Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Marie Hugo


The Harvard Classics edition I have of this book renders the title Notre Dame de Paris, but most people know it as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

For that matter I’m sure far more people have seen one or more of the movie versions of the story than have read the book.

I’ve only seen the Charles Laughton movie version, and what I can say is that a lot of the specifics in the book are very close to what is depicted in the movie, and yet there are also significant differences.

The differences, not surprisingly, mostly are a matter of sanitizing the story and giving it a happy ending. (The other movie version people nowadays are most likely to be familiar with is the Disney animated version, and I assume that strays from the book even farther in that same direction.)

The book has more lust and sex in it than the Laughton movie version. The Catholic Church comes off worse in the book, as the central villain Claude Frollo’s emotional repression and even mental illness is more clearly traceable to the Church’s anti-sex taboo morality than in the movie.

In the book Frollo the churchman has a younger brother who is an irresponsible, spoiled drunk. In the movie he instead has an older brother who is also a churchman, and who represents more what is good about the Church. King Louis XI comes across as a better person in the movie than in the book, again which is what you’d expect of a 1930s Hollywood depiction of a person of authority. There’s a whole subplot in the book about a woman whose baby was kidnapped by Gypsies that’s left out of the movie.

As far as a happy ending, well, in the book, pretty much every major character dies or comes to grief in one way or another. That may be the single biggest difference.

There are numerous other differences I haven’t mentioned. So the book will be something of a surprise to those only familiar with one or more movie versions.

The book does, though, contain the hunchback’s wonderful line (spoken to a gargoyle), “Oh! Why am I not fashioned of stone like thee?” which is preserved almost identically in the Laughton movie at least, though because of other changes it is of necessity placed at a different point of the story.

The book was written in the 19th century but depicts Paris in the 15th century under the reign of Louis XI. A playwright Gringoire stumbles into a slum section of Paris and falls into the clutches of a mob of criminals, beggars, and Gypsies. They are about to kill him when the beautiful Gypsy girl Esmeralda agrees to “marry” him instead.

She does it solely out of pity, and neither has nor develops any romantic interest in her “husband.” She basically ignores him and goes on about her life as if she’d never gotten “married.” He has a slight romantic interest in her, but if anything he’s more attached to her pet goat Djali that she performs with in the streets to make money. Gringoire in fact is something of a superficial clown.

Esmeralda instead is madly in love with a soldier she barely knows named Phoebus. Phoebus is engaged to be married, but decides it would be great fun to exploit the Gypsy girl’s interest in him by seducing her. Phoebus is a superficially attractive, dashing sort of fellow in a uniform, so in spite of his utter lack of any redeeming qualities and his abominable behavior in general, Esmeralda never does fall out of love with him.

Meanwhile, to complicate the love triangle or square or whatever it is further, Frollo has been observing Esmeralda and has also fallen in love with her, which is a source of internal torture for him since he is a brilliant introvert who has developed no passions or adult emotions at all except a fierce commitment to the Church and its teachings. So he hates himself for feeling love and lust for her, and he hates her for provoking such feelings and for being a non-Catholic foreigner.

The deformed hunchback Quasimodo is something of an adopted son of Frollo’s, Frollo being the only person who has ever taken an interest in him or valued him. He has grown up in Frollo’s church—the Cathedral of Notre Dame—and when old enough was given the task of being its bell ringer, which soon rendered him deaf.

Quasimodo is convicted of some petty crime as a result of a blatant misunderstanding that is both sad and comic. (This is one of the scenes the Laughton movie actually captures very well and accurately, as the deaf Quasimodo and the deaf judge—who doesn’t admit he’s deaf—talk past each other in a way that makes a mockery of the notion that such a court has any relation to justice.) Quasimodo is whipped and placed on a pillory. Esmeralda sees him and takes pity on him, offering him water when no one else will.

Quasimodo falls in love with her, since the book can’t have enough tragic love angles. When later she is on the verge of being executed for being a witch and stabbing Phoebus (really Frollo stabbed Phoebus as a rival when he tried to seduce Esmeralda, and really she is being punished for not requiting Frollo’s love for her), Quasimodo rescues her and takes her to the cathedral, where custom dictates that the law may not intrude. She remains there in sanctuary, as a captive in effect.

Frollo goes back and forth between trying to get her to love him and punishing her for not doing so. The common people of Paris, especially the criminal band of which she is a part, are convinced the state officials are about to suspend sanctuary and seize her to execute her after all, so they form a mob and head toward the cathedral to rescue her.

Louis XI likes the idea of an uprising when he thinks it’s against rival sources of power in the city, but sends in the troops to quell it when he interprets it as a threat to him. Quasimodo thinks the mob that’s coming to rescue Esmeralda is actually coming to kill her, so he goes up into the tower of the cathedral and dumps things on them when they try to gain access to the building, killing and wounding a good number of them.

There are many themes one can pick out in the book. One is the difference between external and internal beauty, and how disproportionately powerful the former can be, and how disadvantageous that can be for people like the hunchback, who has none of the former but turns out to have quite a lot of the latter.

Another, related, theme is how unhealthy so many lusts and loves people experience are, and how this is brought about in part by inhumane religious and moral codes. Frollo is presented as someone who, in another context, in another society, one could imagine being a decent and loving human being, but who has been turned into someone who generates a frightful amount of hatred and pain for himself and for those who trigger the feelings in him that he’s been taught to suppress at all costs.

But he’s far from the only one who is emotionally immature when it comes to choosing who to love and how to love them, and to attitudes about sex. Esmeralda and Phoebus are among those who are also pretty badly messed up in this area of life.

Another theme I perceive in the book is how consequential errors and misunderstandings can be, especially when generated by uncontrolled emotions and passions.

You can’t say the judge who sentences Quasimodo to be tortured is doing his best and just happens to make an honest mistake; his vanity does not allow him to admit he’s deaf, so emotionally he’s more comfortable bluffing.

Or consider how both Louis XI and Quasimodo get so caught up in acting decisively for some purpose that is of great emotional import for them that they do a poor job of investigating what the mob’s intentions are, and so they each act—and kill—on the basis of erroneous beliefs.

One of the notable things about this novel is how much arguably extraneous material there is. Rather like Melville’s long, detailed descriptions of whaling, Hugo gives us plenty on the history of Paris, the monarchs of France, and especially the physical layout of Paris and its architecture.

Is there a point to all this history? Is it worth including? Is it accurate? Does it matter if it’s accurate?

As to the first, evidently at least one motive Hugo had was to encourage people to value and preserve the old Gothic buildings, many of which were being torn down and replaced in his time. He regarded them not only as valuable because they were so old, but valuable because they were aesthetically superior to at least most of what architecture had since produced.

As to whether the book is better or worse because it contains more material that is not essential to the story than most novels, I have mixed feelings about that.

Certainly the reading was rougher going for me—and I would guess for most readers—due to the inclusion of so much description of the context. It was mildly interesting to me, but no more than that, to read about how Paris expanded over the centuries and how different forms of architecture developed. The whole long opening sequence about the Paris masses partying and choosing a Pope of Fools dragged on two or three times longer than I’d have liked.

But then again, I tend to give a lot of leeway to an author. If Hugo wanted to not just tell a story but to teach some history or encourage architectural preservation or whatever, more power to him. I want an author to write according to what is in his heart. That’s more important than if it’s written in the way that I would have written it, or written in the way that I most like to read.

Also, though, my opinion of the value of including the extraneous material is dependent in part on how accurate it is. And while I hope that the various historical observations he makes—not just about the architecture, but about sociologically what life was like and how people interacted with each other and spoke to each other in the late 15th century—are accurate, I’m not in a position to judge to what extent they are, so in that sense I must remain undecided whether all the additional descriptive material enhances the novel or detracts from it.

I’m probably in a minority, and maybe a small minority, in thinking that accuracy of this kind matters in literature. It is fiction after all. But the way I look at it, the number of people who seriously study history, and read the kind of material you might find in academic journals of history, is dwarfed by the number of people who read popular historical fiction (which in turn is dwarfed by the number of people who watch movies and TV shows and such set in the past). Even if something is clearly presented as fiction, and the people reading it are under no illusions it’s anything but fiction, readers still absorb certain beliefs and attitudes about a work of fiction’s real world analogues.

That is, probably more people’s impressions of what kind of king Louis XI was, what the Catholic Church in France was like in the time of his reign, how Gypsies lived and were perceived in the Paris of the 15th century, etc. are shaped by Notre Dame de Paris than by any single nonfiction work of history, just as I would assume that the way various historical figures are depicted in the works of Shakespeare has a greater influence on the public’s beliefs about these individuals than does anything produced by professional historians.

I think the awareness of that potential for influence generates a certain authorial responsibility to be as accurate as possible. I don’t mean the specifics about there being a hunchback working as a bell ringer in a certain cathedral in a certain year, or his doing or saying this or that on some occasion—that’s the fiction part of fiction and I’m fine with that being totally made up. But as far as the historical milieu in which it all takes place, and the character, words, and actions of those figures in the novel who were also real people—e.g., Louis XI—I believe an author is obligated to make all that as accurate as possible.

You know, if slavery was nothing remotely like what is depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or the meatpacking industry in Chicago was never like what we read in The Jungle, then the authors of those books are liars, in my opinion.

So if life in Paris 500-600 years ago was completely different from how Hugo presents it, that would be a significant mark against him.

Anyway, that’s just an aside. As I say, I don’t have the background in French history to judge how well Hugo fulfilled his obligation to present the Paris of Louis XI as accurately as possible rather than fudge it to make a better story or further some ideological goal.

Just a few other quick observations before closing: Like in Hugo’s Les Miserables, there are ridiculous coincidences where seemingly every major character turns out to be unexpectedly connected to every other major character.

At times reading this I had the feeling of watching an action movie where the lives of extras don’t really matter, like a movie where we’re following a protagonist in wartime and our emotions are wrapped up in how he’s faring, when all around him countless other people are being massacred.

In Notre Dame de Paris we’re focused on the fate of Esmeralda, Quasimodo, and a handful of others that we’ve gotten to know as individuals, but meanwhile, dozens or hundreds of nameless folks are wiped out trying to enter the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda—pointlessly as mentioned above, as a result of misinterpretations of their intentions. Surely objectively their lives are worth just as much as those who happen to have been singled out as the main characters in the story, but it feels instead like what happens to Esmeralda and a few others determines whether this is a story with a happy or unhappy ending.

Some of the characters and their behavior strike me as strangely modern. That’s not to say these depictions are inaccurate; maybe certain things have remained fairly constant from the 15th century to Hugo’s 19th century to today.

I’m thinking, for instance, of Phoebus and Esmeralda. Phoebus is a handsome brute with little ability to care about anyone other than himself who is just looking to get laid, and Esmeralda is a bimbo who will always choose a Phoebus over a “nice guy” type. I don’t know if that’s how the mating game worked in the 1490s, but if it were set in the 2010s it would most decidedly be accurate.

All-in-all, Notre Dame de Paris is an interesting, thought-provoking book. It’s a slog at times, but deserves its status as a classic.


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