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The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo – Book Review

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is a gothic novel by Victor Hugo. Its original French title is Notre-Dame de Pari which means Our Lady of Paris. Its French version was published in 1831 and the English version appeared in 1833.

As the title might suggest, the Notre Dame cathedral features prominently in the book. It is the refuge of the heroine, home and office of the villain. And for the hero, it is his whole world. 

As the author says :

Notre–Dame had been to him successively, as he grew up and developed, the egg, the nest, the house, the country, the universe… Egypt would have taken him for the god of this temple; the Middle Ages believed him to be its demon: he was, in fact, its (Notre Dame’s) soul.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame review
Image form Amazon

Architecture in the Hunchback of Notre Dame:

As per the Wikipedia, Victor Hugo wrote this book to make people more aware of the value of the Gothic architecture, which was getting destroyed by renovations and developments. No wonder therefore that the book has large passages describing the architecture and their destruction/defacement by time, people, and zeal of renovation.

For example,

One can distinguish on its ruins three sorts of lesions, all three of which cut into it at different depths; first, time, which has insensibly notched its surface here and there, and gnawed it everywhere; next, political and religious revolution, which, blind and wrathful by nature, have flung themselves tumultuously upon it, torn its rich garment of carving and sculpture, burst its rose windows, broken its necklace of arabesques and tiny figures, torn out its statues, sometimes because of their mitres, sometimes because of their crowns; lastly, fashions, even more grotesque and foolish, which, since the anarchical and splendid deviations of the Renaissance, have followed each other in the necessary decadence of architecture. Fashions have wrought more harm than revolutions. They have cut to the quick; they have attacked the very bone and framework of art; they have cut, slashed, disorganized, killed the edifice, in form as in the symbol, in its consistency as well as in its beauty. And then they have made it over; a presumption of which neither time nor revolutions at least have been guilty. They have audaciously adjusted, in the name of “good taste,”

These long passages go well with Hugo’s purpose for writing the book. But he added to this book a beautiful and tragic love story. And these long descriptive passages interfere with that story. They cannot appeal to readers who have never seen the edifices described in the book, nor have any interest in them. Even the students of architecture might find these passages too long and boring.

The first chapter:

Long passages describing architecture aren’t the only hurdle interfering with the story. The first chapter itself poses a major hurdle. It presents to the reader a large crowd. Many persons in this crowd are highlighted. Some of them would play a major part in the story, some a minor part, others are just the crowd. The chapter makes you feel as if you are actually caught in a crowd and have no idea how to find your way out of it. It is boring, baffling, overwhelming, and frustrating. And this first chapter is the reason I stopped reading this book on my first two attempts in the previous years. Even now, it took a lot of determination to cross this chapter. But I’m glad I did. Because the book, on the whole, is magnificent.

Intense Pathos

There’s a lot of misery in the book. All major characters feel wretched. All are doomed to a tragic end. There are several very poignant scenes in the book. And all of them are beautiful. Be it the scene of Quasimodo getting punished on the gibbet or la Esmeralda’s imprisonment. Be it her mother’s heart-rending pain upon losing her, finding her, and losing her again. Or even Claude Frollo’s urging of love. Victor Hugo’s mastery of words raises them above mere tragedy. It is intense, heart-touching, dark, and full of passion.

Sample these:

La Esmeralda and Claude Frollo:

“Oh! wretch, who are you? What have I done to you? Do you then, hate me so? Alas! what have you against me?” “I love thee!” cried the priest. Her tears suddenly ceased, she gazed at him with the look of an idiot. He had fallen on his knees and was devouring her with eyes of flame. “Dost thou understand? I love thee!” he cried again. “What love!” said the unhappy girl with a shudder. He resumed — “The love of a damned soul.”

La Esmeralda in prison:

There she lay, lost in the shadows, buried, hidden, immured. Anyone who could have beheld her in this state, after having seen her laugh and dance in the sun, would have shuddered. Cold as night, cold as death, not a breath of air in her tresses, not a human sound in her ear, no longer a ray of light in her eyes; snapped in twain, crushed with chains, crouching beside a jug and a loaf, on a little straw, in a pool of water, which was formed under her by the sweating of the prison walls; without motion, almost without breath, she had no longer the power to suffer

Quasimodo and Esmeralda:

She approached the opening, and beheld the poor hunchback crouching in an angle of the wall, in a sad and resigned attitude. She made an effort to surmount the repugnance with which he inspired her. “Come,” she said to him gently. From the movement of the gypsy’s lips, Quasimodo thought that she was driving him away; then he rose and retired limping, slowly, with drooping head, without even daring to raise to the young girl his gaze full of despair. “Do come,” she cried, but he continued to retreat. Then she darted from her cell, ran to him, and grasped his arm. On feeling her touch him, Quasimodo trembled in every limb. He raised his suppliant eye, and seeing that she was leading him back to her quarters, his whole face beamed with joy and tenderness. She tried to make him enter the cell; but he persisted in remaining on the threshold. “No, no,” said he; “the owl enters not the nest of the lark.”

Intense Love

The Huncheback for Notre-Dame is acclaimed to be one of the most beautiful loves stories. It indeed is so. It shows different shades of love. And every shade is intense and absorbing. Be it the love of a despairing mother, the fancy of a young girl for a dashing soldier, the vile love of a priest or the pure affection of a wretch. Each love is intense, each love is crushing. Each love opposes the other. Author has used words, dialogues in a way that makes you marvel at the intensity of love in this book. I can’t recall any other book where there’s so much love, so wretched, so intense, so all-consuming. And in the center of this storm of love is one fifteen-year-old girl. A girl with unparalleled beauty, and merciless fate.

Overwhelmed with his love, Quasimodo tells Esmeralda,

“Our towers here are very high, a man who should fall from them would be dead before touching the pavement; when it shall please you to have me fall, you will not have to utter even a word, a glance will suffice.”

And Claude Frollo tells her:

“I love you. Oh! how true that is! So nothing comes of that fire which burns my heart! Alas! young girl, night and day — yes, night and day I tell you — it is torture…. Oh! I suffer too much, my poor child. Oh, my God! — What! So you will never pardon me? You will always hate me? All is over then. It is that which renders me evil, do you see? and horrible to myself. — You will not even look at me!

Amid all this, there’s also the selfish love of a gallant soldier that gets scared of superstition, and of a poet who would rather save his goat then his wife.

A beastly hero & a saintly villain: characterization in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Almost all major characters in The Hunchback of Notre Dame are the opposite of what they are supposed to be. The king is not just, the soldier is not honourable, the poet does not love, the priest is not pure, the mother is a fallen woman, the beauty cannot recognize true love, and the beast is the only one who knows how to love.

Most of all, there’s a stark contrast between the hero and the villain. The one who might have been revered is the one we hate most. The one who has the appearance of the beast is the most humanly of all.

The villain of the book is Dom Claude Frollo, the archdeacon. A well-built, well-read, well-connected man holding a high position in society.

Separated since infancy from his parents, whom he had hardly known; cloistered and immured, as it were, in his books; eager above all things to study and to learn; exclusively attentive up to that time, to his intelligence which broadened in science, to his imagination, which expanded in letters — the poor scholar had not yet had time to feel the place of his heart.

Dom Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, is a man of great intellect and resources, a man who we see loving his younger brother and giving refuge to poor Quasimodo, a man who can sacrifice anything for his love. Yet, he is not the hero.

Quasimodo, on the other hand, has nothing. He’s orphan, deformed, penniless, and deaf. People mock him, hate him, consider him a demon. His very appearance inspires fear and disgust in the heart of the beholder.

Quasimodo, the hero of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Quasimodo, the hero of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

We shall not try to give the reader an idea of that tetrahedral nose, that horseshoe mouth; that little left eye obstructed with a red, bushy, bristling eyebrow, while the right eye disappeared entirely beneath an enormous wart; of those teeth in disarray, broken here and there, like the embattled parapet of a fortress; of that callous lip, upon which one of these teeth encroached, like the tusk of an elephant; of that forked chin; and above all, of the expression spread over the whole; of that mixture of malice, amazement, and sadness. Let the reader dream of this whole, if he can.:

“His whole person was a grimace. A huge head, bristling with red hair; between his shoulders an enormous hump, a counterpart perceptible in front; a system of thighs and legs so strangely astray that they could touch each other only at the knees, and, viewed from the front, resembled the crescents of two scythes joined by the handles; large feet, monstrous hands.”

Everyone hates him and is scared of him. Many even believe he is a devil minion.

“He had known only humiliation, disdain for his condition, disgust for his person…As he grew up, he had found nothing but hatred around him. He had caught the general malevolence. He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded.’

He is malicious enough to be a villain. Yet, he is not the villain.

What makes the priest a villain and a malicious hunchback a hero? Their love. The archdeacon’s love is selfish. It is either all or nothing for him. It is a desperate bodily passion. Quasimodo, on the other hand, has no expectation from his love. He expects nothing, asks for no favours, seeks no revenge. He just loves.

The archdeacon would rather kill his beloved than see her loving someone else.

‘Reflect that I hold the destinies of both of us in my hand, that I am mad — it is terrible — that I may let all go to destruction, and that there is beneath us a bottomless abyss, unhappy girl, whither my fall will follow yours to all eternity! One word of kindness! Say one word! only one word!” You will follow me, you will be obliged to follow me, or I will deliver you up! You must die, my beauty, or be mine!’ he says

Quasimodo would rather face death then disturb Esmeralda’s sleep.

There was but one thing to be done; to allow himself to be killed on the threshold of Notre–Dame, to resist at least until succor arrived, if it should arrive, and not to trouble la Esmeralda’s sleep.

He does risk his life more than once to protect la Esmeralda. But she is cursed by the love of an archdeacon. And that love is merciless.

Love story of the beauty and the beast [CONTAINS SPOILER]

La Esmeralda, the heroine of this love story, is a young girl whose beauty amazes all beholders. When we first see her, the author presents her to us thus:

“Whether this young girl was a human being, a fairy, or an angel, is what Gringoire, sceptical philosopher and ironical poet that he was, could not decide at the first moment, so fascinated was he by this dazzling vision. She was not tall, though she seemed so, so boldly did her slender form dart about. She was swarthy of complexion, but one divined that, by day, her skin must possess that beautiful golden tone of the Andalusians and the Roman women. ”

The hero is the one who wins in the contest of ugliness. He is hunchbacked, of fierce countenance, one-eyed, and deaf. As he says to Esmeralda,

“Never have I seen my ugliness as at the present moment. When I compare myself to you, I feel a very great pity for myself, poor unhappy monster that I am! Tell me, I must look to you like a beast. You, you are a ray of sunshine, a drop of dew, the song of a bird! I am something frightful, neither man nor animal, I know not what, harder, more trampled under foot, and more unshapely than a pebble stone!” Then he began to laugh, and that laugh was the most heartbreaking thing in the world.

In a fairy tale, a beauty can fall in love with a beast. But this is no fairy tale. And here, as in real life, beauty cannot even notice the true love hidden in the beast’s heart. The beauty loves a handsome soldier who does not care for her.

The author does not try to make Esmeralda fall in love with Quasimodo. Because it would have been illogical. Nobody can fall in love with ugliness. Quasimodo himself fell in love with la Esmeralda because she was so beautiful. No wonder then that his love was doomed from the beginning. Yet, even in his tragedy, he wins. He cannot live with his love. So, he dies with her. Because she is everything to him. And without her, he cannot exist.

And a long time later, people find

“two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

The book truly tells a remarkable love story. And it is magnificent writing, startling, larger-than-life characters, and gripping passion and poignancy. Victor Hugo’s another celebrated classic Les Misrables (see my review of Les Misrables) too has a love story. But love is not its highlight. Its canvas is bigger. It has more characters that touch the reader’s heart. It raises strong questions against societal norms. Whereas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is more focused on love and what it can do to a person. It truly is one of the most beautiful love stories ever written. A must-read for those who love great literature.

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  1. Your blog post has incited me to take up reading the book. I have read a number of classics but not this one, though I have thought of reading it a number of times.

    By writing about classic books you are crating interest in good literature.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for your message. I’m glad you liked the review. I hope you’d enjoy the book too 🙂