The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Choosing a favorite author is never an easy thing to do. Most of us could pick ten or twelve names without thinking about it too much, then add another few to that once we’ve had a few minutes to consider.

I’ve got a whole list of authors that I admire, both for the books they write and the things they stand for. J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Wayne Thomas Batson, and Cornelia Funke are just a few of the names on my list, but another name that I would put down is Victor Hugo.

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Most readers tend to skip Hugo’s work, mostly because—and I will be the very first to admit it—he is notoriously long-winded. His books are massive, and the details that he goes into in Les Miserables, such as a drawn out account of the battle of Waterloo and a in-depth description of the sewers of Paris, tend to stray from the original storyline. Since everything I read tends to fuel my imagination, I found the description of the sewers fascinating. But we won’t go into that right now.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Most of us know this story from the Disney version, where the handsome captain saves the beautiful gypsy girl, Quasimodo is accepted into society, and the bumbling gargoyles keep us laughing through the film.

Hugo’s version is much more complicated.

And much darker.

The story follows two people throughout the book, although, being Victor Hugo’s work, we are introduced to—and given the life story of—many other characters. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are really the centerpieces to this story, however. A hunchback and a gypsy. Both are outcasts from society, one of them confined to the bell tower of the Notre Dame cathedral, the other living in the streets of Paris. The story is a long and winding one, full of twists and turns and endless frustration, but these two are finally thrown together when Esmeralda is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to be executed. Quasimodo, the only decent man in the whole book, rescues her and takes her into Notre Dame, claiming sanctuary for her within the walls of the church, something not even the law will cross.

From the first, I was struck by the different types of ‘love’ displayed in this book. (I say love, although most of these examples were not love, but selfishness.)

In Captain Phoebus (who was a cad and didn’t deserve the title of ‘hero’ that Disney put on him) we see lust.

In Dom Frollo, obsession is clearly demonstrated, to the point of being terrifying. The man needs a hobby. And possibly medication.

Quasimodo’s affection for the girl was the only one of these three that came close to actual love, in the way he cared for her while she was trapped in Notre Dame, his concern for her feelings and safety, and the selfless way he gave up what little was his for her, even defending her when Frollo’s obsession threatened her.

Victor Hugo is not known for writing puffed up, feel-good stories. (Anyone who knows anything about Les Miserables can tell you that. The book is literally called ‘The Miserable Ones’.)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame follows this pattern. As kind and selfless as Quasimodo is, he is not handsome, and Esmeralda rejects him in favor of Captain Phoebus. (Who is still a cad.) The Disney movie ends happily, but the book—well, if Disney had kept to the original story, they would have gotten quite a few calls from horrified parents.

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Sad as the book is, I still enjoyed it immensely. Victor Hugo is a masterful writer, long-winded or not. (He’s also a sass master and had a habit of needling very important people, which may be why I love him so much.) The book is a timeless masterpiece, and one I would recommend to anyone who enjoys the classics.

And the inexplicable part of it is, that the blinder this passion, the more tenacious it is. It is never stronger than when it is utterly unreasonable.

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