Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Notre-Dame de Paris (by Victor Hugo) [1831]

Kind of a weird cover, but the longer
you spend looking at the detail,
the cooler it gets.
Notre-Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a sweeping novel about Gothic Architechture, The Printing Press, and why Louis XI of France was lame. There's also a little subplot about a teenage girl named Esmaralda, the troubled priest Claude Frollo who's obsessed with her, and a tragically deformed young man named Quasimodo.

In all seriousness, Monsieur Hugo likes to go off on diversions a lot. Some of them are pretty interesting, others are... not pretty interesting. I suppose he has that in common with Charles Dickens.

Diversions aside, this is a really good book (and even the diversions are good, I just don't have a very mature attention span). Contrary to what the English title suggests, the main character isn't the hunchbacked Quasimodo, but Esmeralda.

Esmeralda is stunningly beautiful, and also a very compassionate and trusting person. It's this kindness that causes Quasimodo to love her, and it's her beauty that infatuates Claude Frollo. However, Esmeralda fancies the handsome captain Phoebus, who's a stuff-shirted peacock. Well, not literally a stuff-shirted peacock, but he certainly is one in spirit. Here's where Esmeralda not only gets irritatingly stupid, but also painfully realistic. Despite the fact that he only wants her so that he can have some fun for a few nights, Esmeralda considers him her knight in shining armor because he rescued her from men who were trying to kidnap her (Frollo and Quasimodo, actually). In a climactic scene, Esmeralda's whole-hearted devotion and love for Phoebus gets her into a royal fruitcake of trouble. I thought that was incredibly stupid of her, but it makes sense in a sad way. Girls always stick by men who aren't necessarily good because they (a) Believe they can change them, (b) are desparete, or (c) Believe that their good points make up for any bad ones.

Claude Frollo is an interesting antagonist. We're told about his life, and from what we can see, he isn't a bad man. Unlike in the atrocious Disney adaptation where Frollo kills Quasimodo's mother then tries to kill baby Quasimodo, Frollo finds the abandoned Baby at the church and takes him in. When Quasimodo was growing up, he knew Frollo as the only human being who didn't treat him with disgust. So at first, Claude Frollo is not a bad man. He was stern and cold, but he was not evil. It was only when he let himself be carried away by an infatuation that his soul became twisted.

Then of course, there's Quasimodo. Esmeralda is the main character of the novel, but Quasimodo is who you think of when somebody says 'Hunchback of Notre-Dame'. Quasimodo is one of the most tragic characters that literature has to offer. Rejected all his life, only to lose everything that he ever loved in one bleak day.

The writing for this book is really good- I mean, it's a classic for a reason. It's well told and executed. Something I love about Victor Hugo's writing is how poetical it is, and also the vivid mental images in puts in your head. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not you like how unapologetically dramatic Victor Hugo's writing style is, but it really is a gorgeous book, and it smothered my soul with ennui. (See? I can be unapologetically dramatic too!)

The Verdict: A
Notre-Dame de Paris was one of those books whose ending left me kind of silent. You know, you finish it, and you can't quite believe that you just finished it, and you just kind of sit there for a while, mulling over the last few lines. Of course, I have to cut through my unadultarated praise and say that it wasn't without it's flaws. There were some pacing issues, and I found Frollo yelling "DAMNATION!!" as he fell to his death really cheesy in a not-so-good way. But this is a very good read, and I would highly reccomend it to anyone who doesn't mind soul-shatteringly sad endings.

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