Trigger Warning: Discussion of Sexual Assault
When in 2019, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was ravaged by a fire and suffered extensive damage, I became interested in learning about its history. I learned that Victor Hugo had played a pivotal role in the 19th century to revive interest in Gothic architecture and had inspired massive work on the medieval cathedral to restore it from its state of disrepair. Victor Hugo waxed eloquent about the cathedral, “a symphony in stone”, in his book, Notre Dame de Paris, more commonly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I was curious to read the book that spurred an interest in Gothic revival and recounts the well known story of the unrequited love of a hideously deformed hunchback for an extraordinarily beautiful gypsy girl. You can read an earlier blog post about the cathedral here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2019/04/24/notre-dame-de-paris-gypsies-gargoyles-and-grotesques/
The story is made for the performing arts and has been adapted countless times for the ballet, the opera, the theater and the screen. It is not surprising for it has a very Arabian Nights feel to it with a graceful and sensuous street dancer who pulls out the carpet to regale an audience, and a goat who performs tricks! Whereas Les Misérables remains Hugo’s chef d’oeuvre, Notre Dame de Paris has been eclipsed by its renderings which have become even more popular than the original book. I have seen the Disney film loosely based on the book. I say ‘loosely’ for the tone is entirely different. Notre Dame de Paris is no Disney fairy tale but a dark and disturbing story replete with abductions, murders, attempted murder, attempted rape, torture and executions. So much for a Disney style happily ever after!
A Love Letter To A Cathedral
The novel was written in 1830 but the plot is set in 1482. The cathedral is the center of the action and also serves as a moral compass over Paris. From the top you can get a view of the entire city as if it were keeping an eye on the inhabitants and their activities. Hugo loves rambling and there are detailed descriptions of the architecture and layout of this magnificent city which some readers might consider as digressions. The trope of “The Beauty and the Beast “is evident in the story as well as in the architecture. Quasimodo, the deaf ringer of the bells becomes part of the cathedral, representing a beast like the gargoyles while Esmeralda, the beauty, is like the stunning rose window of the edifice. Here’s a beautiful description of what the cathedral means to the hunchback:
“Et la cathédrale ne lui était pas seulement la société, mais encore l’univers, mais encore toute la nature. Il ne rêvait pas d’autres espaliers que les vitraux toujours en fleur, d’autre ombrage que celui de ces feuillages de pierre qui s’épanouissent chargés d’oiseaux dans la touffe des chapiteaux saxons, d’autres montagnes que les tours colossales de l’église, d’autre océan que Paris qui bruissait à leurs pieds.”
Translation: And the cathedral was not only society for him but also the entire universe, and all of nature. He dreamed of no other trellises than the stained glass windows, always in flower; no other shade than that of the leaves of stone which burgeoned out, loaded with birds, in the tufts of the Saxon capitals; of no other mountains than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their feet.
I noticed the similarity between this book and The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, another French writer who was undoubtedly inspired by Hugo. Both portray physically deformed men living in a confined setting and in love with a beautiful woman. I wonder why it is always the man who is an ugly monster and the woman a stunning beauty who accepts and transforms him out of her kindness. Why is it never the other way around? There is something innately sexist about this trope but that’s a discussion for another time.
A Love Story…Not!
Four men are enamored of one woman but is there even one who loves her truly? Let’s look at these four men and their motivations. Pierre Gringoire, the aspiring poet and philosopher who is pedantic to the point of being ridiculous, follows ( er…stalks) the gypsy, La Esmeralda on the streets for no rhyme or reason. He later owes his life to Esmeralda’s appearance at the Court of Miracles. She marries him to save him from being executed but she rejects his advances on their wedding night making it clear that it was only a temporary marriage prompted by pity. He reconciles himself to the loveless marriage. He seems caring but he does not come to Esmeralda’s rescue when she needs it. He unwittingly helps Frollo kidnap her out of the cathedral where she has taken refuge and abandons the girl leaving her alone with the lascivious creep. He cares more for the goat Djali than for the woman who saved his life.
Then there is Phoebus who is a self absorbed and arrogant philanderer. He is captivated by Esmeralda’s rare beauty but would rather be betrothed to another woman who is rich and belongs to his own class. Esmeralda remains pure for she has a superstitious belief that if she loses her virginity, she will never be reunited with her family again and therefore resists Phoebus’ advances although she has made it clear to him that she loves him. Of all the men who are interested in her, Esmeralda only reciprocates the feelings Phoebus has for her. But his feelings are insincere. He considers her as an exotic object and almost has his way with her in spite of her decision to remain chaste. Esmeralda is no less superficial for she knows nothing about Phoebus and develops a foolish infatuation for him solely based on his looks.
Frollo is the most complex character in the novel. I liked that Hugo didn’t portray him as evil incarnate from the beginning but allowed us to witness his inner struggles till his descent into madness becomes inevitable. As a Catholic priest, he is tied to the demands of his faith and has to remain a celibate. He represses his sexual urges and his latent desires manifest in unhealthy ways. He has a lust for knowledge and secretly dabbles in witchcraft and alchemy, dark arts forbidden by the Church. We know that he is capable of love -we see it in the love that he has for his good for nothing brother Jehan and in the compassion that made him accept Quasimodo who was rejected by the world, as his own. But his obsessive love for Esmeralda is terrifying. As he considers lust shameful, he experiences deep shame and anxiety for his immoral thoughts. He is aggressive and thinks he can force her to love him. He is insanely jealous of Phoebus. In his dark cell, he observes a fly caught in a web which is eventually eaten by the spider, a foreshadowing of how Esmeralda will be ensnared and destroyed in his web. He believes that all actions are predetermined and uses his fatalistic beliefs to justify his horrible behavior. Frollo made my hair stand on stand. He is a woman’s worst nightmare. Every woman has had such a type of interaction with a man who won’t take no for an answer. He is the one who pursues her relentlessly but views her as a Jezebel sent by Satan to tempt him. He does not care one bit for the woman he claims to love. He attempts to murder Phoebus and lets Esmeralda take the blame.
Only Quasimodo seems to love Esmeralda unconditionally. He is touched that she brought him water while he was being publicly tortured. He returns the favor by swinging down on a rope from the Notre Dame and carrying her back to the church to claim sanctuary for her just as she is about to be executed. Esmeralda sees two vases filled with flowers on her window, one is a beautiful and brilliant cracked crystal vase from where water escapes and the flowers are withered; the other is a coarse and plain earthenware pot which holds all the water and has fresh flowers. The two vases represent Phoebus and Quasimodo, respectively. Hugo may be emphasizing that inner beauty is more important but ironically the ugly Quasimodo is in love with a ravishingly beautiful woman. So it seems that looks matter even to Quasimodo. Or did he only fall in love with her for she showed him some kindness?
At first I thought Quasimodo’s love was pure and unselfish but I was quite disturbed by that scene when Claude Frollo attempts to rape Esmeralda and is prevented by Quasimodo’s arrival who attacks him without realizing who it is. As soon as he does, he backs off. The rape has been prevented but imagine if he had immediately guessed it was Frollo! Would he still have prevented the rape? What would he have done? Claude Frollo raised him when he was abandoned and it is understandable that he feels filial duty and devotion to him. But to such an extent as to be blinded to his faults and monstrous ones at that?
Some people might find the ending romantic; Quasimodo literally follows Esmeralda to the grave. When she was alive, his very sight revolted her. She slowly warmed up to him but I doubt she would have wanted him by her side for eternity. So here’s a woman with no agency. The men who claim to love her and chase after her, watch her die and one of them does not leave her alone even in death. This is not a tale of romantic love but a tale of obsession. There is a passage describing Esmeralda’s feelings for Phoebus but it could apply to all the characters in the novel:
“C’est que l’amour est comme un arbre, il pousse de lui-même, jette profondément ses racines dans tout notre être, et continue souvent de verdoyer sur un cœur en ruines. Et ce qu’il y a d’inexplicable, c’est que plus cette passion est aveugle, plus elle est tenace. Elle n’est jamais plus solide que lorsqu’elle n’a pas de raison en elle.”
Translation: Love is like a tree; it grows from itself, throws its roots out deeply through our whole being, and often continues to grow green over a heart in ruins. And what is unfathomable is that the more blind this passion is, the more tenacious it is. It is never more solid than when it has no reason in it.
There are many interesting aspects to the novel that I have not explored keeping in mind the need to be succinct in a blog post. It is a satire of the church, of the monarchy under King Louis the 11th who punished and pardoned according to his whims, of the entitled aristocracy and of the farcical justice system. Hugo captures the prejudices of the medieval Parisians who treated the Romani people as outcasts. The Romani people are not portrayed in a flattering light. But there is a passage where Hugo says that the behavior of the public was no different from that of the vagabonds and that their system of justice was as brutal. I was shocked too to see how people delighted in watching spectacles of torture and hangings and enjoyed other people’s misery.
And then there is the sweet and compassionate Esmeralda! There are some exquisite descriptions in the novel including one where Esmeralda is compared to a lovely dragonfly to show the effect she has on the poet Gringoire. We might think that Hugo has portrayed a beautiful Romani girl but the child who is barely 15 or 16 is objectified and fetishized as the exotic woman by the male characters in the novel. In the end it turns out that she is French by birth, separated from her mother who has been pining for her all these years. She is a dark haired white girl who probably developed a tan because of her nomadic lifestyle. Gasp! At least the Disney film portrays Esmeralda as a true Romani.
The novel begins with the word ANAKH, the word carved into the wall of Notre-Dame, which means fate and the reader senses from the beginning that this is not going to end well. The book deals with rape culture, victim blaming and slut shaming which are new expressions of our time- the words are modern but the male control of female sexuality is as old as time. This is an unbearably sad book- one of the most heartbreaking I have ever read. But it is also a paean to a fine monument. I have visited the Notre Dame Cathedral thrice in my lifetime and climbed up the belfry twice. So the book was a very nostalgic read for me and in spite of the sadness it might evoke, it is a masterpiece of literature that I highly recommend.
- The translations are mine.