abcdevious, book review, cathedral, class, classic, claude frollo, esmeralda, gender, gringoire, jehan, librareve, love, lust, novel, paris, phoebus, quasimodo, quotes, romance, the hunchback, the hunchback of notre-dame, victor hugo
Why? Trying to form an answer to that results in the slow, sentimental surrender of a headshake that translates as: it cannot be explained. Where does one start on such an opus, from which precipice, from what garret? At its core is the observation of a most dysfunctional love square. This core is then wrapped and ribboned in prose unparalleled- with such purpose (and wholly purposeful prose is precious).
An historical novel by nature, it has been nurtured into a tradition, a classic, because of the universalisms Hugo handles so adroitly, as with Les Misérables: love, lust, hate; gender, class, change. Hugo has a sympathy similar to Shakespeare’s in his treatment: all of society is at the mercy of his quill. Mothers, brothers, lovers, the rich, the poor, the alone- all. Interestingly, there is no actual father present in the cast, which is perhaps a nod to the calamity of authority in France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Published in 1831, the novel at one point discusses- through character Archdeacon Claude Frollo- the change in society brought by the printing press (‘the printing press will destroy the Church’; ‘the book will kill the edifice’; ‘one art would dethrone another art’; ‘printing will destroy architecture’). The discourse essentially states that such a liberal proliferation of ideas will inevitably make a ruin of those quite literally set in stone.
Hugo was part of a radical new era that sought to defeat doctrine and convention and liberate the abstract and the individual- The Democratic Idea. With this motive, he erected a landmark, not of bricks- of words. He created a Cathedral. The novel is a spectacle not of any earthly skyline but of the imagination.
The story is run by the characters, a key arc that of Quasimodo, the eponymous hunchback, turning from abductor to saviour. Some may be reminded of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera in the set-up of the story. There is similarity in that both protagonists love women but are inhibited by their ugliness (the first on this vine of literature is, of course, Beauty and the Beast). The difference is that whilst Erik evolves into something truly evil, Quasimodo is truly endearing.
Quasimodo is not as prominent a figure as the title suggests, though. But, his role is integral to the message of the story as a whole. He is a symbol of the deformity present in us all; the beautiful beast, crudely perceived as inhumane for the supposed vice of appearance, who is yet the most humane in his virtues, his valour.
His foil is Phoebus who represents the illusion of beauty, introduced as ‘handsome’ and actually an almighty cad.
Then there is Frollo- foreboding letch; suffering, loving brother to capital brat, Jehan; surrogate father to Quasimodo; the intellectual, one who abstains from earthly beauty until it inevitably ensnares him. He carries the majority of the plot.
Third in command of the plot (after Hugo and Frollo) is goat-loving writer, Gringoire, who is… ineffable- ‘“I am a Parisian by my birthplace, and a Parrhisian by my speech, for parrhisia in Greek means freedom of speech”.’
In the centre of this male maelstrom dances Esmeralda: ‘a salamander – a nymph – a goddess – a bacchante of Mount Maenalus!’ She is the purity of beauty, naïve and virtuous. Despite the misogynistic handling of her- by characters and writer alike- Hugo does give her depth. She shows kindness in the story, yet also has exceedingly shallow moments that are to Hugo’s credit in terms of character development.
Quasimodo is the realisation of all such contrasts as both child and representative of the hybrid cathedral- ‘his egg, his nest, his house, his country, his universe’, which is itself a victim of ‘time’ and ‘revolution’, ‘residue of successive evaporations of human society’; ‘Each face, each stone […] is […] a page of the history of the country’.
Throughout, this is Hugo’s habit and mission: to describe transformation, Light vs. Dark- old and young, beautiful and ugly, licit and illicit- without deifying or demonising either. Thus, The Whole may be understood. In pairing every black and white Hugo shows that the spectrum is never so narrow. Perfection be damned.
There is such colour. The city’s silhouette, seen from Notre-Dame’s balustrades, is ‘more jagged than a shark’s jaw against the copper-coloured sky of the setting sun.’ ‘The sun, which Dubartes, that classic ancestor of periphrasis, had not yet styled “the grand-duke of candles,” shone forth brightly and cheerily’. You are escorted through every extreme- the pit is the deepest pit, in a prison cell, and the highest pitch is swinging with Quasimodo and his beloved bells.
The true main character is Quasimodo’s ‘maternal edifice’ herself: Notre-Dame. ‘The cathedral was not only his society; it was his universe. It was all of nature to him. He dreamed of no other garden but the stained-glass window ever in flower; of no other shade but that cast by the stone foliage full of birds that spread itself from the leafy capitals […] no other mountains but the colossal towers […] no ocean but Paris, which roared against their base.’
She is a majestic monument of a metaphor for respecting the timelessly wondrous.
‘The immense church seemed, with her two towers, her flanks of stone and her monstrous haunches darkly silhouetted against a starry sky, an enormous, two-headed sphynx seated in the midst of the city’.
‘On the face of this old queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle you always find a scar. Tempus edox, homo edacior(*), which I would translate: Time is blind, but man is stupid.’
The novel testifies to Hugo’s genius, an eloquent scholar and affectionate artist with a mordant humour. It’s quite a Dickensian humour at that (look to the deaf judge, for one example) and there is a sprawling of Dickensian twists and turns too. Combined, this makes for a vivifying voice that guides the reader through a romance chiefly between the author and Paris.
Admittedly, Hugo does have a habit of sermonising at length on every aspect, his research being immense and his enthusiasm ever evident. I would urge any reader to endure- it makes for a marvellous experience at the close as the climax erupts and we are thrown through Paris as a monster rate. Such elaboration animates the story, though may feel a tad like a lecture in parts. Submit. He is wise-‘Every civilisation begins as a theocracy and ends as a democracy’; he is poetic- ‘For love is like a tree; it grows of itself; it send its roots deep into our being, and often continues to grow green over a heart in ruins’. You’ll be enlightened (apropos of the time it was written in).
You laugh and cry with the characters for they are not created purely for the purposes of narrative, are not puppets for plot. The kernel of the novel’s power is Hugo’s treatment of nature as a multifaceted phenomenon. Language and character conflate to show this.
No match can burn this book, it is built in the immortal architecture of literature and will survive through memory and thrive through record (perhaps even this modest review will do).
As I’ve reached the end of this exultation, here’s a taster from near the ending of the novel, which shows Hugo as a sterling master of imagery:
‘[…] the hideous mob, jumping about like a mass of frogs, half seen in the darkness, the croaking of this hoarse crowd, the few red torches running around and criss-crossing each other in the darkness like so many meteors that streak over the misty surface of a marsh-all this scene seemed to her like a mysterious battle being waged between the phantoms of a witches’ sabbath and the stone monsters of Notre-Dame.’
*Translation: Time gnaws, man gnaws more.