The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – Victor Hugo

Book #922

Reviewer: J. Gi Federizo

THONDForget Disney. If you’re reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (The Hunchback) for the first time, I’m telling you, NEVER pre-judge a book especially by its animated film version. I grew up watching Disney, but quite frankly, it has this annoying knack of messing up the literary classics. Like The Little Mermaid living happily ever-after with her Prince, and even having a spawn in the sequel! I’m surprised there’s even a sequel. That’s classic murder, to be figurative and blunt about it.

So don’t expect the book to be as fine and dandy as the animated adaptation. Consider yourself very sufficiently warned.

Originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), Victor Hugo’s novel is undoubtedly set in Paris, year 1482. Quasimodo, the deaf and horribly deformed hunchback bell-ringer, attempts to abduct the Gypsy girl hailed as La Esmeralda. The attempt is somehow foiled and Esmeralda falls in love with her handsome rescuer, Phoebus de Châteaupers, captain of the King’s Ordinance’s archers. Quasimodo is captured while his alchemist-master, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, flees. The priest’s great infatuation with the Bohemian streetdancer has driven him to mastermind her abduction and use his ward.

With hardly any reliable witness to Frollo’s participation in this, only the servant is captured, tried, publicly tortured and humiliated, both as punishment for the deed and for merely looking the way he does. Ironically, it is only Esmeralda who shows him kindness during this time and he never forgets it. He falls for her as well, so much so that in a sudden twist of fate when it is she who is persecuted, he returns the favor by saving her and keeping her safe from everyone, including Frollo…

Wow. Hugo knows his tragedy like the back of his hand. The Hunchback, his first novel, is quite a tragic piece that I can’t even write the synopsis without toning down to serious mode. That is why I don’t understand the animated film adaptation. Talking stone gargoyles? Really??? It’s an insult to the genius of Hugo, the way it’s an insult to the genius of Hans Christian Andersen not to kill the little mermaid in the end. I’m all for happy endings to keep viewing minors smiling and trauma-free, but then give it a whole new title and leave the classics alone!

The Hunchback is a tragedy, was meant to be one, and it would not have worked if it wasn’t; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, love is in the center of all of it. Actually, one character is. It is not Quasimodo who sets the wheels of the story in motion really, but the enigmatic gypsy. Esmeralda fascinates men like Frollo who can’t help but throw priestly caution away if only to have her. It is she who gets smitten by Phoebus, who is only too willing to go on trysts with her. And it is the young girl whom the bell-ringer falls head-over-heels in love with, going against the man he has grown to practically consider his father rather than master. Esmeralda is the common denominator in this weird love quadrangle of sorts.

Oh, to love and be loved! However romantic that sounds, though, the main idea in my opinion is not that famous four-letter word. The love theme is so broad and can be quite predictable for any fiction. Great fiction goes beyond the broad and predictable.

The Hunchback is a story about a sense of humanity, finding a sense of belonging, and how human frailties can utterly destroy anyone. It subtly yet effectively shows how acts of kindness can mean the world and move mountains. Esmeralda’s kindness towards a “creature” so abhorred and feared has made quite an impact on the misunderstood, unfortunate soul. It is the closest he has come to feeling truly loved and what is he to offer this angel but love in return, even if it means his demise?

Hugo is a true romanticist. Only a few can romanticize tragedy the way he does. Incidentally, while re-reading, I am reminded of similar characters in other great stories. Esmeralda can very well be Helen of Troy in Iliad (Homer) for whose beauty men are ready to risk their lives. Alchemist Frollo is alchemist Frankenstein (Mary Bysshe Shelley) with Quasimodo as, in a way, the lonely, so-called Frankenstein’s Monster he has “created.” The hunchback assistant Igor also does come to mind except he has been a product of popular culture, not of Shelley’s novel. Anyway, these are all coincidence, for sure, but I am reminded how classics become classics in the first place: they are written by great storytellers.

Paris in the 1480s is the backdrop of this masterpeice. Through Hugo’s prolific, indefatigable writing, we get an overall sense of the city—sights, smell, sounds, great unrest hanging in the air—as he walks us through the streets. The narrator goes at great lengths describing medieval architecture and gothic art, which are most certainly already missing or ruined in the 19th century, Hugo’s time.

“In addition…he was also absorbed in the study of medieval Christianity, its saints, martyrs, churches, and its faith. Thus Hugo incorporated into the novel his knowledge of a little-understood Christian era” (Raymond R. Canon in his provided Introduction). I am amazed at the amount of studying and research the author must have poured into this to be able to share to his readers what it must have felt like living during the time of Quasimodo.

This presents much of a challenge to the reader, though. Quite the enthusiast of the aforementioned areas, of theater (he was a playwright prior to becoming a novelist, after all) and of history, I suppose, he goes overboard and even devotes entire chapters discussing details and information that if deleted, would not make any big amount of difference in the story. Maybe even fellow enthusiasts will mostly still find reading parts of it quite a tedious task.

It’s not enough that the language used is old, but the information overload…Eeeps. I am not sure if it’s harder to read in its original French version, but my unabridged English one kept me muttering, “ON with the actual story already!”

The first parts are mostly spent describing things, naming names, tackling theology and history, so much more than even the average French reader can take. In fact, I personally was tempted to skip them at times. Frollo gets to show up at least in the first parts though not immediately. Unfortunately, it is already at Book 1’s Chapter 5 where we actually get to read about Quasimodo for the first time, and Chapter 6 when we first see just a mention of La Esmeralda, who we only really get to know in Book 2 Chapter 3. This tendency to overtell, as I am calling it, turns off many readers so that they do not continue long enough to actually get to the real meat of the story. In fact, one would think the protagonist in it is this guy Pierre Gringoire whom we follow in much of the book’s first parts.

As it is Hugo’s first novel, it makes me forgive him. He was probably too eager to share what he knew and write everything he wanted to. I can say, too, that I am glad for the success of this book because it gave way to his more famous, more loved novel Les Miserables. Through the overtelling, we find hints of the French Revolution—him being a supporter of such movement—that is the very core of Les Miserables. There are both the hated leaders and the young scholars in them. In hindsight, I feel that despite the playwright Gringoire’s circumstances, he serves as Hugo’s representation of himself in more ways than one. He simply has to be there.

Tragedy or otherwise, does The Huncback show that good triumphs over evil? Definitely. Do we get our expected happy endings? Hmnn…It depends on how you’ll see it. If you’re any good at reading between the not-so-secret lines, I suppose you already have an inkling of how it goes.

I don’t know about you, but I won’t mind reading this beautiful book again. Just maybe not too soon for this bit of a heavy reading. Meanwhile, I suggest you start now and read through the whole thing. You cannot appreciate this awesome piece of work without digesting everything about it. Have pain, will gain. It’s either you like this book or not, no real middle ground here. If you want to stay in your happy place, be my guest, ditch the book and enjoy your Disney. But who’s fooling who?

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

Book #272
Reviewer: J.Gi Federizo


The Color PurpleFourteen years old and Celie was already one big mess—pregnant, poor, under-educated. And black, lest we forget. How could Celie even think of leading her life differently? As her future husband said, “You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman…, you nothing at all.”

The Color Purple starts with Celie writing a letter – a confession – to God. She has just been molested by her own father. Pa has told her to never tell on him unless she wants her mama to die of heart break, so she doesn’t, but the sick mother dies anyway. Celie is forced to be the surrogate mother of the house. Such is the life she is left to accept. But then Pa seems to be setting his eyes lately on Celie’s younger sister and this worries her.

Celie is eventually married off to widower Mr. _______ who only wants a wife to cook, clean, work and raise his children. Life in the 30s could be so cruel, particularly to black women whose main purpose, it seems, is to be their husbands’ servants. Soon, smart Nettie comes to live with them. The sisters are forced to separate later and Celie doesn’t see Nettie again, breaking her heart and spirit.

Celie continues what she does best: live a life of thankless servitude as she takes care of Mr. _______’s house, his mean kids, and just about everything else. That is, until Shug Avery comes along and teaches her what life should really be about.

Now that I have given you enough background of the story, let me tell you about The Color Purple as a literary work. It is a brave attempt at telling the real black woman’s story with author Alice Walker pulling no punches along the way. It is not for the faint of heart, and I mean that in the most figurative way. You have to have enough heart to understand and relate, if only as a human being. It tackles very sensitive issues in a very bold manner that should make not a few people cringe. Page One and already, you get a sample of the novel’s direct, no-holds barred language in the coming chapters. There is such brutal honesty and graphic storytelling that the book itself has become an issue in the literary world, subjected to negative criticisms, censorship and what-not. Then again, that’s what makes this book a very good study. For one, you are allowed to think – do you like or hate this book? Do you like it despite the unpleasant reactions it keeps getting that must equal the pleasant ones? Would you stand by it?

If you are rather sensitive to strong, violent language, it may not be the book for you. Then again, if you have some fragment of curiosity in you and can get pass all the coarseness, continue at your own risk. Beauty is still in the eyes of the beholder.

The Color Purple is written in quite matter-of-fact tones that you have no choice but to take things as Celie describes them in her letters to God. Yes, letters, because for Walker to make her lonely protagonist tell her story, the character must be able to have an avenue to express herself in such an honest manner to whom she believes is the only one left that understands her pain perfectly. Too under-educated, Celie is not wont to practice the art of sugar-coating, not even for God.

So through the letter-writing or epistolary style, that is how we come to understand Celie and what she is about. She is the voice that is not heard and so she writes. There is no getting around it and the frankness of it all is what most love about the book, I guess. In the world of fiction, to make your characters speak as they are supposed to speak, accent and all, is a powerful way to make your readers understand and hopefully sympathize with realistic characters.

This “wrong” use of words is somewhat acknowledged in the book itself when Celie tells of a younger colored woman trying to correct her atrocious grammar that is a dead give-away of her very low social strata.

The real beauty of The Color Purple is it tackles relevant issues – or developments, depending on how you see it – without fear. There’s quite a bunch; take your pick:

Racism is evident – white trumping black, even black trumping black as apparently, there are blacker blacks than black. Walker deftly walks us (pun intended) through some history dating back to a much earlier time when native Africans considered lighter-skinned blacks as a disgrace and sold them to work for the rich, white people as slaves.  

Celie’s own story is set at a time when African-Americans are starting to clamor against racial segregation, a precursor to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. (Discrimination has been a long habit to break, unfortunately, with every color today joining the fray and nobody really wins.)

Feminism or women empowerment, too, is gradually emerging, with two characters setting an example to Celie. Tough-as-nails Sofia is my actual favorite whose personality is probably what makes Celie’s insecure and silly stepson fall for her in the first place. Then this becomes a constant bone of contention as Harpo tries to “make her mind” the way Mr. _______ does to Celie.

Then there’s the enigmatic Shug whose independent nature and charm hold great power over Mr. _______ . Personally, I am not taken by this character. She maybe Celie’s glimmer of light, but she’s not exactly quite a good example either. On the other hand, whoever says she’s perfect? There’s a third one that I should probably mention, then again, that would be too much of a spolier already.

Another big issue is lesbianism, which probably turns off some readers. I have no problem with that; people should be allowed to live as they want to as long as they are not hurting anybody else. As said, I have no problem with any of the characters’ sexual orientation. Not per se; I’m just thinking that it’s not a necessary factor in the story. In fact, it just feeds the wrong notion that feminism is the same as lesbianism.

I think the problem with this book as a whole is it tries to cram all these issues in just 250 pages with big fonts. Issues like child abuse, incest, domestic violence, slavery, gender inequality, etcetera. To be fair, Walker does this in a very cohesive manner. Still, it could be quite overwhelming for the reader to be bombarded like this.

What I love, really, are the letters Celie gets (although suddenly, I feel like history is being forced in again as fast and as much as possible). That makes me feel like I am reading a whole new book, and a whole new book about it would not be a very bad idea. I wouldn’t mind reading more about the Olinka tribe.

So why The Color Purple? I’m not telling. But I can tell you that I do like this book, regardless of the negative criticisms. Yes, I would stand by it. The Color Purple is a contemporary great that any adult reader shouldn’t miss.