Why do I enjoy inflicting pain on myself? Why did I think it was a good idea to read one of the most famous tragedies in history? Never have I been more frustrated than in reading Romeo and Juliet. It’s probably my own fault, but this book has been on my TBR for so many years, I thought it was about time to read it. Plus, it is about a third of the length of Hugo’s other novel, a little book known as Les Miserables. This is five hundred pages to those fifteen hundred pages. But I digress.
Synopsis: In this classic Victor Hugo tragedy, Paris comes alive in lush details as an unrequited love seeks to destroy the life of a beauty. In the Cathedral of Notre-Dame lives the hunchback Quasimodo, a deaf and deformed bell ringer. His patron and adopted father archdeacon Claude Frollo and he himself fall in love with the beautiful dancing girl Esmerelda. Frollo seeks to destroy her at all costs if he cannot have her and Quasimodo will do anything to protect her.
If you do not know the plot or don’t want to be spoiled, I advise turning back now. This review will be full of spoilers.
Where do I start in critiquing this classic? The descriptions are so detailed that they are both beautiful and boring at the same time. Often times the perspective will turn to random characters, simply to give a fuller view of the city but adds little to the plot. Many of the characters are frustrating at best. This book will spend pages and chapters describing one thing (like the cathedral) or a character who is pointless to the plot. Hugo’s other most famous book, Les Mis, does this similarly, but in that one each character is presented in detail to move forward the plot, whereas in this one, random characters feel purposeless. Saying that, the descriptions are extremely lush, presenting a view of Paris which Hugo clearly loved. In the end, my feelings were mixed about this book.
Let’s break down my thoughts a little more, and I’ll try not to get too ranty (this is me from the future editing this post, and yes, I failed to not get ranty).
The reason I use the original title in my review (Notre-Dame de Paris) instead of the modern or English version (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) is because this book barely features the titular character at all. In fact, besides two brief scenes with him early on, he doesn’t become a main character until there are only 150 pages left of the book. Most of the book focuses on the obsession of Frollo for Esmeralda. He sees her and instantly is infatuated. I am cautious to use the word love, because he seems to feel more lust then love. Love is about sacrifice to protect the other person, and to care about their feelings. He doesn’t care about Esmeralda, and is willing to see her hanged if she does not love him. When he finds out she is in love with the captain Phoebus, he stabs the captain in the back and lets her take the blame, for which she is accused of sorcery (why, I’m not sure) and sentenced to hanging for the attack. At which point Quasimodo grabs her and takes her to the cathedral, where that famous scene of him holding her screaming “Sanctuary” takes place. Anyway, my point is that Frollo never feels love for Esmeralda, only lust. He never cares for her own feelings or tries to protect her, only doing what is beneficial to himself. Thus, I would not define this book as a story of “unrequited love” as it is so often referred to. Unless those analyzing the story are thinking of Quasimodo’s love for Esmeralda, which only takes up about fifty pages of the book.
There are a lot of pointless characters, who bring little to the plot. We have Gringoire, a philosopher who kind of marries Esmeralda but they live like brother and sister. He later helps Frollo and steals Esmeralda’s goat (speaking of which, the goat is my favorite character, whose name was Djali), but besides that he is pretty pointless. Another pointless character is Jehan Frollo, Claude Frollo’s younger brother, who only drops in once in a while to ask his brother for money. I was sure he would end up playing a bigger part in the story but, in the end, he added nothing. There’s also quite a bit in the beginning about the group of vagabonds Esmeralda is part of, but then they are almost forgotten by the end of the book, making their appearance feel rather pointless. You also have the story starting with a play Gringoire is part of, which doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the novel. My point is that there are quite a few scenes which feel unnecessary to the overall story.
Saying that, there are some side plots that do come full circle. For example, a recluse is introduced early on who lost her daughter years before. As it turns out by the end, Esmeralda is her daughter and she tries to save her from being hung. I loved that, because the story of the woman losing her daughter and Esmeralda hoping to find her parents were brought up throughout the story. So there were some scenes which really fleshed out the world and characters, but they were intermingled with such unnecessary scenes.
But nothing frustrated me more than the ending. And biggest SPOILER ALERT here!
Esmerelda’s mother has successfully hid her from guards coming to execute her. But when Esmerelda sees Phoebus, she calls out loudly, alerting the guards to her presence. I know she’s only sixteen, but she’s such an idiot! Before this, she had already found out Phoebus did not love her, and the only reason she loved him is because he saves her early on in the novel. Her love for him is almost as unhealthy as Frollo’s love for her. And yet, like an idiot she betrays her location and is captured and hanged. Quasimodo, seeing this and realizing Frollo is at fault, throws the priest off the cathedral tower and vanishes. So after everything twisted Frollo does to Esmerelda, her death is of her own fault because of one stupid decision. She and her mother could have survived if she had just kept her mouth shut. I was literally yelling at her character when she called out.
In many ways, I feel as if this book’s main theme is to examine different examples of unhealthy love. It cautions against obsession with any person, because it will never lead to happiness.
While I am glad I read this book, especially in the wake of the tragedy of the burning of Notre-Dame in July of this year, I can’t say I really enjoyed it. Most of the characters were frustrating and stupid. There was not a single character I admired or saw good in, even Esmeralda, who is presented as the pinnacle of morality. So, I’m glad I read it, but I probably will never want to do so again.
A quick final note, obviously this book is totally different from the 1996 Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I would also recommend the movie of the same name from 1939, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. It’s not exactly a perfect adaptation, but I did enjoy it.
Have you read this book, or seen any adaptations? If you read it, did you have any of the same issues I had with it? If you haven’t read it, do you want to? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,