The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo

A Brief Summary and Review

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Victor Hugo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Count Frollo, Quasimodo, and Esmeralda are quite possibly the most twisted, most bizarre, and most unexpected love-triangle in literary history. And if their problematic involvement with one another is not enough, throw-in Esmeralda’s philosopher husband, Pierre, and her unrequited love-interest, Phoebus, not to mention the self-isolated mother-in-mourning with a sad history of her own, and Frollo’s younger, trouble-making brother Jehan, and finally the various kings, burgesses, students, and thieves, and suddenly we have an epic history in the making.

 

The main character, as it turns out, is not Quasimodo or Esmeralda, but Notre-Dame itself.  Almost all of the major scenes in the novel, with a few exceptions (such as Pierre’s presence at the Bastille) take place at or in view of/reference to the great cathedral. Victor Hugo’s primary purpose is not to present the reader with a heart-rending love story, nor is it necessarily to comment on social and political systems of the time (though this is certainly a high purpose); the main purpose is a nostalgic view of a diminishing Paris, one which puts its architecture and architectural history in the forefront and which laments the loss of that high art. 

Hugo is clearly concerned with the public’s lack of commitment toward preserving the rich architectural and artistic history of Paris, and this purpose comes across directly, in chapters about the architecture specifically, and indirectly, through the narrative itself.

Hugo is concerned with one character above all in this story, and that is the cathedral. While other characters have interesting backgrounds and do develop slightly over the course of the story, none seem truly round. This is a minor point of contention because though the story may have a loftier sociological and artistic purpose, it loses something by not also working completely as a stand-alone narrative.

 

One can certainly empathize with Quasimodo’s dilemma, for instance, when he finds himself caught between the two loves of his life, Count Frollo and Esmeralda. The sub-story relating to the mourning woman who has locked herself in a cell, weeping over a child’s shoe (and who vehemently despises the gypsies for stealing her daughter) is also moving, but ultimately unsurprising. Count Frollo’s descent from learned man and upstanding caregiver is not entirely unbelievable (given, especially, the relationship between Frollo and his brother), but it still seems sudden and quite dramatic. 

Of course, these subplots suit the Gothic element of the story nicely and also parallel Hugo’s analysis of science versus religion & physical art versus linguistics – yet the characters seem flat in relation to the overall attempt by Hugo to re-instill, through means of Romanticism, a renewed passion for the Gothic era. In the end, the characters and their interactions are interesting and, at times, moving and hilarious. The reader can engage with and, to a certain extent, believe them, but they are not perfect characters.

What moves this story along so well—even through chapters such as “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris” which is, literally, a textual description of the city of Paris as if looking at it from on high and in all directions—is Hugo’s great ability at crafting words, phrases and sentences.

 

Although inferior to Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables (1862), one thing the two have in common is a richly beautiful and workable prose. Hugo’s sense of humor (especially sarcasm and irony) is very well developed and leaps across the page. His Gothic elements are appropriately dark, even surprisingly so at times.   

What is most interesting about Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris is that everyone knows the story, but few really know the story. There have been numerous adaptations of this work, for film, theater, television, etc. Most people are probably familiar with the story through various retellings in children’s books or movies (i.e. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Those of us who are only familiar with this story as told through the grapevine are led to believe that it is a tragic “Beauty and the Beast” type love-story, where true love rules in the end.

 This explanation of the tale could not be further from the truth.

Notre-Dame de Paris is first and foremost a story about art – mainly, architecture. It is a romanticizing of the Gothic period and a study of the movements which brought together traditional art forms and oratory with the novel idea of a printing press. Yes, Quasimodo and Esmeralda are there and their story is a sad one and yes, Count Frollo turns out to be a downright despicable antagonist; but, ultimately, this, like Les Misérables is more than a story about its characters – it is a story about the whole history of Paris and about the absurdities of the caste system. 

This may be the first novel where beggars and thieves are cast as the protagonists and also the first novel in which the entire societal structure of a nation, from King to peasant, is present. It is also one of the first and most prominent works to feature a structure (the Cathedral of Notre-Dame) as main character. Hugo’s approach would influence Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and other sociological “writers of the people.” When one thinks of writers who are genius at fictionalizing the history of a people, the first who comes to mind might be Leo Tolstoy, but Victor Hugo certainly belongs in the conversation.