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 of 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 for 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 the 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.
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, and 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 Quasimodo and Esmeralda and I couldn’t wait to see how their story was resolved.