Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I bought this beautiful copy at The Bookman. I never watched the movie (Disney version) as a child, but I recently watched it as an adult and wanted to buy the book to learn the original story. It’s honestly horrific to me that Disney would make a movie about it, but I can’t say that I’m surprised.

Read: Mar. 27 – Apr. 8, 2023

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Pretty Depressing and Longwinded

Paris, 1482. During the yearly Feast of Fools, the famed hunchback of Notre Dame appears and is crowned for his superior grimace. It is that same day that Esmeralda, a young gypsy girl, is spotted by many who seek her love—the captain of the king’s guard, the archduke, and the hunchback himself. Esmeralda wants the captain, but jealousy from others turns the situation dark; she had shown kindness to others, now she must escape her fate to be burned as a witch.

I couldn’t find a reading of the exact book I have but after trying to read the first chapter on my own, I decided I needed to. I enjoy reading a lot, but recently I’ve found that it puts me to sleep, and I don’t want to fall behind on my schedule; I enjoy listening along anyhow. I found a single video (21 hours long, which I listened to at 1.75x speed) by Audiobooks Unleashed on Youtube, though there are many other readings of this book available. Since the words didn’t match exactly, I was more listening to the video than reading along in the book and was simply turning pages as the story continued.

My first impression, which stayed true through the end, was that this book was longwinded. I suppose that’s the classic nature of it, but an entire chapter of the book was dedicated to telling the reader what the city looks like. The plot did not move forward, nor were any characters mentioned. It was just a flyover of Paris and the Notre Dame cathedral, describing the visual and the history of it all. While interesting, I was no more informed about where the characters were going and where they were geographically, so I don’t see the point of including it. I guess that’s one part of classic books that I don’t enjoy.

The book is written in third person, though the narrator is quite familiar with the reader, sometimes speaking directly to them, calling them “reader” and referring to characters as “our characters” as if speaking in confidence. Furthermore, while the novel is separated into chapters (some long and some short), it is also separated into books, sort of like section marks. Each book has its own main focus; for example, the feast of fools, the description of Paris, and the trial, were each their own book, though the books were not labelled as such (simply Book 1, Book 2, etc.).

I have to say, while I liked the characters, I didn’t like any of them as people aside from the goat. Each of them is aggravating or icky in their own way. The archduke is sick minded, his little brother is a manipulator, Esmeralda is naïve and hopeless, the playwright is selfish, Quasimodo is aggressive, the king is tyrannical. Some of these things aren’t their fault and in turn just makes them human, but there honestly wasn’t a single decent person in the whole book. It lends to a misanthropic nature in the writing but also shows the harsh realism: that everyone has their own agenda.

The archduke, arguably one of the most horrendous people in this book, is hard to pin down. He is a well educated and righteous man, but quite ugly. Even in his mid-thirties, he looks far beyond his age, and he forces himself into celibacy for the sake of his own righteousness, so when he sees Esmeralda, he of course blames her for his own lust. He believes he is in love with her, but it’s really obsession, as he cannot accept her rejection and continuously tries to make her his and no one else’s.

The archduke’s younger brother is nearly his opposite. He is a scholar, but he basks in his recklessness and gluttony. He is constant need of money, which he begs from his brother, so he can spend it all on drink in the tavern. He is always making promises to his brother that he will not spend it on alcohol and that he will focus on his studies, though he just as easily breaks his word because he knows his brother will continue to fund him. Though this behaviour is just proof of how his brother raised him after their parents passed.

Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Esmeralda was taken from her parents by the gypsies and raised to be one of them. She performs in the square alongside her trained goat, Djali, who is her only true companion. She is kind-hearted, but very naïve and, because of her beauty, very vulnerable. She falls in love with Phoebus, the captain of the king’s archers. She does not realize that he is engaged, nor that he holds no real love for any woman; he uses empty words to get physical reward from them.

Quasimodo, the title character of the book, is about twenty years old, and he was adopted and raised by the archduke. He is loyal to a fault to the archduke because of this and is more of a trained guard dog than a child. As he grew, he was kept isolated because of his deformity, and as the bell ringer, he also became deaf, only able to communicate with the archduke through sign language. He is initially quite a dark character in the book, but later shows some gentleness and protectiveness for Esmeralda.

I’d say the pacing of this book was fine, though as I mentioned above, there was an entire section dedicated to a description of the city, and of course other scenes that I initially didn’t see the point of including. In that respect, I’d say the pacing was quite slow, though there were some fast-paced scenes thrown in as well. It took me two weeks to read this book, and while I was satisfied when it ended, I’m not in any hurry to read it again.

I wouldn’t say it’s recommended reading for everyone, as I know I would’ve hated this book had it been assigned in high school (good thing it isn’t). It is, however, a great book for people who enjoy classics, specifically from the French Romantic era.

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