’t read any other Hugo, but yeah, he really lays on the tragedy at the end of Hunchback of Notre Dame. Definitely not fair, and I could just slap Phoebus.

    • SPOILER ALERT: This is a comment on the ending.

      “When those who found this skeleton attempted to disengage it from that which it held in its grasp, it crumbled to dust.” Just as he failed to keep their vile hands off her in life, so has he failed to keep their hands off her in death. Like an arrow to the heart, the final line of the story is a comment on Quasimodo’s arduous struggle to protect the one he grew to love. A struggle, it would seem, that he is always destined to lose

  12. Pingback: Esmeralda of Notre Dame | Tales of the Marvelous

  13. Stef Toha

    Interesting blog, it reminds me of Victor Hugo, quote: “the Notre-Dame is also the home of Quasimodo, the ugly Hunchback-man with a heart of gold, as well as home of Claude Frollo, the solemn priest turned to evil, who adopted Quasimodo abandoned as a child on a bed in the Notre Dame.”
    I tried to write a blog about it, hope you also like it

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