Book Review: “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” by Victor Hugo

I picked this as the next book to read off my shelf because I wanted a change and I figured old French novels are sometimes a good palette cleanser. I enjoyed The Phantom of the Opera and The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite books. What I forgot when I forged ahead was that my edition being a small pretty book meant it was longer than it appeared. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is a long and Victor Hugo was clearly paid by the word. So it took me a while to trudge through what a normal-sized copy would be over 900 pages.

The voice of the book, or the tone of the narrator was something I found very charming. It felt like it was a ye olde elegant noble person leading the reader through the story with the occasional breaks of:

“If the reader consent, we shall cross the threshold of the Great Hall together. Let me endeavour to reproduce the impression made on his senses as we struggle through the surging crowd in frock, smock, jerkin, doublet, and every conceivable dress of the period. “

These polite little interjections to the reader were quite fun. It truly felt like Victor Hugo is doing his utmost to lead readers on a tour of old Paris and show them the things he loved the most, especially the architecture.

The book is historical-esq fiction that feels doubly historical fiction now. It was published in 1831 but was set in the 15th century aka the 1400’s. It was originally entitled Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) which may explain why while I was in Paris many tours I went on cited the book’s main character as the building of Notre-Dame itself. Which is one of the reasons I’ve been itching to read it. I just didn’t realize I’d signed myself up for Ulysses again.

“Paris, viewed from the towers of Notre Dame in the cool dawn of a summer morning, is a delectable and a magnificent sight; and the Paris of that period must have been eminently so.”

By that, I mean that Ulysses is on a base level a walking tour of Dublin. And Victor Hugo in parts takes the reader on long drawn out tours of 15th century Paris. And both are long.

But there was a lot of humor in the books which I enjoyed. Like the occasional sass:

“This proves, moreover, that a man may be of a fine genius, and yet understand nothing of an art which he has not studied. “

a jab at Voltaire for saying there were only 4 nice buildings in Paris of any worth.

The opening takes that sass and runs with it. The city of Paris in 1482 is all a buzz for the Festival of Fools. There’s a couple of events including a “mystery” and tons of people choose this over all the other events happening. And we get an idea of the people who’ve shown up because of the university students who’ve climbed up high in the building and begin to heckle everyone from the windows.

I really loved the idea of an introduction of characters via a chorus of hecklers. I did, however, feel bad for the poet, Pierre Gringoire, who was so excited for his mystery which was a play to be shown. The guests were also so excited they threatened to start murdering the actors if the show didn’t start immediately. But the audience had the attention span of a goldfish. (Which is interesting since it seems that’s just another thing people always complain about. Just the “reason” changes.) He was constantly turning to people practically begging them to pay attention to what he’d poured his soul into. This was because people in the crowd are distracted by the entrance of “important” figures entering the premise and being announced. Then someone suggested that instead, it’d be more fun to create a Pope of Fools. They went to find the ugliest person they could to fill this role. This is when we start to meet our familiar characters. (for those of us who’ve seen the Disney-fied version)

We meet Quasimodo and hear in the background an introduction of Esmerelda. But since we’re following a very frustrated Gringoire it takes us a moment to get to each. Quasimodo is instantly crowned the Pope of Fools and despite the general populace’s hatred for him he loves the treatment of being the Pope of Fools.

“One would have said he was a giant that had been broken and awkwardly mended.”

The 20 year old bell-ringer of Notre-Dame is Deaf. His social circle has greatly decreased because of it so he only speaks to his adoptive father through sign language, the bells, and the statues of Notre-Dame. But the people tend to think that Quasimodo is a demon who is just waiting to take the archdeacon away to hell.

Esmerelda is a girl of 16 who dances in the streets and who is so lovely she always draws a crowd. She’s also taught her goat Djali tricks like how to tell time, the date, and to impersonate people. Which makes some accuse her of witchcraft, while her Roma background also draws hate from the local recluse whenever she’s near. Despite hate for her alleged witchcraft and background she still is well loved.

Out of all the differences between the Disney movie and the book was that I didn’t expect to not out right hate with every fiber of my being Claude Frollo. I ended up hating a character Disney redeemed more. Much to my surprise. So let’s talk about the archdeacon Claude Frollo. Disney cut out all the bits of the story that made him…human.

In the book, he’s a huge nerd. Spent all his childhood reading until he mastered almost everything he could read and became a member of the church eventually becoming the archdeacon. Then a plague hit his home town and when he went to see if his family survived he learned his parents had died but his baby brother was still there all alone. At 19 he takes in his little baby brother, Jehan, becoming a pseudo-parent and doted on the baby with all the love and energy he could. This sadly ended up making his little brother absolutely spoiled. (He’s one of those earlier hecklers) He only visits to ask his brother for money so he can go get drunk with his buddies and flirt. And when his brother asks if he’s been studying since he’s a 16-year-old university student he says he has no supplies to study with.

But Claude Frollo’s love for his brother also gave him a soft spot for small children and led him to adopt and name a toddler that showed up in a place of foundlings that everyone claimed was a demon and wanted to murder. This, of course, was 4 year old Quasimodo. He adopted Quasimodo the same year he took in his baby brother.

He’s also older but not nearly as old as the movie made him out to be. He’s thirty-five and bald but that seems to be more or less due to stress. He’s spent his whole life trying to raise the boys to be scholars and worldly men and has failed. His little brother by blood has no interest and spends more money then he can drink and is essentially a rebellious teenager and Quasimodo, for the time period I suppose, becomes difficult for Frollo to teach due to his hearing loss caused by ringing the bells and the fact that society automatically thinks him evil because of how he looks. This leads Frollo to turn away from traditional things and start to research black magic and alchemy. (And thus I assume his haunted scary looks and balding. Probably from ripping out his hair over his unruly children that he raised more or less on his own.)

Quasimodo and Esmeralda are linked within the book due to their childhood. Esmeralda was the baby of a woman who had spent most of her life as a prostitute and her baby girl became the only bright thing in her life. Until one day the baby was taken away and Quasimodo, a 4-year-old unnamed toddler, was left in the baby’s place like a changing. Horrified she flipped out and the villagers took Quasimodo away to Paris to leave in the place of foundlings and the poor women spent her life looking for and crying over her lost child, eventually ending up in a cell in Paris to just sit, cry, and pray to die. 

Now our poet from the beginning finds his story constantly interrupted and gives up as the audience has left. So after seeing Esmerelda out dancing with her highly trained highly intelligent goat, he decides to follow her. He thinks a nice girl like that might know where he can eat or sleep or at least may pity him enough to help. On her walk however, she gets attacked by two men who try and carry her off. One of them is Quasimodo, and the poet calls for help, and the captain of the King’s archers, Phoebus de Châteaupers comes in a hurry on his horse. He saves Esmeralda and captures Quasimodo but not his accomplice.

“Here Phoebus, whose imagination was only tolerably active, began to be rather at a loss how to find a means of extricating himself for his prowess.”

Phoebus in the book is a villain which is a huge change and shocker for those who’ve seen only the Disney version. He got arguably the biggest change. Phoebus is essentially a cliche frat bro style character, a womanizer. He’s a grown man preying on girls much younger than him. He knows every word and phrase to make any woman or girl who likes him because of his fancy clothes and pretty face turn to putty in his hands so he can take advantage of them. He’s also of noble blood and already engaged to his cousin Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier. But he’s bored with his fiancé and doing what is expected of him so he’s constantly is running off with other women telling them he loves them and only them. Or out drinking with teenagers like Jehan. He’s had so much practice lying to women that it sounds real. This would be one thing if it was just him being a flirt but he also uses it to manipulate women into sleeping with him. Like Esmeralda. Who, by the way, as a reminder is only 16. The same age as Jehan. But she’s in love with him because he saved her and he seems nice but really he just wants to sleep with her even though she’s superstitious and believes that if she loses her virginity she’ll never find her parents. He manages to emotionally blackmail her essentially saying she must not love him if she doesn’t want to sleep with him and she’s so blinded by her feelings that she gives in. UNTIL!

Frollo jumps out of a closet and stabs him.

Like, I know Frollo is a creep but I honestly hate Phoebus so much more than I hate Frollo, and for him to suddenly appear and stab someone emotionally manipulating a girl into doing something she doesn’t really want to do gave me a little hope for the confused archdeacon who doesn’t understand his emotions.

He did however completely ruin it by later saying she had to choose between death and him and trying to force himself on her….but she also stupidly still always said she is in love with Phoebus to the point it sent her to the gallows. Phoebus survived his stabbing and instead of clearing Esmeralda’s name and being like nah she didn’t stab me so don’t kill her. Instead, he just is like yikes, let me just go back inside and try to take a look down my fiancé’s shirt instead of watching a girl die for me.

Poor Esmeralda is offered to be saved multiple times. Frollo gives her long speeches about his love for her and explains his inner turmoil as someone whose supposed to never be in a relationship dealing with falling in love for the first time in his life. I mean he’s still too old for her. She’s the same age as his baby brother. But for a classic novel, it’s arguable. He throws himself at her feet, stabs himself when she’s hurt, and is just an overly dramatic mess. He doesn’t know what to do with his romantic feelings or lust or the fact that he has fears that she’s a demonic creature meant to pull him from his job in the church but he doesn’t care anymore and just wants her to smile at him.

“Oh! to love a woman – to be a priest – to be hated – to love her with all the fury of your soul – to feel that you would give for the least of her smiles your blood, your vitals, your reputation, your salvation, immortality and eternity, this life and the other—”

At one of his offerings to save her, since she gets put in a position of death multiple times, he just asks her if she will at least say she doesn’t hate him and he’ll save her and to please not utter Pheobus’s name. She says she will always love Pheobus and only him and calls Frollo an assassin. I just can’t wrap my head around it other than to call it the stubbornness of being a teenager.

Now for the biggest difference between stories and some huge spoilers.

People tend to think the little mermaid as a fool in love. But Esmeralda is a bigger fool. She only fights one person off with a sword and that’s Frollo. I feel utterly let down on a character I thought was super cool as a kid because of Disney. When she’s actually is just a love sick fool who loves an awful human who doesn’t even love her back. I wanted her to save herself and to fight for what she believed in rather than what I got. Esmeralda doesn’t do much other than dance and sing and teach her cute little goat how to tell time and do tricks. She does save people and show compassion but in a 900 page book it doesn’t happen often and most of the time she’s in danger. She has one goal pre-Phoebus which is to find her parents but she throws it away for a chance to be with Phoebus. Who she just met. They interact when he saves her for a brief moment. Then when he sees her dancing and his fiancé wants a closer look at her so he invites her into the house. And then when he goes on a “date” with her to try to a hotel so he can add her to his conquest list. That’s it. They barely talk throughout the whole story, except when he tries to pressure her into having sex with him. Then Quasimodo rescues her but she never gets over the way he looks and he can tell so he usually hides from her.

Now other than characters that were cut out of the Disney version: the poet, the mother, the little spoiled brother. There was also a large amount of death that was cut out as well. Quasimodo murders the vagabonds (Esmerelda and the poets adoptive family) who try to storm Notre-Dame to rescue their beloved Esmeralda but due to not understanding he fears they’ve come to take her away to hang her. Many people in Paris think this is why they stormed the place including the king. So he sends his people to clean up the problem (kill more of the vagabonds) and drag out Esmeralda and hang her. In this skirmish between the vagabonds and Quasimodo, Quasimodo’s adoptive brother Jehan who had joined with the vagabonds in teenage rebellion against his brother scales the walls of Notre-Dame, and Quasimodo strips him and throws him over the edge where he has a more detailed murdered than any other character which seems to be a diss on his wasted education and life. Frollo see’s Jehan’s body and it’s a huge blow.

Esmeralda escapes of her own volition and gets picked up by the poet who is her fake husband who has come to rescue…her goat. She clings to him and he looks between her and the goat cuddling against him and he picks the goat. Leaving Esmeralda with his companion, Frollo who gives her one final chance which she turns down. So he leaves her with the woman crying over her lost daughter. She hates Esmeralda thinking since Esmeralda is Roma and she blames the Roma for her missing daughter. They realize they’re who’ve they’ve been looking for so her mother takes her into her cell and tries to hide her. She spends their entire reunion carrying her daughter around and crying and telling her how much she’s missed her and loves her. I really really hoped that somehow this would be Esmeralda’s happy ending. She gets returned to her family and that’s it. She saved by family. They escape the town and go home. Because everything at this point is made up of misunderstandings and they just pile up to a bleak ending. Oh how I wanted that ending.

The mother manages to send the soldiers off and believe that she’s alone. But then Phoebus walks by and Esmeralda cries out for him, he doesn’t hear her and keeps going but the other guards do and pull both mother and daughter out. Her mother fights like a bear to try and save her daughter but they push her back, she hits the cobblestone and dies. This upset me so much I slammed my book shut and I had to sit for a moment.

Quasimodo tries to find Esmeralda after all the carnage he’s inflicted and spots Frollo back at Notre-Dame looking out into the distance and laughing a sort of hysterical laugh, realizes he’s laughing over someone being hung, realizes it’s Esmeralda and Quasimodo pushes Frollo off the edge of Notre-Dame. Frollo saves himself, but eventually loses his grip and falls the rest of the way to his death. No one saves Esmeralda and she’s hung and buried in a tomb. Quasimodo cries over his lost ones and his “marriage” chapter is that in Esmeralda’s tomb there’s another skeleton holding onto her like lovers with a curved back.

So the only people who live are: Pheobus who gets married (his own nightmare but I think he deserves worse possibly the same fate as Jehan would’ve made me happy), the poet, and the goat. Like the ending is very very bleak and much sadder than I expected. Which I think is the point. Victor Hugo wrote this book with a goal in mind to save the great gothic Notre-Dame that he thought people didn’t love anymore because gothic architecture was out of style. So he wrote this long novel to try and save it. And it worked. Ask any tour guide near Notre-Dame and they’ll mention it. Because of this book Notre-Dame got the funding it needed for renovations.

It’s really interesting how Victor Hugo managed to take what at first I took as a comedic piece that was a conversation about Paris and the people in it with some sass and pride for his city and to lead the reader into a very dark somewhat desolate end where the only comfort remained in the melancholy solace of Notre-Dame. While I’m not happy with the ending and even less happy with Disney taking an abusive character and deciding to make him the love interest in their adaptation I do think the book is good, in a very haunting way that creeps up on you. He also supposits a very interesting theory that the printing press would destroy the beaut and art of architecture. Which is such an interesting concern, especially for a writer.

Depending on which translation you get please note that some of the language might be jarring due to different meanings from the time which have become slurs. 

Have you read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame? What did you think? Do you have a favorite French classic?

If you want to give it a try you can find a copy on Bookshop which will allow you to support local bookstores. You can find a copy of it in my Bookshop review list here

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


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