After one month, I finally turned the last page of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This thing was sad. As expected, it took me a long time to finish this book, longer than it took me to read Les Miserables, in fact, which was 1,200 pages! I joked to my sister that this book is Victor Hugo’s grand experiment in not editing, but in reality, this book had its hooks in me by the end. I had that feeling common whenever you finish a really engrossing book, as if you’re pulling out of its center of gravity but still feel the draw. Like the Death Star. 😉 This book had a really strong tractor beam.
The book features a motley cast of characters only some of whom I was familiar with (from the Disney movie, of course): Dom Claude Frollo, La Esmeralda, Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers, Quasimodo himself, Clopin Troillefou. But there was also Pierre Gringoire, Jehan Frollo, and Sister Gudule. The characters are also so different: Dom Claude Frollo adopts Quasimodo willingly, out of moving compassion and pity. La Esmeralda is desperately in love with Phoebus who is a womanizer and doesn’t care a whit about her. Quasimodo—the gentle Quasimodo—is a lot more complex, and his character speaks volumes about the problems of society Hugo wanted to call attention to. He’s also deaf, and a beastly person because of his complete ostracism from society. He barely speaks except to his bells, and Notre Dame is not only his home, but his entire world: the grand cathedral is an extension of himself, inextricably linked to his identity. Quasimodo is the soul of Notre Dame, and deformed as he is, Notre Dame is his [beautiful] other body.
Still—this book shouldn’t have been renamed for the English translation: this book is only partly about the hunchback. The original title is far superior: Le Notre Dame de Paris. This is a story of the cathedral, and about Paris, and knowing that made me re-shift my focus while reading and helped me understand the story better. Victor Hugo was writing to an 1830 audience, caught in the grips of the vestiges of the French Revolution and the Revolution of 1830. The book emphasizes the parallel problems of society that were present in the Middle Ages (the book is set in 1482) and contemporary 1830s. And it’s also an ode to Paris, to the cathedral (Notre Dame was falling into disrepair in the 19th century and Hugo’s novel was in part an effort to make people care more about it), and to the history of France. Just like Les Mis, Hugo creates this startlingly vivid cast of characters and weaves this complex story and then leads us away from it, lets us see the larger scope of political turmoil, social unrest, extreme miscarriages of justice, and the love for his country and countrymen. There is so much here I could talk about for days, but there is one passage in particular, about Quasimodo, that I think was the most poignant to me:
The wretched sufferer finding, like a chained beast, that he could not break his collar, again became quiet, thought at times a sigh of rage heaved all the cavities of his chest. Not a blush, not a trace of shame, was to be discerned in his face. He was too far from the social state and too near the state of nature to know what shame is. Besides, is it possible that disgrace can be felt by one cast in a mold of extreme deformity? But rage, hatred, despair slowly spread over that hideous face a cloud which gradually became more and more black, more and more charged with an electricity that darted in a thousand flashes from the eye of the Cyclops.
This is the moment Quasimodo is whipped and rotated on a rack. La Esmeralda answers his pleas for water and ascends the platform so he can drink. She’s kind but naive, and even when Quasimodo saves her from hanging, she finds it nearly impossible to stand his presence because of his extreme ugliness. There is no incorporating Quasimodo into society, none at all, because of his ugliness and his deafness. That really pinched my heart.
So did the ending. But still—it’s the “good sad.” I think. All I know is that I would have pushed that effing Dom Claude off the cathedral a hundred pages sooner. Also: that joke in the Disney film spoken by the (much-improved) Captain Phoebus to his horse—”Achilles, heel”—might still be the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.