I have not read many gothic novels. The only one I’ve read is Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, which I was not a fan of (thoughts here). Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (first published 1831) seemed far above The Monk in terms of quality. In addition to the better writing, there was the symbolic centrality of the imposing image of Notre-Dame, the multi-faceted characters, and the balance of the horrific action of the story with the symbolic and romantic resolutions.
Notre-Dame de Paris is often translated with the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I don’t like that title as much as the original. Quasimodo, the hunchback of the story, is not the only focal point: the architecture of Notre Dame and the relationship between the two societal outcasts, Esmeralda and Quasimodo, is what drives the novel.
Although much in the beginning of the novel bored me, the action in the last half brought me around again. By the end, I liked it. The novel is firmly in the gothic Romantic tradition: a medieval setting, a wicked monk, outsiders seeking their place in society, attempted rape, horror and murder, and convenient resolutions.
This post contains spoilers of Notre-Dame de Paris.
I was fascinated by the contrasts in Quasimodo. He is obviously an ugly, huge, imposing figure in the fifteenth century Paris of the novel, giving the scene a sense of “horror” that a work in the gothic literary tradition needs. On the other hand, his innocent persona made him a loveable protagonist. His deafness renders him unaware of his setting; his sensitivity to Esmeralda’s kindnesses and his attempts to keep her safe show him to be kind and gentle. The English translation names him lead protagonist in the title, and while I prefer the original title’s implications, I concede that the hunchback’s role is central to the moving action. It is his defense of Esmeralda and his relationship with the evil Dom Frollo (more about him in a moment) that causes contention and drama. His contrasting appearances (as King of Fools and then as a criminal) in the beginning introduce the setting and other characters. This would not be the novel it is without the gruesome yet gentle hunchback.
But Esmeralda likewise is central to the novel’s plot, and I see her as just as important a protagonist as Quasimodo, if not more important. She is the “lady” of Paris that the title refers to, in addition to the gothic cathedral in which the action unfolds. She represents an exotic desirable character in the text; while Quasimodo is an image of horror, the innocent gypsy Esmeralda is the sexually desirable one.
The villains of the novel stem from Esmeralda’s presence. First there is Capitan Phoebus who wants to take advantage of her. He was not all bad; he had saved her from kidnapping early in the story. But he did not remember her name or acknowledge her beyond his selfish cravings to possess her; he knew she was infatuated with him. Then, there is the priest Dom Frollo who, just in the priest in The Monk, struggles to repress his desire to no avail. Some commentary I’ve read suggests that we should sympathize with Dom Frollo. He does do good things in his life, from raising his orphaned brother to adopting the horrific looking Quaismodo. Yet, just as with Ambrosio in The Monk, I cannot sympathize with a hypocritical seducer like Dom Frollo. Finally, by the end of the novel, the masses of Parisians desire Esmeralda dead mostly because they consider her a heathen worshiper. Although Esmeralda is exotic and intriguing to them with her dancing and her talented goat, in the end her admiring masses abandon her to her fate.
Esmeralda also is central to the story in her friends. The mass of gypsies come to rescue her. Quasimodo, of course, saves her from hanging at least twice and lovingly takes care of her in the haven of Notre-Dame without abusing her trust. And then the scholar Gringoire is a good man, and when he marries her, he respects her desire for chastity. Gringoire causes a problem for me, however, in the end, when he abandons her to Dom Frollo to save the goat. Why did he do that?
And then we come to the edifice of Notre-Dame herself. I must admit that Victor Hugo’s ramblings on the importance of architecture made me a little crazy. Reading those passages made me want to quit the book because it seemed to go on forever. But I made it through. Notre-Dame the church was falling apart when Hugo wrote his novel, left to the neglect of ages and the violence of the French Revolution less than 50 years earlier. But Hugo argues that Notre-Dame and architecture in general is a symbol of the people’s thought:
“Sometimes a portal, a façade, and entire church, presents a symbolical sense absolutely foreign to worship, or even hostile to the Church. … Thought was then free only in this manner; hence it never wrote itself out completely except on the books called edifices. Thought, under the form of edifice, could have beheld itself burned in the public square by the hands of the executioner, in its manuscript form. … In this manner, under the pretext of building churches to God, art was developed in its magnificent proportions.” (page 146, Project Gutenberg EPUB edition)
From Quasimodo’s perch on the belfries of Notre-Dame, he (and Dom Frollo) are able to see all of Paris. It is central to Paris, and Hugo may be suggesting (ironically) that Notre-Dame is a symbol of the city’s underlying Christianity. Just as Quasimodo’s ugliness is deceptive (he’s kind and gentle) and Esmeralda’s heathen ways are trained (she’s the missing daughter of a famous Parisian), Notre-Dame as a symbol of Christianity may be considered a scandalous concept. The priest in whose charge the edifice rests in is corrupt, and the novel about Our Lady’s Cathedral is a violent contrast between the “heathen” gypsies, who are actually rather reasonable, and the cruel, unforgiving Christians. Appearances can be deceiving.
I think that simple concept must be the underlying significance of the novel: appearances versus reality. As a romantic novel, there is much exaggeration and drama, but in the end, Hugo’s novel gives a sense of irony to the drama. The novel provides much to consider.
There is much more symbolism I haven’t touched upon: the spider and the fly metaphor, the bones turning to dust, even the details of Notre-Dame’s architecture. There is much that could be dissected in Hugo’s novel. Suffice it to say, while I didn’t love it, I was very enthralled by the novel by the time I reached the end. I loved Quaismodo and Esmeralda and I couldn’t wait to see how their story was resolved.