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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo would be better called by its French title – Notre-Dame de Paris.  While Quasimodo, the hunchback, is an important character, he is not the central character.   The cathedral  stands at the center of the story; everything happens in or around it.  The characters of the story live and die in its shadow.

I first read Notre-Dame de Paris for an assignment in high school.  My teacher discouraged me from it saying that it was too large a book (500 pages) and too complex.  But I read it, and loved it despite her.  And I have read it several times again since then.  Yes, the characters are drawn large.  And yes, the plot relies on some wildly implausible coincidences.  But Hugo tells the story so well that we don’t mind.

There is an almost Manichaean emphasis on the contrast between dark and light in this book.  The darkened soul of the priest, Claude Frollo, seeks illumination in his alchemical texts.  The bright and beautiful young man, Captain Phoebus (whose name comes from the Greek god of the sun), is utterly unenlightened and doesn’t care. Esmeralda is the embodiment of beauty and grace.  Quasimodo is the incarnation of every grotesque human deformity.    And fate (another important theme of the novel) brings them together in the eponymous cathedral. 

Notre-Dame de Paris isn’t as ‘political’ as his other famous work Les Miserable, but the same pathos is evident here.  Hugo shows us a detailed portrait of the life and customs and of fifteenth-century Paris.  In fact, his research delayed the publication of the book.  Several of the characters are based upon real people he discovered during his research including, perhaps, Quasimodo.

If you’ve only ever seen the movie versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (particularly the Disney version…shudder…) you should forget what you’ve seen and read the book.  

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