Review about Notre Dame of Paris by Victor Hugo.
I had originally picked up The Hunchback of Notre-Dame with only a slim mental outline of its themes, informed, God help me, by at least one awful movie adaptation. The well-known bell-ringer has evolved into a singular popular vision of the novel, even though he’s only one of the players through which Victor Hugo’s unfolds his broader commentary on beauty, love, and justice. (Tellingly, the original title, Notre-Dame de Paris, made no mention of the hunchback.) I don’t think Quasimodo is even the strongest of Hugo’s cast–the symbolic purposes of his disability get in the way of his credibility as a character–but he is certainly a compelling little guy. It’s no wonder he grabbed the spotlight.
Early on, Hugo isn’t subtle about what has made Quasimodo what he is. His character is tied closely to that grotesque physiology. He’s presented to us as a mental defective, a young man who learned with great difficulty even before deafness completely removed him from human society. He is only dimly perceptive of the motivation and intent of other people, and his reactions, when he does eventually register the moods of others, are blunt expressions of emotion. His brain, we are told, is as twisted as his body, and combined with inadequate senses, and the inevitable abuse his appearance brings him, Quasimodo doesn’t have much of a chance. “He was, in truth, mischievous because he was savage; he was savage because he was ugly.”
Hugo clearly intends an inner transformation for Quasimodo, one that is doomed to failure. Whether redemption through love and beauty fails because Quasimodo is incapable of such a transformation, because he’s too ugly to be loved, or because that story is a fraud is an open question, and any or all of those interpretations can firmly support a tragedy (or satire), but in each case we still must entertain the idea that the hunchback is capable of some rudimentary salvation, which bumps up against any modern understanding of Quasimodo’s evident handicap. The hunchback varies scene by scene from an imp, to a brute, to some creature indeed capable of complex, metaphorical thought. Love can’t bring the poor bastard the release that he is unlucky enough to learn that he wants, but I’m puzzled to find that it went so far as to bring awareness to such an inchoate bundle of dulled perceptions as enveloped our early Quasimodo. That’s a hell of a transformation all by itself.
(Parenthetically, when Mary Shelley had taken this path just a few years earlier, she lent her creature a sharp mind to match both his ugliness and his moral innocence. It made a more engaging monster, even if his flight to violence was harder to accept. Did ugliness preclude love so definitively in the nineteenth century?)
Hugo’s greater goal in the novel is to poke at shallow ideas of romantic love. Quasimodo may be the quintessential wretch for these purposes, but most of the major characters are developed similarly: whether he’s after the appearance of nobility, wisdom, beauty or bravery, Hugo drips with pleasure as he skewers their outward characters with reality.
We all know the ironies of the story: the hunchback’s great love is a beauty; the repressed scholar’s great love is a free-spirited ingénue; the sweetheart’s is a handsome cad, who, at the moment of seduction, can’t even remember her name. The love stories aren’t weighted equally. Those that contain a particle of actual compassion are allowed the heft of tragedy and the others are left for comic relief–Esmeralda’s fate is unjust, Claude’s is fitting, and Phoebus’ is amusing–but every one of them is ultimately a comedy of objectification that can only end badly, and does.
Speaking to the comedy, to my pleasure and surprise, Hugo is really good at humor, and I love how he recognized the intelligent and powerless (that is, the students) as the eagle-eyed observers of the human condition, and gave them all of the good lines. A cast of vagabonds plays to similar ideas of social justice that the hunchback does to romantic love, played out for laughs and with the uncomfortable bite of satire. Official death loomed over the heads of the poor in Quasimodo’s time (and hadn’t exactly disappeared in Hugo’s), and the author’s contempt for civic power is palpable. Justice is doomed to end badly for its subjects, and the exclusive purpose of its proceedings is to deliver violence, regardless of cause or merit. The comical vagabond court, we find, is the most pure authority, and the least corrupt. While it feels at times that Hugo is picking on the medievals, mostly he presents the Law as a timeless sort of menace. He’s got a good trick where he reveals the true mechanics of mysterious crimes off-handedly, and lets the grand process play out deaf and thoughtless of the unremarkable facts. Hugo’s Justice grinds on with tremendous inertia, abetted by the ecclesiastical powers and the people’s narrow imaginations. It exists to drink blood, and no one but a half-mad bell-ringer even thinks to stand against it, wrongly and badly.
The ugliness of the time and the place were great, but there was love and beauty mixed in with the grime and the inhumanity. Victor Hugo clearly loved the grand beauty of Paris’ medieval architecture, and marked the cathedral of Notre Dame as the heart of the city, and put a half-formed lunatic as the soul of the church. If love failed to redeem the injustices of Quasimodo’s times, they were at least worth remembering.
Keith Higginson is a scientist working in the greater Boston, MA area. He blogs in his spare time.