by Victor Hugo
This famous and epic novel is most widely known in English under its more sensational title of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though it could as easily have been titled La Esmeralda of Notre Dame. Published by a young Hugo in 1831, the book looks back to Paris in the late Middle Ages, 350 years earlier. Hugo endeavors to bring to life a gritty city ruled by an indifferent and mendacious monarch, Louis XI, and divided up by lesser nobility into bickering districts dominated by an arbitrary rule of law in which death and torture figure most prominently and justice barely at all. In the wake of the recent and spectacular fire at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, we learn that some of its extant structure was the result of a 19th-century restoration inspired in part by Hugo's novel. It is said he was himself inspired by the condition of the cathedral which in the time of the novel would already have been nearly four hundred years old and was, by the 19th century, seen as rather shabby. In a dense chapter within his sprawling story, Hugo argues for architecture as a cultural language, buildings which speak for us and our history. Layered upon that polemic, he has draped a tragic the now iconic story of love, hypocrisy and betrayal.
The story opens on a festival in the streets, beer-halls and gathering places of Paris, a festive welcoming of a regal Flemish delegation. We meet one of our protagonists, the young and poor poet and philosopher Pierre Gringoire. He has written a morality play to be performed for an audience of students and citizens, as well as royal and ecclesiastical personages. But this opening passage is rife with a surprising wit, humor, sarcasm and satirical critique the reader may not quite have expected from a well-known tragedy. Indeed, that wit permeates the novel, a black humor that colors the stories about to unfold. The primary tale is that of La Esmeralda, a beautiful teen-aged gypsy who dances and sings for her living on the streets of Paris. Her beauty and grace, and her darling pet goat Djali, captivate men who encounter her. The broken, twisted and hunch-backed nineteen-year-old Quasimodo, who lives in the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame, adores her from afar, most particuarly after an act of kindness she offers to him when he is unjustly punished after a bizarre comedy of a trial. Quasimodo's benefactor, Claude Frollo, a priest in the cathedral, is also darkly drawn to Esmeralda, ready, it seems, to give up his cassock to be with her, but in the event murderously protective of the shreds of his reputation. Gentle Pierre Gringoire owes his life to her kindness, and lives with her in a community of vagabonds. Finally, it is the dashing and self-involved soldier Phoebus who Esmeralda loves. His toying with her affections drives the flood of misunderstandings, injustice, coincidence, meetings, partings, attempted murders, revolts and executions that punctuate Hugo's story. Each character clings to his or her own set of facts that drives their reactions to events around them, resulting in chaos and tragedy inherent in the misunderstanding of each other's motives. It is a darkly enthralling novel, full of action, adventure and bleakly humorous characterizations of historical and fictional figures.
In our modern age of #MeToo, the reader may find the perils of Esmeralda to be an illustration of the brutality of a historical patriarchy. She is a victim of the selfish and entitled behavior of almost all of the men around her, who feel that the mere fact of their romantic interest gives them the right to manipulate and control her existence. At the same time, Hugo describes her own misplaced adoration of Phoebus, who abuses her affections at every turn, eventually discarding her in an act that also illustrates how cheap life could become in an amoral and unequal city of royalty and poverty. The story was written in a less than enlightened social age, about an even less enlightened social milieu, but Hugo pulls it off with a sarcastic wit that can make the reader cringe at the injustice of it all.
It isn't entirely possible to set this story apart from its political implications (though surely Disney's animated version of the tale has done that evisceration for us), and some of its politics echo in today's world. In Hugo's post-revolutionary Paris, his witty critique of 15th-century royalty and corruption would have rang true, as well. Certainly there are numerous references and intimations here that may have resonated more with a 19th-century reader (and, surely, there must be an annotated version out there that can explain these allusions). There is a fair amount of historical name-dropping involved. But, despite its apparent density, heft and tragedy, Hugo's novel is eminently readable, even funny. Justly considered an epic of Western literature.
[Mail John][To List]
See Also: [Notre-Dame of Paris, by Allan Temko]