Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thoughts on the Classics: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

In the vaulted Gothic towers of Notre-Dame lives Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer. Mocked and shunned for his appearance, he is pitied only by Esmerelda, a beautiful gypsy dancer to whom he becomes completely devoted. Esmerelda, however, has also attracted the attention of the sinister archdeacon Claude Frollo, and when she rejects his lecherous approaches, Frollo hatches a plot to destroy her that only Quasimodo can prevent. Victor Hugo's sensational, evocative novel brings life to the medieval Paris he loved, and mourns its passing in one of the greatest historical romances of the nineteenth century.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hugo, Victor (1831). [Genre: Gothic Romance]

I love Victor Hugo, I really do. The beautiful writing combined with the social commentary combined with the random tangents on subjects of interest to the author just wind up with something magical. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was no exception to this rule. It sweeps the entire social make-up of Paris, from the King to the underworld, and draws them all together in the shadow of Notre Dame in a story of tragedy, loyalty and romance. 

I loved the vivid characterisation throughout the novel. The naivety and gentle compassion of Esmeralda. The pompous attitude and heartlessness of Captain Phoebus, the man she believes herself to love. The conflicted villainy of Claude Frollo. The sweet charm of Gringoire. The complexity of Quasimodo. All of these characters are fully fleshed, with many important side characters also playing a part (you know it's good characterisation when you find yourself falling in love with a goat). Their fates tug on your heartstrings and it is here you can see the inspiration for the Disney movie. 

That being said, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a Disney movie. It is at its core, a Gothic romance, and has the truly tragic ending typical of the genre. No one comes out of this story unscathed and I have to admit I wasn't expecting the gruesome, graphic and heart wrenching nature of parts of the storyline. It will make you laugh, but their were moments when I truly did cry for these characters, like early into the novel when Esmeralda is bought to the executioner still crying for Captain Phoebus, while he looks on indifferently, happy to see her die so long as his reputation is upheld. 

Hugo's customary tangents are still in place. We delve into the significance of Gothic architecture, the history of Paris and various other sidetracks. While in Les Mis I initially found them irritating, this time I was expecting them and even looked forward to them with fondness. I'm now not sure whether I would enjoy Hugo as much without them. He also weaves social commentary more thoroughly into the storyline of Notre Dame than Les Mis. I thoroughly enjoyed the subtle contrast between the lowest of the low and the highest of the high, and the way Hugo continually questions whether those places are right and how our expectations can twist reality - such as when Quasimodo fights off the street mob who have come to save Esmeralda, believing them to be villains, but happily shows the King's Men (who have actually come to execute her) where she should be as he believes they are 'good'. 

Overall, Victor Hugo continues to build up his place in my heart. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is both beautiful and heartbreaking, with stunning writing that truly transports. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another title off my Classics Club list. I'm also counting it in the Historical Classic category of the Back to the Classics Challenge (published in 1831, set in 1482).

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