In the grotesque bell-ringer Quasimodo, Victor Hugo created one of the most vivid characters in classic fiction. Quasimodo's doomed love for the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda is an example of the traditional love theme of beauty and the beast. Yet, set against the massive background of Notre Dame de Paris and interwoven with the sacred and secular life of medieval France, it takes on a larger perspective. The characters come to life: the poet, Gringoire; the tormented priest, Claude Frollo; the fun-loving captain, Phoebus; and, above all, Quasimodo and Esmeralda themselves. It is a tale peppered with humor but fueled by the anguish that unfolds beneath the bells of the great cathedral of Paris.
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I'll be honest. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Historical fiction is rarely anywhere near my wheelhouse, but when it’s a revered classic—or, like the Aubrey/Maturin series, so historically accurate that it almost is history—I make an exception. And I’m glad I did. One of our iconic stories is now safely ensconced in my mental arsenal. And I no longer have to look puzzled when friends refer to me as “Quasimodo”. I now know what they mean.
But as much as I enjoyed the story—with two exceptions we’ll get to later—there was something that bugged me throughout the telling. I couldn’t put my finger on it so I started perusing critical essays online. And I found this:
“Hugo was determined to trace current social and political problems back to their medieval roots, and to achieve the maximum effect he must carefully embed his tale within a painstaking reconstruction of medieval Paris, its buildings and its public.”
(From: Medievalism and Modernity in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alex J. Novikoff, Rhodes College)
That’s the nub. Every author should have a point of view; but Hugo has an agenda. Whether he was right to trace every social ill to the Middle Ages is neither here nor there. I could sense I was being manipulated, and that sense only grew stronger when I read in the same essay, “…Hugo freely admits that he strives for imaginative reconstruction rather than historical accuracy”. That’s fine if, as in other Gothic literature, you’re employing medieval mystery and mysticism to create atmosphere and suspense. The problem comes in when you use imagination to make historical—and, by extension, political—points.
Yes, I know the novel was conceived and written in the turmoil of the 1830 Revolution; yes, I know Hugo was disappointed with the constitutional monarchy that resulted, feeling reform had not gone far enough. I understand why the soapbox is there; all I’m saying is that it becomes a stumbling block in a work of fiction. As a result, I never really grew to like or trust Hugo as a guide, as I like and trust Dickens, Thackeray or Fielding.
This didactic streak runs strongest in the two exceptions mentioned earlier, comprising the entire Third Book of the novel. The first is a long discourse on Gothic architecture, a critique of the new construction that is gradually replacing it in 1830’s Paris, and an impassioned plea to restore and preserve the fine examples that are left. We owe much to Hugo for his advocacy of course, but I’m not so sure the novel is better off for it. To this listener, at any rate, it seems to be a series of personal opinions and unsupported assertions wrapped around an ingenious (I said “ingenious”, not “correct”) thesis that the printed word replaced architecture as the chief medium through which civilizations express themselves. If he’s right, then this represents a shift from enshrining corporate beliefs in stone to expressing personal viewpoints (like the essay/chapter under discussion) ad nauseum. Hugo celebrates this shift, possibly because he didn’t have the benefit of a 21st Century perspective. With our Twitter, Snapchat, blog and even this forum you’re reading right now, we can see both the up- and downsides of the thing.
The second part of the Third Book is a long (just over an hour) description of late 15th Century Paris as seen through the eyes of a bird. This is what Novikoff meant when he wrote of Hugo’s need to “carefully embed his tale within a painstaking reconstruction of medieval Paris”. It is painstaking indeed. His intimate knowledge and love of the city—from its geography to its history—shines in every sentence. In that sense it is touching. On the other hand, for one without Hugo’s knowledge of every byway and landmark, it can get tedious. I endured it much as I let Verne’s endless catalogues of fish wash over me in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
But then Book Four opens, the story is back on track and we’re off. And it is a smashing story, for me somewhat marred by that lurking didactic note—yes, I get it, the Middle Ages weren’t as enlightened as we are—that is near the surface in just about every scene. Still, there is good comedy here. It stood out for me especially as I wasn’t prepared for it. The pathos, which I was fully prepared for, can get a little cloying. I don’t know whether it’s the fault of Bill Homewood’s reading or not. Probably not, because I don’t know what else he could have done with the words that are on the page. Consider, for example, the scene of the two bouquets.
Esmeralda wakes to find Quasimodo has left her two bouquets, one of fresh flowers in a fragile, cracked vase incapable of holding water, and a withered bouquet in a sturdy, watertight earthen vessel. The implicit comparison is between the fresh, young and handsome Captain of Archers on whom Esmeralda dotes—and who cares nothing for her—and the ugly but sincere Quasimodo. For all her hopeless love for the soldier, Esmeralda chooses to wear the withered flowers that day. It’s an odd scene, ham-handed in its symbolism and inconsistent with the characters as they have been drawn up to this point in the story. I had no idea Quasimodo was so clever; I can’t quite see the young, romantic gypsy girl, so smitten with her soldier, accept the bouquet that symbolizes his misshapen rival.
There’s a lot more pathos than that, but you get the idea. After all this damning-with-faint-praise, you may find it hard to believe that I enjoyed the book, but I did. It just bugged me that the work didn’t quite sit right with me and I had to figure out why. I think I have. I’m better now. Thanks for listening.
Hugo's level of detail and backstory development are more than I am used to. The story is extremely detailed and exquisitely presented. It was well worth the time, and I am glad it did the audiobook version because the printed book would have been more difficult to get through.