Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo was published in 1831 but set in the Paris of 1482.

Quasimodo was a deformed child left at a place where foundlings were deposited for anyone who might want to take them in. He had so many physical issues that one of the gossipy women observing him declared it “must be a sin to look at such a thing.” A priest came by, saw the child, and adopted him.

The priest, Claude Frollo, had been a promising scholar when his own parents died. In compassion he took in his younger brother, Jehan, and raised him, and thoughts of what would have happened to Jehan if Claude had not been available compelled Claude to take in Quasimodo.

But several years later, Jehan became dissolute, preferring drinking and carousing to studying. Quasimodo, “From his very first steps among men…had felt himself, later on he had seen himself, spewed out, blasted, rejected. Human words were, for him, always a raillery or a malediction. As he grew up, he had found nothing but hatred around him. He had caught the general malevolence. He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded.” Quasimodo became the bell ringer for Notre Dame and loved the bells as he did no one else except Claude, but the bells made Quasimodo deaf. He was unable to benefit from the study Claude longed to impart. Thus, “Claude, saddened and discouraged in his human affections, by all this, had flung himself eagerly into the arms of learning, that sister which, at least does not laugh in your face, and which always pays you, though in money that is sometimes a little hollow, for the attention which you have paid to her. Hence, he became more and more learned, and, at the same time, as a natural consequence, more and more rigid as a priest, more and more sad as a man.” His insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to delve “further, lower, beneath all that finished, material, limited knowledge; he had, perhaps, risked his soul, and had seated himself in the cavern at that mysterious table of the alchemists, of the astrologers, of the hermetics.”

Further drawing Claude away from anything good and right was his lust for a gypsy girl named Esmeralda, who used to dance in the streets with her tambourine and have her goat perform tricks to earn money. Claude deemed that his unhealthy obsession for Esmeralda must be due to some sorcery on her part.

When Quasimodo was publicly punished for a crime that Claude put him up to, Esmeralda was the only person who took pity on him and offered him water. That act of kindness caused Quasimodo to love her, though he knew his love would never be returned.

Claude’s jealousy led to an assault for which Esmeralda was blamed. Quasimodo rescued her and hid her in the cathedral. But massive misunderstandings all around led to multiple tragedies.

My thoughts:

I have not seen any of the film versions of this book, but from what I understand, many of them twist the ending to be more upbeat. There is no happy ending in this book, except maybe for the playwright and the goat. In fact, it’s so dark and seemingly hopeless, I pondered for a long while what it was all for.

Some have said, due to the fact that the Hugo’s original title was Notre-Dame de Paris, and most of the action in the novel takes place in and around the cathedral, that it is the main character. One reason Hugo wrote this book was to call attention to the value of the Gothic architecture in the city and to rouse support for preserving it. Many of Paris’s buildings had been damaged over the centuries and new construction or repairs were not always in keeping with the Gothic style. One chapter in the book talks about how literature will “kill” architecture as a means of expression.

But on another level, this novel depicts a very human story. I can’t believe that it is all about the cathedral.

It could be about the destructive power of lust. Most of the tragedies that came raining down on almost everyone stem from Claude’s obsession with Esmeralda. Some of the others came or were exacerbated by a lust for power. Early in the novel, a playwright wanders into the wrong part of town and is put on “trial” by the riffraff of the city. Later, two different trials by the proper magistrates show themselves to be no more just than the underground kangaroo court. Even one scene involving the king shows his misplaced priorities.

It could be about the mistake of judging by appearances. Quasimodo, of course, was obviously misjudged from day one, which had an effect on his character. A captain, Phoebus is misjudged, but on the other end of the scale: because he is so handsome, people think he is good, when in reality he is a cad. Esmeralda is misjudged for her beauty but also for her ethnicity: gypsies were not respected, and she is constantly accused of sorcery or other crimes just because she is a gypsy. One of my favorite parts is a song Quasimodo sings outside Esmeralda’s window, translated by Project Gutenberg as follows:

Look not at the face, young girl, look at the heart. The heart of a handsome young man is often deformed. There are hearts in which love does not keep. Young girl, the pine is not beautiful; it is not beautiful like the poplar, but it keeps its foliage in winter. Alas! What is the use of saying that? That which is not beautiful has no right to exist; beauty loves only beauty; April turns her back on January. Beauty is perfect, beauty can do all things, beauty is the only thing which does not exist by halves. The raven flies only by day, the owl flies only by night, the swan flies by day and by night.

It could be about the nature of real love. Claude thinks he loves Esmeralda but his affection is dark, destructive, and self-centered. Esmeralda thinks she loves the captain, but her warm feelings are based on his looks and an act of kindness he rendered toward her. She’s totally blind to his real nature. Quasimodo, though not a good character, shines in his love for the bells and the cathedral – some say he is the soul of the cathedral, and without him, the building “seems deserted, inanimate, dead…like a skull which still has holes for the eyes, but no longer sight.” He loved Claude, but it was a love based on “gratitude carried to its extreme limit.” But his love for Esmeralda causes him to extend himself and sacrifice for her benefit. When he rescues her from the gallows, for the first time the mob sees him as “really beautiful,” at least for a time. Personally I like this view the best.

It could be about fate. In Hugo’s introduction, he describes “rummaging about” Notre Dame coming across the word “ANNAKE” inscribed on one of the walls. Later someone in the book defines the inscription to mean “Fate.” That did not make much sense to me, as the troubles in the book came often from wrong choices rather than outside forces. But Wikipedia defines the word as “a personification of inevitability, compulsion and necessity.” That makes more sense considering who inscribed it and why. The Wikipedia article also quotes Hugo in a collection of his poems, Toute la Lyre:

Religion, society, nature; these are the three struggles of man. These three conflicts are, at the same time, his three needs: it is necessary for him to believe, hence the temple; it is necessary for him to create, hence the city; it is necessary for him to live, hence the plow and the ship. But these three solutions contain three conflicts. The mysterious difficulty of life springs from all three. Man has to deal with obstacles under the form of superstition, under the form of prejudice, and under the form of the elements. A triple “ananke” (necessity) weighs upon us, the “ananke” of dogmas, the “ananke” of laws, and the “ananke” of things. In Notre Dame de Paris the author has denounced the first; in Les Misérables he has pointed out the second; in this book (Toilers of the Sea) he indicates the third. With these three fatalities which envelop man is mingled the interior fatality, that supreme ananke, the human heart.

I’m still sifting through what that means.

I chose The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the “classic that intimidates you” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. It intimidated me due to its length, due to the fact that the subject matter didn’t naturally draw me, and due to Hugo’s penchant for rabbit trails. I have come close to reading it many times and then backed away, but Tarissa’s review encouraged me toward trying it.

There were fewer side discussions here than there were in Les Miserables, one of my top three favorite novels, and this book is not as long as Les Mis. But Les Mis ends triumphantly and beautifully even though it ends sadly. And even though darkness pervades Les Mis, light shines through. There’s little light in Hunchback. I was stunned to find much more sensuality in Hunchback, even though a major character in Les Mis is a prostitute. I thought Les Mis was fairly discreet, but Hunchback goes into much more detail in Frollo’s thoughts and in the captain’s nearly successful seduction scene. On the other hand, sometimes it sounds worse than it is: Esmeralda is described as “half naked” when she is taken to the gallows, but she is in a shift (something like a slip) with her legs uncovered: that hardly constitutes being “half naked” in our day, but it would have been indecent then.

So, I have mixed emotions about the book. I am glad to have read it, but it will never go down as a favorite. But I did enjoy the way Hugo developed the characters and their psychology. And, as most classics do, this book had me pondering different aspects of it for days after finishing it.

Forgive the lack of page numbers for the quotes: I listened to the audio version marvelously narrated by Bill Homewood. I got a paperback copy from the library to go over some parts, but it was a modernized translation. So I ended up using the Gutenberg version online to look up certain sections.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)


15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans for 2018 | Stray Thoughts

  2. I have never read this one myself, but after reading your review, I’ll be okay with not reading it. 🙂 I don’t expect all books to have a happy ending, but I do need to see light even in bad circumstances. Doesn’t sound like there’s much here. Thanks for your honest review, Barbara. Always helpful.

  3. Wonderful thoughts! I agree with a lot of what you say, and you’ve given me more to think about, too. It’s been a while since I read this one, but your comments bring me right back. I definitely preferred Les Miserables to Notre-Dame, but I did find the personification of the cathedral and its architecture quite interesting. There’s something about a setting-as-character that, when done well, always draws me in (I’m thinking of Cather, for example, or Sherwood Anderson.) I think a lot of what Hugo does with the cathedral is then mirrored in the characters and events of Notre-Dame, too, so that there’s a kind of duality of story happening. I don’t know if I’ll ever re-read it… maybe… your thoughts certainly have me considering it.

    • When I finished it, I didn’t think I would ever read it again. But so many different aspects have come to mind, I think I might some day. I’ll have to pay closer attention to that duality if I do reread it. To me the clearest moment when the building seemed a character was near the end when someone fell off of it. It seemed like the very architecture was working against him, with his not being able to get a foothold.

  4. I was debating whether or not I wanted to read this book after reading Les Misérables. I did not know if I wanted to read another book where those tangents would happen.

    But soon, I decided to read Hunchback of Notre. Like expected, Hunchback of Notre Dame is a tragic, but yet beautiful book. Of Victor Hugo’s two famous masterpieces, Les Misérables is my all-time favorite. My favorite characters in Hunchback of Notre Dame were Esmerlada and Quasimodo. It took me just one Christmas Break: I think it was 2017 when I read the book: I even reviewed the book. Overall, Hunchback was a beautiful book: I would give it a 7/10 rating

  5. You have brought great insight into ‘The Hunchback’ in your review. For me, it’s a book that you kind of have to squint at in order to see it’s beauty — but beauty indeed, it does have. Hugo really knows how to pour in the full spectrum of human emotion to colorize his stories and bring his novels to life.


  6. Thoughtful review. I actually got the audio from the library about a month ago but took it back as I didn’t think I’d get an opportunity to listen any time soon & I didn’t want a fine! Interesting to read that you’ve appreciated it more as you’ve thought back over it. That often happens to me if the book is a bit out of my comfort zone or I’m trying to work out what the author was trying to say. A book that comes to mind is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.’ I really didn’t appreciate the book as I was reading it but thinking about it sort of haunted me for a while afterwards.

  7. I have never read the book but remember seeing a black and white movie version when I was just a kid and I remember crying a lot. When my kids were younger we went to the Disney version but no one enjoyed it.

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