Talk about being seduced by a classic. I was really not enjoying this book at first, but slowly it grew on me. Notre-Dame de Paris
, or "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" only becomes exciting in the last third of the book or so, but the first few hundred pages are a long, slow build-up that demands your patience and attention, and gradually you will realize what a masterful writer Victor Hugo was. The main character is not Quasimodo, nor is it Esmeralda, the beautiful gypsy dancer: it is the cathedral of Notre-Dame, which at the time Hugo wrote this novel was considered something of a medieval eyesore by the citizens of Paris. Hugo's book is part grand historical epic in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, whom he admired, and part plea to his contemporaries to preserve the great architectural masterpieces of Paris.
But you don't need that background to be sucked into the story. We are given a relatively modest cast of characters (there are probably a few dozen named characters, but less than a dozen have really important roles) and a few main plot threads which Hugo skillfully couples together. At the heart of the story is a priest, Dom Claude Frollo, whose passion is ignited when he first sees Esmeralda, a gypsy dancer, and he becomes so obsessed with her that he sends his minion, Quasimodo, a deaf and deformed hunchback whom he took in as a foundling, to abduct her. Quasimodo is foiled by Captain Phoebus of the King's Guard, who thus becomes a shining knight in Esmeralda's eyes. She is so taken with the handsome, dashing captain that even though he betrays and neglects her again and again throughout the novel, she remains hopelessly smitten with him to the end.
Esmeralda is by turns kind and sweet and shallow and foolish; unlike some of the film versions, she's actually a young maiden of sixteen in the book. Quasimodo is hated and feared by the citizenry, which has turned him into a bitter misanthrope himself, but Esmeralda's kindness seduces him, too. However, this is no Beauty and the Beast
. The entire novel is a story of misplaced and mixed loyalties, betrayals, ironies, and fatal misunderstandings. Besides commenting on history and architecture, Hugo also makes some sharp points about human cruelty and injustice, barbaric punishments, and the death penalty. He uses a surprising amount of humor, especially in the character of Pierre Gringoire, the poet-turned-Truand and Esmeralda's erstwhile husband of the broken crock. Captain Phoebus is also something of a comic figure, though I disliked him so much I never found him very funny, but the most comical figure of all is Louis XI, a king for whom Hugo paints a most unflattering portrait, even though he only appears personally in one chapter to set in motion the fatal events of the climax.
I can't do this book justice in such a short review, but suffice it to say that I loved
it, and that it is well worth wading through Hugo's occasional long expository passages (entire chapters about medieval architecture and long dialogs about taxes and speeches that go on for pages!) and seemingly unconnected subplots that go off on tangents. It all fits together in the end and is a great reward for the patient reader, who will be swept away by this powerful, passionate, sometimes grotesque and tragic novel. This was one of my biggest surprises of the year in my recent resolution to read more classics: I think The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
has become one of my favorites. I didn't expect to love it like I love some British literature, but Victor Hugo is now rivaling Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Anthony Trollope for my literary affections.
A long, slow read but easily a 5-star one. Do not settle for a movie version - they all suck compared to the book.