The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (French: Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”) is another one of those books which feels completely familiar to me but which I’ve never read. Though it turns out that I didn’t know the story as well as I thought I did (and maybe this is the case for everyone else who thinks they know it but haven’t read it), I was familiar with this unfortunate story of love involving the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, the deformed but essentially good Quasimodo, the twistedly evil Archdeacon Claude Frollo, and a whole crew of other characters.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Mary Gaitskill)
Regardless, let’s get to the story. Quick summary: lots of people love Esmeralda but she doesn’t love any of them. Well, let’s be a little more specific than that. Quasimodo loves Esmeralda after she shows him a singular act of kindness despite his previous attempt to kidnap her (at the behest of Archdeacon Frollo). Archdeacon Frollo claims to love her, but it’s really more of a dark obsession and he is willing to kill her if he can’t have her:
“Alas! you have looked coldly on at my tears! Child, do you know that those tears are of lava? Is it indeed true? Nothing touches when it comes from the man whom one does not love. If you were to see me die, you would laugh. Oh! I do not wish to see you die! One word! A single word of pardon! Say not that you love me, say only that you will do it; that will suffice; I will save you. If not–oh! the hour is passing. I entreat you by all that is sacred, do not wait until I shall have turned to stone again, like that gibbet which also claims you! Reflect that I hold the destinies of both of us in my hand, that I am mad,–it is terrible,–that I may let all go to destruction, and that there is beneath us a bottomless abyss, unhappy girl, whither my fall will follow yours to all eternity! One word of kindness! Say one word! only one word!”
She opened her mouth to answer him. He flung himself on his knees to receive with adoration the word, possibly a tender one, which was on the point of issuing from her lips. She said to him, “You are an assassin!”
The priest clasped her in his arms with fury, and began to laugh with an abominable laugh.
“Well, yes, an assassin!” he said, “and I will have you. You will not have me for your slave, you shall have me for your master. I will have you! I have a den, whither I will drag you. You will follow me, you will be obliged to follow me, or I will deliver you up! You must die, my beauty, or be mine! belong to the priest! belong to the apostate! belong to the assassin! this very night, do you hear? Come! joy; kiss me, mad girl! The tomb or my bed!”
Meanwhile, Esmeralda loves the dashing Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers, who doesn’t love her at all though he did save her from the kidnapping attempt and is willing to pretend to love her in order to sleep with her:
Phoebus returned and seated himself beside her, but much closer than before.
“Listen, my dear–”
The gypsy gave him several little taps with her pretty hand on his mouth, with a childish mirth and grace and gayety.
“No, no, I will not listen to you. Do you love me? I want you to tell me whether you love me.”
“Do I love thee, angel of my life!” exclaimed the captain, half kneeling. “My body, my blood, my soul, all are thine; all are for thee. I love thee, and I have never loved any one but thee.”
The captain had repeated this phrase so many times, in many similar conjunctures, that he delivered it all in one breath, without committing a single mistake. At this passionate declaration, the gypsy raised to the dirty ceiling which served for the skies a glance full of angelic happiness.
“Oh!” she murmured, “this is the moment when one should die!”
As you can see, the love decagon here is pretty complicated. Obviously, this is not going to end well. In fact, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was far more tragic than I expected from Hugo based on having previously read Les Misérables.
Mind you, tragic isn’t actually a problem with a novel, though one does tend to rail against it while reading, but I kept unfavorably comparing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame to Les Misérables for other reasons. This book does create some pretty intense emotion, but nothing like that of Les Misérables. I felt, but I just didn’t feel as much…certainly not as much as I expected to.
Further, Hugo does do his traditional thing of pausing the story for endless pages to ramble about unrelated topics just as in Les Misérables, but here it doesn’t seem anywhere near as appropriate to the book. I understand that meticulously detailing the architecture of Paris helps set the scene, and the novel is intended to be historical, but going on for so many pages without getting back to the characters or events? Why spend so much time bemoaning the fact that modern Paris has given up stone for plaster? I could see a relationship between the story in Les Misérables and the seemingly endless discussion of street French, but this architectural diatribe baffled me.
Upon finishing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I have to say that I wished I had read it before Les Misérables. This is a good book, but it just didn’t move me the way that Les Misérables did. Perhaps if I’d read it first and not had the basis for comparison then I would have enjoyed it more.