“Without a doubt the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is, even today a majestic and sublime edifice. Though it has preserved a noble mien in aging, it is difficult to suppress the feeling of sorrow and indignation at the countless injuries and mutilation which time and man have wrought upon this venerable monument between the time of Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, and that of Philip-Augustus, who laid its last.”
This Victor Hugo classic is set in ancient Paris, and it is an ode to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Much as most of the characters in the book have a tragic fate, it is at the cathedral that the author mostly wants us to gaze with “reverent admiration”-an edifice where “everything had its place in that self-created, logical, well-proportioned art. By measuring the toe, we estimate the giant.”
There are three main characters in the story. The first is Claude Frollo, a scion of a middle-class Parisian family. As a boy, Frollo was reserved, bright and by nature melancholy. His parents had destined him for priesthood, “and at sixteen was a match for a father of the Church in mystical law.” His thirst for knowledge drove him to the study of canon and civil law, liberal arts and medicine. He later thoroughly digested the science of herbs and studied languages. All this learning gained him a reputation so great for one so young.
After his parents had died, fate prematurely bestowed on him the duty of looking after his younger brother Jehan. For someone who spent most of his young life pinioned to books, his devotion to his younger brother was his first human affection. This infant brother ‘who had dropped from heaven into his arms,’ made a new man of him. He discovered that there was much more to life than the poetry of Homer and the mysteries of science. He discovered the necessity of affection. He threw himself therefore at the care of his brother, showing him all the love he could.
At the age of twenty, Frollo was ordained a priest. It was at this time that he found Quasimodo, a deformed infant and the other major character in the book, abandoned outside the door of the church. When Claude Frollo pulled the sack covering the child, he found himself looking at a monster: “the head pushed down between the shoulders, the spine curved, the breastbone protruding, the legs bowed.” The child’s ugliness inexplicably heightened the priest’s compassion.
Frollo adopted the child, baptized him and raised him as his own. When frightened dogs barked at him, it was between the legs of the Claude Frollo that Quasimodo sought refuge. The priest also taught him to speak, read and write. Quasimodo was, therefore, grateful to the priest but the relationship between them was no better than that of a master and his dog.
Quasimodo grew up to be the bellringer of Notre Dame. Cut off from society by the double tragedy of deformity and orphanhood, the Cathedral of Notre Dame became his prison and his universe. Like a reptile, he could be seen all day crawling along the arches and corners of the church. The latter had no height he could not scale and no depth he could not plumb.
But, what mostly gave him joy, and seemed to arouse his soul the most, was ringing the bells of the Notre Dame. Though their noise turned him deaf, he loved them, talked to them, danced to the frenzy of their sound, and caressed them as one human would another. The third major character is the dancing gypsy, La Esmeralda, with beauty so rare and incomparable ‘that she seemed to diffuse a light all of her own.’
Victor Hugo eloquently takes us on a tour of ancient Paris. While it is the doomed relationships between these three that he narrates with skill and humor, it is the spectacle of the Cathedral of Notre Dame that his literary torch shines on. Even though the main protagonists lives are replete with events, the reader gets the impression that the author sees nothing remarkable or memorable about them.
In the story, the citizens of Paris seemed to be dancing their way across the stage of their doomed lives in a predictable fashion. They have do-nothing kings, happy bourgeois, dungeons and the scaffold for the both the innocent and the guilty, and the merry, noisy, naïve, haggard and filthy masses. Human life is portrayed in the book as a sad spectacle without charm.
But not so with the cathedral, ‘it was a vast symphony in stone,’ the author writes, ‘the colossal work of a man and of a nation, a unified complex ensemble, like the Iliads and the Romanceros, to which it is a sister production.’ Its facades, its chiseled arches, its steps, its steeples, its pillars, its statues, its chubby cherubims, its art, its windows are so intricately and elaborately depicted. Their beauty seemingly juxtaposed to the ugliness of human life.
There is a lament in the author’s voice about the changes and mutilations that humanity has wrought on this imposing edifice, but no such sentiment is displayed for the wretchedness of the lives of fellow humans. It is as if the appalling and endless carnage of human life is told merely to show, if not accentuate, the beauty of the cathedral. The reader gets the impression that the author had given up on humanity, rejected and rebelled against the fierceness of the world, and hid in his hovel-art.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an excellent historical novel and a grand sojourn of old Paris. Its depiction of place and person is symphonic and skillful. Its narrative, with strong political, social and even religious themes, soars to the end. The book is a classic that deserves to be read and re-read.
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