The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Following the fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, I had the urge to read the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I had learned, in addition to it being written by someone called Victor Hugo, that it contained descriptions of and was about the Cathedral, so I thought it was a good way to gain insight into a topic I was presently interested in (I had just written a post about the fire). Many people will be familiar with film versions of the novel, such as the Disney one, although I can’t recall having ever watched any of these; all I knew was that the story contained a hunchbacked figure.

I found that the novel was freely available online and downloaded a copy for my eBook reader. Shortly after though, whilst visiting a local second-hand shop, I found a hardback copy of the book. This had only recently arrived at the shop in a box containing other books, I had been informed, and I looked through for anything else of interest. Curiously there were two other books in that box that also caught my eye: a novel called Phoenix, by Amos Aricha (the phoenix being the bird that rises from the ashes, and Amos being a book and prophet in the Bible), and Children of the New Forest, a children’s novel published in 1847 by Captain Frederick Marryat, set in the time of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth (the “Forest” being what the roof of Notre-Dame’s cathedral is sometimes referred to*). I didn’t buy these two books, but I found their inclusion in the box, as I say, curious.

*I mentioned this in my post about the fire, that it is said (apparently, although by whom is not stated) that the roof contained the wood from an entire forest. In the novel it is more that looking through all the various beams and additional timber added into the roof structure over time, that the appearance of this was akin to what one sees when looking through a forest.

The novel by Victor Hugo and published in 1831, does indeed include descriptions of the Cathedral, and also a Cathedral-top view-based description of the layout of Paris itself. These are painted in 1482 when the novel was set, and lavished in poetic style; Hugo is considered to be one of the greatest and best-known French writers (as Wikipedia informs me) and his abilities as a poet shine through. It’s not a hard slog of poetic prose but a wide use of varying descriptive words that never grows tiresome; Hugo seeming to always find a new way to describe something. Partly, I’m sure, this is down to the translators of the French novel, for which my two versions were the work of two different ones) but I’m sure most of the credit must go to Hugo himself.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, not only for the descriptions which I had read it for (and were beyond what I was expecting), but for the story itself. What each reader will glean from such a novel will be different, for it is one that has this depth. I think the same is true for which characters intrigue us most. Early on for me it was the Hunchback, Quasimodo himself that received the lime-light, further on it was Claude Frollo, the novel’s main antagonist, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame as an alchemist. At this point I became aware of some tendency to draw (perhaps) too much truth from the details here, since it was likely (I deduced) this character’s dabblings were, I suppose, just something that was portrayed through popularity of that topic at the time the novel was written and perhaps not really what the past, for which it was based, was all about. Later still the character of focus became about the Gypsy girl Esmerelda. She had been present from the start and throughout, as we learned about various phases of her life, and the novel as a whole revolved around the handful of characters that were attracted to her, more so, it seemed to me, than it actually revolved around The Hunchback. This leads me onto the movies that have been created from the novel.

As with previous novels I have read – I’m thinking of most recently Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and before that (in my reading order) Bram Stoker’s Dracula – I generally seek out film-versions after reading a novel, in order to gain further insight, the different perspectives and ideas, as well as reliving the stories themselves. It’s often a difficult task though and no film of the HND stirred me, in fact the opposite was true. I watched a few trailers and these put me off the various versions they promoted. The 1997 version seemed to immediately portray things not as they were, promoting a world perhaps as seen in popular belief, such as one where books are banned (while in the novel there is a poet and the Archdeacon had books), and claiming that the inhabitants were lead to believe the world is flat and nothing existed beyond it the walls of Paris. A criticism for me in this version (and the next, the 1956 one) is that it contained actors I was familiar with, but here was the crux: Salma Hayek. At the time of production she would have been almost 30 years of age, whereas Esmerelda for whom she portrays is 16 at her oldest in the novel and in my mind was portrayed as such, being an innocent character and keen to maintain her innocence largely through the belief that a magical amulet that she carried would fail to locate her parents should she lose this. Hayek and her dancing were anything but innocent, instead being sexually alluring in nature, when for the purposes of the plot really didn’t need to be and immediately spoiled things for me. The 1956 also appeared dated although I’m sure I could have become accustomed to this if that was its only issue.

Perhaps this says more about how I imagine such female characters because others are to be found in the aforementioned Dracula where we have Mina, and then, as far as novels go (since I haven’t yet watched a screen version) there is Bleak House by Charles Dickens where I found Esther to be endearing. I find it interesting how the male authors portray such characters also; Hugo strove to maintain Esmeralda’s innocence while she was being seduced by the strapping Phoebus and pursued by the dirty old man that was the Archdeacon.

(Co)Incidentally Frederick Marryat, author of Children of the New Forest, was an acquaintance of Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo, or at least his writing, is said to have had a profound influence on the later Charles Dickens.

Next up in my attempt to find a motion-picture version of HND to watch I tried Disney’s animated one and surprisingly the Esmerelda here also dances and looks similar to the others (although a typical portrayal of such a character I suppose), but shocking, I think, considering it is of course aimed at children, is it not? I raised similar criticisms regarding the BBCs version of the Dracula film which favoured a blatant sexual portrayal between the Count and his female victims, which to me gave the impressions of rape or if not that extreme then the seduction of other men’s wives-to-be. Disney, as appears from the trailer at least, to turn the whole thing into a love story between Esmerelda and Quasimodo; just as P. L. Travers is said to have despised Disney’s version of her Mary Poppins, I’m sure Victor Hugo would have felt similar pangs about his novel.

Esmerelda, it has to be admitted, is of sexual interest to various characters. The first of which was that grimy Archdeacon, who, in failing to persuade the girl to declare her love for him in exchange for her life (because that was what gave him his kicks, preferred instead to see her hanged rather than actually rape her. I have heard it said that “rape is not about sexual desire, it’s about control”. Moving onto Phoebus and here we have a typical lad, wooing a young lady and promising her anything in order to succeed in his ulterior motive of getting his leg over; he would have succeeded if it wasn’t for the fact that the Archdeacon swooped in, in Dracula-like-fashion, from a dark corner of the room.

We then have two further characters who had a love interest in Esmerelda, Quasimodo himself, who had to deal with the problem of her finding him hideous, and Pierre Gringoire, a struggling poet who must either be killed by hanging, or marry a Gypsy. Although Esmeralda does not love him she takes pity on him and marries him, but in order to keep the prospect of finding her parents she will not let him touch her. At this point, early on in the novel, Esmerelda had to be under the age of 16, although at the time it was based I’m of the understanding that marriage at this young age was not prohibited. My issue is that, rather than perhaps educating the audience to this point, or being faithful to the novel, film makers, and likely various other bodies preferred to raise the apparent age of Esmerelda, which in turn gave them licence to sexualise her.

Not liking the look of any of the versions I investigated I hold out hope because Wikipedia informs me there are other renditions in the pipeline. Not only is Disney set to produce a live-action version of their aforementioned animated film. This news in itself probably doesn’t bode well for the Esmerelda issue, since it’s Disney, uncertainty runs deep because the key male characters are the only ones to be announced so far. Then there is a version for Netflix for which I only see that the (male) Idris Elba has listed as the cast so far. Perhaps there is more up-to-date news out there on these, I’m not too fussed, only curious.

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