Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

This was a long standing to-read book on my digital shelf….and I’ve finally read it. And at best The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a brilliant piece of literature.
This is how the summary for the book goes like:
He was Quasimodo—the bell ringer of Notre Dame. For most of his life he has been forced to live in lonely isolation in the bell tower of the famous catheral—hidden away like a beast, banished from sight, shunned and despised by all. For though he was gentle and kind, it was Quasimodo’s crime to have been born hideously deformed. But one day his heart would prove to be a thing of rare beauty. She was the dazzling Esmerelda. A dark-eyed gypsy girl who, the victim of a coward’s jealous rage, is unjustly convicted of a crime she did not commit. Her sentence is death by hanging. Only one man had the courage to save her: Quasimodo.

It is a very famous story, and I find that much more people have “heard of it” than have actually read it. Most will just tell you – “isn’t this some kind of beauty and beast story?”. Well, actually it isn’t. This novel certainly isn’t a fairy tale. Rather, it is a touching and sad story (touching in a way that Hugo is a master expressing) about unfulfilled love. There are at least 3 unfulfilled love stories here, each one very different. Besides that, the plot tells of troubled times in Paris (and, I suspect, in whole of Europe) – what is rightfully called “the dark ages” – where each act of free thought was prosecuted by the church with one inevitable penalty – death.

Now, Contrary to popular opinion the novel Le Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo is not primarily about the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo. Quasimodo’s role is actually surprisingly small in the story, which makes you wonder why the English translater’s chose “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as the translation for the title. Actually, as the original French title would indicate, it is the cathedral itself that is the focus of the book. This is why in the unabridged editions of this book you will find numerous chapters that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot of the story.

It is a book narrowly focused on the Cathedral of Notre Dame situated on the Ile de la Cite in the center of Paris and, more broadly, on the 15th century city of Paris. This was a Paris where public executions or any form of punishment involving public humiliation were the highest forms of entertainment and drew the kinds of crowds that we would see at a major sports event today. If this book is not read with this in mind, the reader might well be disappointed because he came to it with a different sort of book in mind.
Now to the human aspects of the novel, the plot so to speak: There are no honest-to-god perfect angels in this book. After all, Esmerelda was a part of a band of thieves who came to public gatherings for the express purpose of seeing what they could “gather” for themselves. Quasimodo was not a misshapen humanitarian. He had been known to carry out a dirty deed or two himself. As for the rest of the characters, there’s not a role model in the bunch. To Hugo’s credit, we really care about Quasimodo and Esmerelda, “warts and all.” This is one indication of good writing. Nothing that is not be expected by Hugo.

The dark, brood­ing and pun­ish­ing inter­ac­tions between the com­plex char­ac­ters are a mas­tery of sto­ry­telling. The rela­tion­ships of the char­ac­ters with them­selves are also part of this com­plex plot. Frollo’s struggle with Catholi­cism vs. desire and Esmeralda’s unwill­ing­ness to accept a revolt­ing crea­ture for his good heart are only a two exam­ples of what makes this story bril­liant. The story is pep­pered with a few twists, some humor (as much as will allow in the brood­ing story arc) with sar­casm and mock­ery galore.
The book’s most frus­trat­ing point, and the one which dis­cour­ages many sea­soned read­ers, is thepages upon pages of descrip­tive images, whether the streets of Paris down to the cracks (it seems) in the side­walks or the Notre Dame Cathe­dral, brick-by-brick almost. The pac­ing of the book moves unevenly, most of the novel takes place over a period of six month, how­ever the final chap­ters shoot for­ward a year and a half or two years.

What makes this novel a masterpiece, besides the poetic descriptions, is Hugo’s description of the cathedral of Notra-dame and the city of Paris, and his discussion of how the arrival of printing press signaled an end to the importance as architecture as the expressive art of intellectuals. The views of the author expressed in these pages and pages of delightful reading provide the reader not only with historical and architectural prespective on the buildings in Paris, but also gives us a word image of buildings, roofs, rooms, carvings, modernism, and more.

In his commentaries and comparisons between writing and printing as form of expression in contrast to architecture, Hugo unmasks a wide array of issues that arrival of every new media (TV, Cinema, Internet, Digital Photography) bring. How existing precepts and concepts are revised, how adaptations occur, how each age has its own expression through any of these means- and all Hugo says so passionately about architecture or literature allows us to feel the essence of why we make monuments of stones or words in the first place.

Victor Hugo had great skill in developing characters, and describing their lives over an extended period of time, capturing how situations and people led to certain choices, behavioral changes and thought process of each. His ability of doing this, in a very detached manner, where narrative is like a camera floating into a room, and staying long enough for a distant observer to watch and identify traits of every person present there, makes him a great novelist. The novel, like all classic reads, looks formidable in size, but can be read at a formidable pace, especially after the first half of the novel is over.

Besides an extremely well-written book, the main thing about this book is that it’s heart wrenching and thought provoking. One of the best tragedies ever written, if you like to shed some tears while reading, then this is the right book for you.

Genre :      Classic, Historical

Publisher: Signet Classics

Rate:              4/5 (really liked it)


  1. Aparajita - This review really surprised me, I truly had no idea what this book was about.

    Definiitely a case of should not judge a book by the stories that you hear about it.

    Great review!



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