Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

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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.

Gargoyle, photo taken September 2005, copyright Rebecca Reid

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.

Reviewed on December 30, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I plan to read this one with Allie (A Literary Odyssey) and Adam (Roof Beam Reader) next July. I’m really excited about it. 😀

  • That’s so funny: I loved the architecture bits! I read a newer translation, though, so I wonder if that had anything to do with it. 🙂

    Were you shocked by the ending? I was!

    • Eva » well, when the book was going slowly for me, I skipped to the end and read the last few pages, so no the end did not surprise As for the architecture: maybe it was translation. I just had the Project Gutenberg version. But also, maybe it was just off timing in reading it and I wasn’t in the mood for the digressions. I really liked the digressions and language in the Les Mis translation I read. And even in War and Peace it was okay. It all seemed to fit. It fit in this book too, but I just wasn’t having it this time.

      • I completely understand not being in the right mood for rambling authors. 🙂 And I’m always surprised when people read ahead, although a lot of my friends and family do! I forget it’s an option, lol.

        • Eva » I HAD to read it anyway as I’m leading the book discussion in a few months but yeah, I have no qualms about reading the last page or pages early! Especially if I’m not sure I can stand the book! Turns out this one was better than I worried it was. I did like the last half and couldn’t put it down.

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