Think you know the story of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame* because you’ve seen the 1996 Walt Disney film? Think again. The film adaptation is basically skim milk, and this is how Nick Offerman feels about it...
Truly, the watered-down Disney version barely resembles Victor Hugo’s original 1831 publication (although, it’s worth watching if you want to hear Demi Moore speak seductively for 90 minutes). The Disney classic is a musical drama in which the good, handsome man ends up with the good, beautiful girl. The Hugo creation is a Gothic depiction of love and its failure to prevail. It shares characters’ most vulnerable moments and asks what extremes will they go to in defense of their love? Of course, Hugo demonstrates all different kinds of “loves”. Some conflate love and lust, so their love is less exclusive and thus less consuming (Phoebus). Some develop a one-track love-mind, so they’re blinded to anything that contradicts their vision of their lover (Esmeralda). Some love is unreciprocated, and the unloved harbors a bitterness that bursts into rage (Claude Frollo). Some love is unremitting, and loyalty persists no matter the costs (Quasimodo). You get the picture—people love other people, and sometimes that works out, but most of the time it doesn’t.
Plenty of nineteenth century tales discuss love, so what makes Hugo’s novel any different? Like his contemporary, Charles Dickens, Hugo writes stories that comment on the history of his birthplace—Paris, France. Hugo portrays the Norte Dame cathedral as a sanctuary for citizens and a large portion of the book is told from the physically heightened point of view of the building. His reasoning is less religious and more artistic; he laments that architecture is a dying art form and he hopes to remind Parisians that their buildings leave behind a historical imprint, defining who they are as a culture. Unfortunately (for me, at least) this means Hugo goes heavy on the structural description sauce. I’m not Hank from Breaking Bad—I care only so much about stones.
Looking past Hugo’s lengthy architectural descriptions, I see a well crafted narrative with a disturbing ending. When you read “‘You must either die or belong to me! …Either the grave or my bed!’” you don’t exactly think *all’s well that ends well* (Hugo, 280). On the other hand, I am disappointed by the lack of character growth, and therefore the predictability of their actions. Quasimodo is an intriguing character; he’s a horrifically ugly, deaf orphan, who clings to the cathedral for refuge. He’s generally kindhearted, but he’s often misunderstood. This unique background and temperament allows for a vast array of narrative opportunities. In my opinion, Hugo puts him in a corner and then lazily confines him to that role. He’s ugly, and people remind him of that fact. He’s deaf, which understandably hampers interpersonal communication. He’s an orphan, so he’s desperately loyal to the man who lovingly takes him in. He adores the cathedral because the gargoyles don’t judge him. In the rare moments he deviates from expectations, his defiance becomes a footnote, overshadowed by other events. I feel that Hugo spread himself too thin; instead of having several main characters compete for the reader’s attention, I wish he had explored the depth of Quasimodo further.
Overall, his dramatic prose does not sufficiently sweep me away, and I think a more apt title would be The Hunchback of Notre-Lame. This work is not so unsatisfying that it’ll keep me from Les Misérables, but I don’t revere Hugo as much as I anticipated that I would. As such, I give the novel 2 out of 5 camel humps, and I’ll have to find my love story elsewhere. Don't get me wrong-- I love sad endings-- but I don't love numerous edificial barriers keeping me from getting there.
*Hugo, Victor. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Book, 1956. Print.