(Originally published January 25, 2009)
As many of you know, Victor Hugo’s classic novel “Les Miserables” has been one of my favorite books of all time ever since I read it last summer. Since then, though, I haven’t really sampled any of Hugo’s other works…even one of his most well-known novels, “Notre-Dame de Paris.” The original title was eventually anglicized to become “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Anyone with a passing understanding of great literature will recognize the name of one of the protagonists…the hideously misshapen Quasimodo, named for the Sunday on which he was found. However, there’s really much, much more to this classic story than one might first suspect.
Set in the 1400s, the novel follows the lives of four main characters: Quasimodo, Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, and the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda. Hugo expertly analyzes the thoughts and motives of each of these characters, especially Frollo and Quasimodo.
Abandoned to the mercy of the church while only a child, the malformed Quasimodo was raised by a young priest with a deep fascination for the mystical…a priest who would later become Archdeacon Frollo. Quasimodo was rapidly put to work as a bellringer, which eventually caused him to lose his hearing: however, his deformed body hides a caring, generous heart desperately yearning for love. While in many ways he possesses a childlike innocence, Quasimodo is a fearsome enemy when provoked…as is demonstrated by his pivotal role in the novel’s climactic battle scene.
Conversely, Archdeacon Claude Frollo’s calm, religious exterior belies his cruel and twisted soul. Obsessed with power, he dabbles in alchemy and other esoteric occult practices…but when he sees the beautiful dancer Esmeralda for the first time, his manic passions are given a new purpose: to possess – or destroy – the girl who has captivated him. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goals…even murder.
Frollo’s lurking evil is sharply contrasted with Esmeralda’s naivete. Little more than a girl, she cannot fully comprehend the depth of human corruptibility…until she meets the vindictive Frollo. Hugo uses Esmeralda as a tragic figure to represent the loss of innocence…a message which becomes even more developed as the story continues. She is so blind to the real world that she cannot even see when she is being exploited. Enter Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers – a handsome-yet-morally-bankrupt army commander with a casual disregard for human decency. Esmeralda is captivated by his physical attractiveness and unable to see the flaws in Phoebus’ character…and ultimately, her blind, unthinking devotion leads to her undoing. Once again, Hugo uses Phoebus as a foil to another character…in this case, Quasimodo. One is ugly while the other is handsome – but Phoebus is heartless, whereas Quasimodo is loving and gentle.
I won’t spoil the ending of this marvelous novel…if you want to find out what happens, read it for yourself. 🙂
A supremely excellent work by one of the greatest masters of the written word. VERY highly recommended.