Back in the 1990s, my mom did not allow me to watch Disney’s adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, because she thought it looked too dark and scary (watching it many years later as an adult, I have to say that she’s not entirely wrong. It’s really not a children’s film at all). Hilariously enough, my parents got me the novel for Christmas a mere few years later, not realizing that this is a Little Mermaid situation in that the Disney adaptation is a MUCH cheerier version of the original story. I tried to read the book in high school but got bogged down with a description of France and gave up. I am SO pleased to have tackled my white whale and discovered that I actually really liked it.
This is a story of medieval Paris. It is a critique, novel, Gothic parody, and history rolled into one. We have Quasimodo, a hunchbacked young man who has gone deaf from ringing the bells of the Notre Dame cathedral. There is Claude Frollo, a priest haunted by his own desires and taking them to a lecherous excess. Esmeralda is a warm and loving gypsy dancer who is innocent and beautiful. And then there is the self-serving Captain Phoebus. These characters all collide in ways that lead to explosive conflicts as misunderstandings and quests for power ignite over a period of several days.
Victor Hugo writes a terrific takedown of power and desire, as well as xenophobia in this novel. I do have to warn you, the description at the front end is a little heavy, and the story doesn’t get moving until about 100 pages in. If you can manage it, I think the payoff is worth it. I’m not going to lie, though. There is one point in the book where I imagined movie Quasimodo yelling, “SANCTUARY!”
Cross-posted to my blog.