The Hunchback of Notre Dame

  • Author: Victor Hugo

  • Published: 1831

When a person decides to crack open the spine on a classic work of fiction, there is the ever present fear that the experience won’t live up to the hype. Will it feel like homework? Will it take forever to read? What if the book hasn’t “aged well”? This last question is always funny to me, since it’s we who age, while the book forever remains the same. The real question is, has our culture changed too much to enjoy what was once universally praised? It if has, then I think the problem lies with us, and not the words on the page. Nevertheless, reading a classic outside of the support of a book group or classroom can be a daunting task, which is why I’m pleased to report that Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, remains an enduring and indelible classic, even for the lonely reader tackling it on their own.

That’s not to say there aren’t sequences that don’t challenge one's attention span. First published in 1831, this thoroughly French and Gothic novel is set in the middle ages, when French society was ruled by the excesses of the aristocracy and church. Hugo wrote the tale with a specific purpose in mind - he used the story as a vehicle to produce awareness about France’s rapidly disappearing Gothic architecture. Much like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the story serves the social cause of its author, and Hugo meant to rally his contemporaries to save France’s magisterial Gothic buildings, which at the time were being overrun by modern Paris’s demand for rapid expansion and cheaper housing. (One shudders to think what Hugo would think of Paris in 2016). As a result, there are two endlessly descriptive sections of the book, which wax poetic about the architecture of the Church of Notre Dame at Paris, and the history concerning the many surrounding buildings and districts. The protracted passages far exceed the needs of the story, and it’s only through sheer determination that the reader will be able to trudge through them. But the struggle is worth the effort, for when you come out the other side, you’re suddenly swept up into the gruesome and enchanting Paris of 1482.

As a deformed and disfigured orphan, we first encounter the hunch-backed Quasimodo screaming in a cage outside of the Church of Notre Dame, where “foundlings” are displayed in public in the hopes that they’ll be adopted by sympathetic villagers. While most turn away in disgust, the learned but icy Archdeacon Claude Frollo takes pity on the orphan, and adopts and raises Quasimodo inside the church walls of Notre Dame. It is here where Quasimodo spends the entirety of his secluded life - climbing the cavernous walls and staircases, swinging from the gargoyles, and ringing his beloved bells, which eventually cause him to go deaf. (the guy can’t catch a break). The passages of Quasimodo alone with his bells and cathedral are captivating, forlorn, and a joy to read. The story takes off when the beautiful and beguiling gypsy Esmeralda, who dances and performs tricks with her pet goat Djali in the squares and streets of Paris, is rescued after a thwarted kidnapping attempt by Quasimodo and Archdeacon Frollo. Quasimodo, naively acting out the wishes of his master, is arrested and whipped in the public square for his transgression, while Esmeralda falls hard for the handsome but vain Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers, the man who rescued her from the ugly monster’s grasp. From there events kick into overdrive, all fueled by the tortured and obsessive lust the Archdeacon Frollo carries for the innocent and compassionate Esmeralda. 

The riveting plot’s many pleasures are too good to reveal here. All I’ll say is once the The Hunchback of Notre Dame unshoulders it’s burden of preserving France’s construction, it charges forward with a crackling intensity, and the reader will no doubt cheer for, and grieve with, the persecuted but noble Quasimodo, a character for the ages. The Hunchback of Notre Dame brims with high-stakes drama, unforgettable action sequences, biting wit, heartbreak, suspense and a shadowy beauty all its own. In the books final chapters, when a frenzied mob of bandits storms the cathedral walls, and sets into motion one of the most thrilling action sequences ever set down in ink, most readers will forget they’re undertaking a classic. They simply won't stop reading until the final, haunting page is turned.