Sunday, February 1, 2009
Book Review - The Classics - The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo "What makes a monster and what makes a man?"
The year is 1482 and the location is Paris. The Festival of Fools is in progress and Quasimodo, a poor, hunchback who lives in the great cathedral of Notre-Dame, the very heart of the great City of Light, has been selected the Pope of Fools. He is carried around Paris on a throne, amidst shouts and jeers, and proclaimed to be the ugliest person who ever lived. Archdeacon Claude Frollo, who has agreed to care for Quasimodo, intervenes by ordering Quasimodo back to Notre-Dame. Although all eyes are focused on Quasimodo and the Parade of Fools, Pierre Gringoire, a poet and playwright, is also active that day, attempting, unsuccessfully, to entice people to watch his play, rather than the parade. Of course this is Victor Hugo’s enduring classic, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
As Frollo and Quasimodo return to Notre-Dame, they encounter three more people who will play major roles in this tragic story of undying love and betrayal. The first is La Esmeralda, a gypsy street dancer so beautiful she causes women to hate her and men to renounce even God. When Archdeacon Frollo and Quasimodo attack her, Gringoire tries to help, though he is as unsuccessful in his role as hero as he is in his role as playwright, and Frollo manages to escape. It is Phoebus de Chateaupers, the Captain of the King's Archers, who captures Quasimodo.
Gringoire is saved from death by hanging by La Esmeralda, herself, when she agrees to marry him for four years, but nothing can save Quasimodo from the rack in the Place de Greve, that grim place of shadows where death is ever-present. His pleas for mercy go, not unheard, but unanswered, until La Esmeralda brings him the water he craves. From this moment on, the lives, and the souls, of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda will be forever entwined. As this Romantic novel progresses, Frollo will turn to black magic in an attempt to cause La Esmeralda to love him; Phoebus, enchanted by La Esmeralda's beauty and passion, will want to seduce her; Quasimodo will go to any length, commit any selfless act, to save her. The ending of the novel is tragic, though beautiful, and shows us that love, though unable to overcome all of life's obstacles, refuses to relinquish its grip even in the midst of death.
Victor Hugo was born at the dawn of the Napoleonic Empire in 1802 and was an ardent supporter of the Republic. His writing is profoundly affected by the historical and political overtones of his time as well as by social reform. Hugo saw Notre-Dame as the very heart of Paris and both Paris and its great cathedral play a role so integral in this story that one could, quite justifiably, call them major characters as well. Until he encounters Esmeralda, Quasimodo loves nothing so much as he loves the bells of Notre-Dame. From its towers, he can see all of Paris, a city that is growing, changing, forever in flux. And just as Notre-Dame is the heart of Paris, Notre-Dame is the heart of this novel. Hugo writes about it in prose that is complex and flowing, and both haunting in its beauty and disturbing in its horror:
The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire, tarasques which sneezed in the smoke. And among the monsters thus roused from their sleep of stone by this flame, by this noise, there was one who walked about, and who was seen, from time to time, to pass across the glowing face of the pile, like a bat in front of a candle.
Hugo was a champion of the Romantic movement in literature, a movement that was, in great part, a reaction against classicism. Romanticism, rather than finding itself in the subjects of antiquity, stressed the importance of individual interpretation and the profound marriage of imagination and emotion. Although Hugo embraced the major tenets of Romanticism, he still believed that the Romantics could make use of the past. A student of medieval Christianity and a passionate lover of Gothic art and architecture, Hugo chose to set his tale of tragic romance in the Middle Ages rather than in his own time and chose to make his beloved Notre-Dame the center of all that happened. Most of the action of the novel takes place in or around Notre-Dame and from atop its towers. In fact, it might be said that the gargoyles of Notre-Dame are representative of Quasimodo, himself, or he of them. It should be pointed out that Hugo title his novel Notre-Dame de Paris - 1482 in French and he hated the English translation title; he felt it detracted from the emphasis on Notre-Dame and put far too much emphasis on Quasimodo.
Just as Hugo was a champion of the Romantic movement, he was also a champion of social reform. He was profoundly affected by differences in class, by the wide division between rich and poor. He strongly supported a Republic rather than a monarchy, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame contains many scenes of incompatibility between the Clergy, the Nobility and the Third Estate (artisans, craftsmen and intellectuals). Every character is this book is either an orphan or has been raised as one. In this, and in the storming of Notre-Dame, itself, by a band of vagabonds, the novel foreshadows the great division that rends the very soul of France in the revolution of 1789.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is also a novel of fate and of destiny. Its characters do not believe in free will, but in a guiding power, a destiny that, for good or for ill, they cannot escape. Poor Pierre Gringoire believes that it is fate that led him to Esmaralda; Archdeacon Frollo believes that he is fated to love her. The characters' great belief in fate over the exercise of free will is epitomized in a beautiful, but horrific, scene during which Frollo watches a fly as it is ensnared in a spider's web.
The characters in this novel are complex and possessed of much depth. Quasimodo, himself, is a study in contrasts. Although he epitomizes purity and innocence, Quasimodo is deformed beyond all semblance of anything human. And though the bells of Notre-Dame are his greatest love, he is also deaf. Despised by the inhabitants of Paris, Quasimodo is the one who rings the bells of Notre-Dame, a sound its residents love to hear. Quasimodo might be said to representative of both Paris and of Notre-Dame, itself. At the time of the writing of this novel, Notre-Dame was very different from the great cathedral we know and love today. It was literally falling apart; the citizens of Paris cared little for it, and outwardly, it certainly wasn't a thing of beauty, though its core, like Quasimodo's was purity and beauty, itself.
Archdeacon Claude Frollo, the antagonist of the novel, is not, at heart, a bad person. He has many moments of true compassion and humanity. An orphan, Frollo cares deeply for his brother, Jehen, and he shows enormous patience when attempting to teach Quasimodo to read and write. His weakness is Esmeralda. Until she comes into his life, Frollo could be a good man, a respectable man, a man of charity, but his love for Esmeralda is so boundless it dehumanizes him, causes him to be less that what he was, while at the same time, transporting him to a place he thought existed only in dreams.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is an exquisite novel that can be read and enjoyed for nothing more than its tragic story of love, but it is also a novel that shows us the possibilities of weaving Romanticism with the events of the past, of the power of imagination to create a thing of beauty and passion that will live forever.