Forget 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?