The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

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.

Les Miserables! Finally!

Ok, so I finally finished Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.

I know some of you have probably been looking askance at my posts about the length and how long it has taken me to read it.  However, I have one thing to say that sums up how I feel about this book.

Wow.

While reading the book, you will have moments when you wonder what Hugo was really doing.  Was he telling a story?  Or explaining French history to us?  Was he detailing and painting characters with a fine nuance?  Or was he using fiction to deplore social conditions in France in the mid 1800s?

I think he was doing both.  I think Hugo had a lot to say and poured most of it into Les Miserables.  He had published prior books, but the length of time it took him to write this shows how much heart he put into it.  I can’t imagine having to write it all by hand!  Which he had to.

Chris Bohjalian was the author that picked Les Miserables as one of his top ten.  And thinking of the books I’ve read by him, he also uses fiction to make a social statement.  He’s a bit less obvious about it than Hugo, but almost two hundred years can make a big difference in narrative styles and techniques.

I cursed parts of this book to Dave over the last few weeks.  Sometimes, I felt a little cheated.  I’d be reading this great story and be really into what was happening.  Suddenly I’m in a forever long section about Waterloo and Napoleon.  Now, I do enjoy histories, however I don’t enjoy them when they’re slammed down in the middle of a book, with the sole purpose seeming to be the introduction of two characters who then really don’t become relevant for another 500 pages.

But, the thing that saved this book for me, and that makes me extremely happy that I’ve read it, is simply the story that Hugo tells.  How he builds his characters and how invested you get in them.

Hugo follows these characters for years.  Jean Valjean is a released prisoner, who simply can’t find anyone that will accept him.  A bishop (whom Hugo spent chapters describing him, for the sole purpose of his role for Jean Valjean) accepts him.  And through that Valjean finds religion, finds peace in Christ.  He goes on to change his identity and basically save a town from complete ruin, in the process becoming very rich even though he has the tendency to give away large amounts of money.

The book details the beginning and descent of Fantine, a young woman who gets pregnant with a rich nobleman’s child, a rich nobleman who thought it would be funny to take her out on an outing, then just walk away and have a waiter deliver a note awhile later with the essence of “Been fun, gotta run”.  She has the child, but can’t find work.  As she leaves to go to a town, she finds a woman outside an inn with two of her own children.  Fantine asks if they will watch her daughter, named Cosette, that she will send money for the upkeep.  The woman agrees.  And in comes the Thenardier family, Thenardier ending up being the reprehensible evil character.  The story then goes on to describe Fantine’s descent all the way into prostitution and Valjean’s saving her.  She makes him promise to get her daughter.

There is a detective in the story, Javert, who believes the mayor is Valjean (it is), which would make him a criminal of the worst sort.  Now, you think Javert is a bad guy.  However, he is just built in a very uncompromising manner.  In the end, this manner takes him to his demise.  Javert comes to arrest Valjean while he’s at the hospital with Fantine.  Valjean goes.  Fantine dies.

Time passes.  One day, into the Thenardier inn comes a shabby looking old guy.  Cosette has been mistreated by Mrs. Thenardier for years, and Mr. Thenardier has used the money he did receive before Fantine’s descent into poverty and death for his own purposes.  Cosette is a scared little girl.

Then lots of time passes.  Marius and his grandfather are introduced.  They become estranged, as Marius discovers his father was a Napoleon guy and becomes utterly devoted to his father, after his father dies.  His grandfather is a man who believes in the sanctity of royalty.  Marius goes off on his own.

He & Cosette fall in love.  They are parted.

A revolution, a street one, of 1831 occurs.  Marius’s friends lead a movement, where they block off a tavern and fight.  It all ends horribly wrong.

I don’t want to give the ending, as it will ruin the experience of reading it for yourself.

However, Jean Valjean is a pitiful hero.  And I don’t mean that in the usage of pathetic that many do.  I mean, you really have to pity the man.  He has so little happiness in his life, and everytime he does, it gets ripped away.  In the end, he only has the faith that the Bishop inspired and the love that Cosette showed him he had (oh yes, he rescues her from the Thenardiers).

The Thenardiers remain evil through and through, and the only surprise with Mr & Mrs is the depravity they have.  Their daughter Eponine though?  She surprises you.  She starts out as someone you think of as definitely a Thenardier to the core.  However, love changes her.  In the end she makes a huge sacrifice that she knows will come to the worst possible outcome.

Javert…well he is a man of unbending principles.  He has prided himself all his life on this, and has lived his life by these principles.  Hugo shows the effects that life events can sometimes have on people like this.

Cosette, she is flighty.  But her love for Valjean and for Marius is inspiring.

Marius, is noble in a way.  During the whole time he was estranged from his grandfather, he lived in poverty.  He very rarely borrowed money.  He is the one who almost comes out as the “hero” in this, as he is the opposite of Valjean.  For most of his life, he has good happen to him.  When bad does happen to him, and he is miserable, good suddenly occurs.  I like how he is almost opposite of Valjean, like almost mirror like.

These are the main characters.  However, Hugo has filled in chinks of the story with more minor characters that sneak into the chinks of the story and cement the whole.  The urchin, Gavroche, (who is the unloved son of the Thenardiers so he lives on the streets) is one.  Marius’s friends who stage the revolution in the inn are others.  He paints even the most minor characters in huge detail.  For instance, Cosette & Valjean’s serving woman, has very little said about her.  However, Hugo brings her to life.  She stutters.

I can definitely see how this would make a great show.  I have never seen the Broadway play…but want to.  I also really want to see the movie but made myself wait until after reading the book.  I think that is best in this instance.  Otherwise, you’d expect the book to move like the show or the movie, which considering it’s over 1500 pages, it simply cannot.

Please, don’t let the size of this daunt you.  It would be a great book to read a few pages of in a night.

However, just skim the pages about Argot.  It’s hideously boring and I think Dave agrees with me, if anything could have been cut from Les Miserables and not have it hurt the story line…it’s this section.

Please be sure to check out Sage Magazine, where I talk about Peony In Love by Lisa See.  It’s an amazing book, and I’d definitely put it up there in my favorites.  It’s also a much shorter book haha.