Monday, July 30, 2007

Books: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

If one doesn't mind old-fashioned (that is non-problematized and sometimes gimmicky) narratives, this is a pretty fun read. Usually I do mind these things, but lately I've been a bit more forgiving, or, at least, able to read and react within the appropriate cultural frame.

For all of his fame, Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, is not the plot's driving force. Though he is a key figure, the story is actually that of the gypsy Esmerelda, and how she is punished (what a surprise) for being beautiful and thereby (unintentionally) seductive. Aside from the entirety of the Parisian mob (which Hugo captures brilliantly), Esmerelda's beauty fascinates four main characters: Gringoire, a destitute poet turned tramp who, by a twist of events, becomes her husband (though he never does taste the, ahem, conjugal fruits); Phoebus, a military captain, gallant, and rake, with whom she falls in love, and who attempts to take advantage of her; Claude Frollo, the lonely, learnéd, and suddenly lusty Archdeacon who lives at Notre Dame who rescues Esmerelda from Phoebus' attempt on her chastity (only to attempt to violate it himself), and of course Quasimodo, the malformed and malsocialized hunchback who, impressed not only by Esmerelda's physical beauty, but also the compassion she once showed him by bringing him a drink of water while he was publicly whipped and shamed (for having attempted to kidnap her (by the order of Claude Frollo, his foster-father and only "friend")), rescues her from the Parisian mob that intends, thanks to the rabble-rousing of Frollo, to hang her as a witch, and hides her within the sanctuary of Notre Dame, where he tends to her every need.

Esmerelda is described in a mostly empty way, although Hugo dedicates many words to the delicate turn of her foot. Mostly, she dances with a tambourine in the public squares, sometimes sings as well, and has her pet goat Djali do tricks. She has lithe, tan arms, bounteous dark hair, and beautifully flashing eyes. She is sixteen years old, and she is an orphan. She wears a pouch around her neck that the gypsies promised her would lead her to the secret of her parentage. That is all. We are not privy to her interior, although she seems very much to want to find her parents, and she wants even more to be reunited with Phoebus, whom she loves (for no real reason other than the fact that he is so. . . dashing (a mistake Quasimodo will so elegantly indicate with a variety of metaphoric gifts, for example, two bouquets of flowers, one withered in a cracked crystal vase because the water all ran out, and one brightly blooming in a homely but sturdy clay pot; that scene becomes even more poignantly eloquent (or obnoxious, depending on whether you are a feminist) when Esmerelda grasps the withered bouquet and clutches it her chest, ignoring the other bouquet and continuing to gaze out the window, sighing for Phoebus.)

Perhaps the most interesting character is the Archdeacon, because he doesn't have any logically sound reasons for his actions. Obviously Phoebus would want to have a tumble with Esmerelda, because he'd like to have a tumble with any woman, and this one is particularly attractive. It is easy to see, too, that Quasimodo, isolated by his disfiguration and his deafness (from ringing the church bells), would be enchanted by an attractive woman's small kindness, even to the point of obsession. Frollo, however, is highly educated (too intelligent, Hugo often implies, for his own good), and has mastered not only theology and philosophy, but has for some time been exploring alchemy as well. He has for family a young brother, whom he raised from infancy when they were both orphaned in his teenaged years, and whom he has adored and spoiled all his life (without thanks), and Quasimodo, too, whom he adopted as a foundling to protect him from a death sentence (the Parisian mob assumed he was a devil-child because of his misshapen body). But this man, seemingly educated and compassionate, from the very sight of Esmerelda becomes a lecherous, godless beast, certain that she is sent by the devil to tempt him, and completely willing to sell his soul to hell in order to possess her body.

There are a few details that I found bothersome; one in particular is Quasimodo's selective hearing; he is supposed to be deaf, which is why he cannot defend himself whenever he is asked a question by a magistrate or the mob. Claude Frollo uses a language of signs to communicate with him. Yet, while Esmerelda is imprisoned in his church tower, she sings a plaintive song one day, and stops when she sees him. He then begs her to continue. There are other instances in which he appears to be able to hear, and this inconsistency is frustrating. Additionally, Hugo has a way of introducing new characters by describing scenes that seem quite separated from the plot with a great amount of length and color, and then, chapters later, revealing that said isolated scene and character are actually critical to the next plot twist. It's a kind of tiresome foreshadowing that, as an m.o., outstays its use as the reader becomes acclimated to the technique and sees the "surprises" (including the big big big surprise about Esmerelda's parentage) about a mile away. And of course, it's all terribly old-fashioned, non-problematized, and gimmicky. But for all of that, it's still a fun read (if one can trudge through the lengthy early passages on the architecture of Notre Dame and medieval Paris), something of a fairy tale for adults who aren't intellectually evolved enough to enjoy Barth or Foster Wallace.

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