Archive for May, 2012

Hunchback of Notre Dame

13 May 2012

The Hunchback of Notre-DameThe Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It may be hard to read this great novel through all the noise created by subsequent adaptions, send-ups and other references. It is also strange, for the modern reader, to encounter vast wads of historical description, anecdote and conjecture, sometimes occupying a whole massive chapter, as with Moby Dick. But the essential story is clear enough. The 16 year old Esmeralda has been raised by gypsies and tours with them as a dancer. She is a model of youth, beauty, grace, compassion vitality and innocence, as befits a nineteenth century heroine. Like her, the hunchback Quasimodo has lost his parents. He was abandoned as a baby and left to the care of the Church, to begin his notorious career as bell-ringer in the famous Church. The book tells their interwoven stories.

At another level the story is a study of males and their common faults. Esmerelda stirs interest whereever she goes, but doesn’t usually bring out the best in men. Archdeacon Claude Frollo is a cold intellectual, the product of a joyless youth: unattractive in appearance, dried-up inside, obsessed with his sterile struggle with alchemy until Esmelda comes along. Once released his sexual passion flare up but stay intellectualised and internalised, coming out only as cold machinations and wild speeches not likely to appeal to her. He exemplifies the Church’s disconnect between mind and body and between the male and female. Phoebus is the dashing soldier who rescues Esmelda at one stage, as a more or less routine duty to keep the peace, but in doing so wins her heart. Under his gentlemanly polish he is a boor and brute. Gregoire the writer is amiable but weak. Jehan, the only major male character not linked romantically to Esmelda, has abundant vitality wasted on a dissolute lifestyle.

Her mother, tortured by the kidnapping of her daughter as a tot, has had herself walled herself into a small room with barred windows opening to the public, a concept developed elsewhere in the feminist novel Women in the Wall. Victor Hugo remarks in passing that this sort of self-mortifying behaviour excited only moderate compassion from the medieval populace, due to their limited sense of personality and the world that each of us has within us.
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