If you are reading this because you’re a fan of the Disney movie this is a shame-free-zone, because that’s exactly why I read the book. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not only almost two centuries old, but has also been a relatively well-recognised story to even young children since the release of said movie – that being said, I will attempt to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. I don’t want to ruin the book for you after all. I will say there are far fewer musical numbers and, in the general tone of Hugo’s work, less Disney-esque happy endings. You have been warned.
Firstly, the story itself is fantastic – when you actually get to it. I think in the first hundred or so pages I encountered the titular hunchback perhaps twice in passing. What I did encounter with somewhat depressing frequency was very, very, very long descriptions of Paris. From above, from below, the houses, the architecture, the way the river bends, the way the city is sectioned – I feel that I learned more about Paris than I did actually being there and I have been twice in my lifetime. I also learned far more than I wanted to, and the book took longer to read as a result given that I had to periodically put it down and do something fun to distract from my sheer disinterest in Medieval architecture and its variations in the City of Paris. I did learn, however, that Notre Dame itself used to have steps – something featured in the animation and, I found, missing from the real deal. Perhaps not the most interesting of facts, but that’s pretty much all I retained from ‘Victor Hugo’s guide to Paris in minute detail from all angles’. Towards the end, however, I couldn’t put it down. I was reading in the morning before work, during quiet moments…I only refrained from reading in the tub because I borrowed the book, and didn’t think it’s original owner would want it back soggy and smelling like a lush bath bomb.
But, once you have survived the lengthy descriptions of the city, you meet the characters and boy are there a lot of them. You have the cast of Disney favourites – Quasimodo himself, Esmeralda, Claude Frollo (whose job differs somewhat from the movie, as does his personality until the point at which he spies the worryingly young Esmeralda), Clopin Troillefou – far less delightfully camp than his animated counterpart, though just as happy to execute intruders – and Phoebus who is an uncontested asshole of the highest caliber. I’m sorry if this spoils your Disney vision, but the guy is awful. On top of this you have a cast of various come-and-go characters such as Frollo’s baby brother, a martyr in a sort of walled-in self-seclusion, and a writer named Pierre Gringoire who despite his own stupidity simply refuses to die for the length of the novel seemingly only to serve as witness to and narrator of the bulk of it.
Hugo liked killing off characters, it is only a shame he didn’t kill that one before the novel even began.
Victor Hugo has an incredible talent for showing you just how happy his characters could be if they lived in a different world. Quasimodo could have been happy in a world that didn’t shun him as a monster from birth, Esmeralda in a world where she was raised in the loving home she was taken from (and if she lived in a world where fewer creepy, much older men are fighting over her). It is a novel that shows both life in the streets of a filthy, frozen Paris and the cost of the King’s retinue in great detail – yes, the King of France is in it, I was surprised too. Those with power and money are unpleasant in the extreme – Phoebus woos Esmeralda with the worst of intentions, Frollo’s dangerous obsessions garner him a well-earned reputation as a dangerous man. This is not to say those without power are pleasant, merely that they lack the authority and autonomy to cause as much damage as their wealthier counterparts.
Aspects of the novel are dated, as is to be expected after a hundred years or so. There’s an unnerving focus on Esmerelda’s virginity for one, and the women of the story are few and far between, less characters in their own right and more sounding-boards for the men that surround them, speaking but never heard. Mind you, for all her status as the heroine in tragic peril, Esmeralda carries a knife and threatens perverts with it and this I greatly appreciate.
Overall is this book worth reading? I would say yes. If you can battle through the architectural obsession (Hugo designed rooms in his own home, which I have visited – it’s very fancy) the story itself is very good indeed. Definitely a recommendation for fans of gothic literature, as you can’t get much more in-your-face gothic than Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖 4 books out of 5