Notre-Dame de Paris - better known by its English title ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ - is a dark, gothic tale set in late-medieval Paris against a backdrop of jealousy, obsession, and medieval witchcraft. Esmeralda is a beautiful young gypsy who has unwittingly captured the attention of troubled arch-bishop Claude Frollo; in turn, Esmeralda has fallen for an empty-headed lout named Phoebus. Residing in the magnificent Notre-Dame cathedral is the ugly, deaf bell-ringer Quasimodo, who lives out of sight of Parisian eyes, under the charge of Frollo.
Being at the pinnacle of romantic and gothic literature, Notre-Dame is essentially a love story, but not the conventional kind. The various forms of love found within the story are not at all similar to the flowery romance between Cosette and Marius in Hugo’s other famous work, Les Misérables. As a contrast, the focus in Notre-Dame is jealous and obsessive ‘love’, centring on lust and selfish desires. On one level the novel explores what love really is: many characters claim to love Esmeralda, but for the most part it is of the envious, poisonous variety that leads to tragedy for all parties involved. Notre-Dame explores numerous other themes too, such as religion (through Frollo’s conflictions between his lust for Esmeralda and his holy duty) and the judgment of people through their observable traits, explored through Quasimodo’s physical deformities and Frollo’s upstanding station in the church, neither of which reflect their true personalities.
In general, the characters are not quite as compelling as those in Les Misérables, especially the lone female, Esmeralda. Fantine and Éponine are more fleshed out and interesting; Esmeralda is largely a stereotypical damsel in distress, and I found it annoying how utterly besotted she was with Phoebus, even though he was awful to her and more captivated with her pretty she-goat Djali than with the gypsy. Frollo is my favourite character; he is dark, troubled and complex. The bell-ringer of Notre-Dame, Quasimodo, is another well-written, interesting and unusual character. Because of his status as outcast and his ugliness, he is pitiable, but at the same time his oppressed life causes him to act aggressively and to feel confused by human contact. He is hideous to behold, but kind-hearted deep down, and often struggles with conflicting loyalties between his master and Esmeralda.
The novel is quite slow at the beginning, but once you’ve passed the 100 page mark you’re good to go. Though Notre-Dame features some of Hugo’s infamous digressions, they are not as numerous or tiresome as those in Les Misérables; probably due to the large difference in length of each work - Notre-Dame is about 550 pages, while Les Misérables stands at some 1,400. The only significant ones describe in detail the architecture of the cathedral (which is relevant to the overarching theme of change over time, and Hugo’s sadness over the neglect and ruin of old buildings), and another gives a bird’s eye view of Paris, both of which I found quite interesting. The last couple of a hundred pages are fast paced, intense, bloody and wrought with emotion; the final page brought tears to my eyes.
On top of the well-plotted narrative, Hugo’s writing is beautiful and spell-binding. I especially like his descriptions of Quasimodo’s appearance:
“That tiny left eye obscured by a shaggy red eyebrow, while the right eye lay completely hidden beneath an enormous wart. Those irregular teeth, with gaps here and there like the battlements of a fortress, that calloused lip, over which one of those teeth protruded like an elephant’s tusk, that cleft chin, and above all the facial expression extending over the whole, a mixture of malice, amazement, and sadness... He looked like a giant, broken into pieces and then badly mended.”
Notre-Dame is personified throughout the story, making it not only the main setting of the tale but also a character. I love the idea of Quasimodo being the very soul of the cathedral:
“In Egypt he would have been taken for the temple’s god; the Middle Ages thought he was its demon; he was its soul. So much so that for those who know Quasimodo once existed, Notre-Dame today is deserted, inanimate, dead. There is the feeling that something has gone. That immense body is empty; it is a skeleton; the spirit has left it. You can see where it was, and that is all. It is like a skull which has eyeholes but no longer any eyes to see.”
In conclusion, Notre-Dame de Paris is a fantastic gothic novel of love, betrayal, obsession and murder. It has a grisly denouement accompanied by a truly devastating and sad ending, with the interesting setting of late medieval Paris and the beautiful Notre-Dame cathedral. It offers plenty of food for thought, and has a couple of very memorable characters. Except for the very beginning, the story is exciting and dark, whilst simultaneously maintaining a melancholy and sombre atmosphere. Notre-Dame is perhaps not quite as good as Les Misérables, but its shorter length makes it more accessible. All of these factors combine to make Notre-Dame de Paris an instant favourite of mine: I highly recommend it.
My other Victor Hugo reviews: