Monday, April 2, 2012

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

There is no substitute for the original
By now we all know the story, or do we? Dom Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame, develops a lustful obsession towards the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda, and decides he must either possess her or destroy her. He sends his adopted son Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame, to capture her. The attempt fails, however, and Quasimodo is taken by guards, tried for the attempted abduction, and sentenced to a public flogging. While undergoing his punishment, Esmerelda grants him a drink of water, a gesture of kindness the pitiful hunchback never forgets. Esmerelda is later tried for a murder she did not commit, having been set up by Frollo. Quasimodo rescues her from the gallows and carries her into the cathedral where, due to the law of sanctuary, she is immune from the persecution of the law.

Like another great classic, Moby-Dick, most people only experience this story in the form of a movie or a condensed children’s book, in which the ending is oftentimes either truncated or replaced by some sort of “happily ever after” resolution. The actual book Victor Hugo wrote contains little that is suitable for children, and as for the actual ending, I’m certainly not going to give it away in this review.

This is one of the greatest novels ever written. Why do so few people read the actual book? For one reason, it’s a tough read. Written in 1831, and taking place in 1482, the story contains a lot of medieval history. The names of unfamiliar historical personages of church and state are liberally tossed about, along with a fair amount of archaic terminology. While it may be possible to read Les Misérables without a single footnote, you’d be hard-pressed to read Notre-Dame without ample notes and a couple trips to Wikipedia. Secondly, like all great books of the past, and like so few books of the present, this novel contains a complex message. Over and above the more immediate lessons it teaches us about love, obsession, courage, devotion, and fate, Notre-Dame de Paris also laments the death of architecture at the hands of the printing press. Gothic cathedrals were the books of their day; their walls were the pages, their sculptures and stained glass windows were the texts which educated the illiterate masses. One of Victor Hugo’s personal interests was the preservation of historical architecture, in particular the remaining medieval buildings of Paris. Quasimodo’s hulking form is an embodiment of the monolithic architecture of the Notre Dame cathedral itself. The story takes place at the time when the printing press was gaining prominence in Europe. With the dissemination of printed materials, more inexpensive and easier to mass produce than hand-copied manuscripts, came a rise in literacy. This in turn heralded the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and led to the triumph of education over ignorance, reason over superstition, science over religion, and democracy over monarchy. A more educated and literate population no longer needed those ornate cathedrals to instruct them as to what’s right and what’s true; possessed of the power of literacy they could now decide for themselves. While I think it’s safe to say Hugo was on the side of literacy, Quasimodo is the incarnation of Hugo’s nostalgia for the beautiful but obsolete form of expression encapsulated in those Gothic cathedrals. Now is a particularly interesting time to read this book, while we are undergoing an equally monumental shift in the primary mode of information dissemination, from the printed word to digital media.

Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the few novels that rises above the sphere of literature into the realm of mythology. Hugo has written such a well-crafted story, so memorable, so elegant in its basic structure, so universal in its themes, yet so deep in its philosophical undertones, that it earns itself a place alongside some of the most ancient myths and legends. The elemental opposition between Quasimodo (ugly on the surface but possessing beauty of soul) and Claude Frollo (superficially pious but sinister underneath) could have been written thousands of years ago. It’s a testament to Hugo’s skill as a writer that Quasimodo, a deformed man of childlike intelligence, has become a household name along the lines of Odysseus, Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, or Batman. Esmerelda is one of the greatest female characters in literature—part gypsy sex goddess, part street-smart urchin, part naive teenage girl. At times she’s a damsel in distress, yes, but she’s also a strong-willed protagonist, with a fierce independence that’s undermined by her flawed, shallow infatuation with a handsome, egotistical man who ultimately brings about her downfall.

There are so many subplots and supporting characters in this book that never make it into the Disney or Hallmark Channel versions of the story. If you haven’t read Hugo’s version, you’re missing out on a lot. Treat yourself to one of the world’s greatest works of literature and start reading this book today.

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