Visions of Paradise

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I admit up front that my background in the classics is pathetically weak. That is why I am reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time. Nor will I admit here how many other classics are still sitting on my Recommended Books list (not to mention those which I still have no desire to read at all).

The first chapter of Hunchback sets the premise, showing us the nature of 15th century Paris and its denizens during a feast day when the public is invited to watch the debut performance of a new play. The production proves to be a dismal failure, not due to any flaw in the play itself, but due to a series of events out of the control of the playwright: the late arrival of the cardinal and the distinguished group of Flemish ambassadors who are his guests, who first anger the audience due to their lateness, then disrupt the play itself by their arrival. This ultimately causes total chaos in the theater, eventually leading to a mock election of a fool’s pope while the playwright struggles futilely to continue the performance of the play.

This is an incredible scene which demonstrates all of Hugo’s strengths as a writer and the inspired choice of his setting for the novel. The scene also introduces all the main characters:

• Gringoire, the suffering playwright;
• Quasimodo, the deaf, hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral who is chosen as fool’s pope;
• Claude Frollo, intellectual and tortured priest who rescued Quasimodo as a child and serves as his beloved surrogate parent;
• Captain Phoebus, who rescues the girl Esmeralda from the clutches of Quasimodo, setting off most of the book’s events that follow;
• Esmeralda, the innocent and lovely gypsy girl whose effect on each of the above characters causes most of the emotional foundation of the book.

Basically, Hunchback is a morality play, which is obvious in the first scene since Gringoire’s badly-received play is itself a morality play. All the characters are suffering in some manner, and their reactions to Esmeralda only increase their emotional pain.

Hugo is an outstanding writer whose ability to create a totally convincing 15th century Paris was worth the entire book. He is also a satirist, showing us in somewhat exaggerated form (or at least we can hope it was) the darker side of medieval life, both involving powerful people such as King Louis XI himself and city judges, and ordinary people as far down the economic scale as the homeless gypsies.

Hugo has the knack of writing powerful individual scenes. The book’s opening scene was an example. So was the scene in which the gypsy girl was sentenced to death but was rescued by Quasimodo who took her to the legal sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Paris. A third scene was when the gypsies attempted to break into the cathedral to rescue the girl, but Quasimodo thought they intended killing her, so he fights them off single-handedly.

The book contains many detailed historical asides which generally deepen the book’s background, although occasionally they prove to be too long and too rambling, Hugo’s only glaring weakness as a novelist.

The novel’s ending is distressful, but inevitable considering all that led up to it. Hunchback of Notre-Dame was a powerful, successful book overall, and I recommend it highly to anybody who, like me, has not read it yet.


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