Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. 

In the Victor Hugo museum is an exhibition, from 10 June to 21 November 2021, called Dans L’Intimité du Genie – In the Intimacy of Genius – with Hugo’s paintings, drawings, engravings, and artwork. Hence, it’s time to re-read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) is set in Paris in 1482, primarily in the Notre-Dame Cathedral. It is winter, January 1482, sixteen years after the great plague in which 40,000 souls died in the city of Paris. The themes are political and religious, historical, and ghoulish. 

The Notre-Dame Cathedral is an ‘edifice of the transition’ from the Roman to the Gothic architecture, described by Hugo as ‘the pointed species grafted upon the circular.’ From the cathedral is a bird’s eye view of the ‘very illogical’ streets of Paris – the City, the University, and the Town. 

The story centres around, not only Paris and the grand cathedral, but a young gypsy dancer, a ‘dazzling vision’ called Esmeralda. Her ‘sort-of’ playwright philosopher ‘husband’ Pierre Gringoire – whom she does not love – provides some comic relief to the story. He loves her goat Djali. 

Three people love Esmeralda: (1) the handsome, but not nice, Captain Phoebus, (2) the priestly, but damned, Claude Frollo, archdeacon of Notre-Dame Cathedral, and (3) Frollo’s adopted son, the deformed, one-eyed, lame, deaf, bell-ringer Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre-Dame. To Esmeralda, the three of them are the handsome, the old, and the ugly.

Esmeralda is a ‘whirl of dance, song, and flutter.’ Claude Frollo is about 36 years old, considered to be an old man by both Esmeralda and Victor Hugo. He took in the discarded baby Quasimodo and raised him as a son. Quasimodo loves him like a father, living in the cathedral that he regarded not just as his home, but as his world. Quasimodo is nineteen, going on twenty. 

Whom does Esmeralda love in this medieval, ironic, tragi-comic-romance? 

When Quasimodo, from his towered vantage point in the cathedral, sees Esmeralda in trouble, being carried to the gibbet – the executioner’s block – Quasimodo does a mental flip. 

Who comes to a ‘tragical end’ in the gripping final scenes?

Written 30 years before Les Misérables (1862), this is Victor Hugo’s quintessential epic Gothic gloom story that is head-and-shoulders above Les Misérables. It is a masterpiece of descriptive, evocative, emotional melodramatic writing, where every word is a testament to his genius. 

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