I am publishing this post on 14 juillet, in honor of one of
France’s great men of letters, Victor Marie Hugo.
He belongs to that pantheon of human beings
whose name consists of three first names.
Summary Version: Notre-Dame de Paris
is a great book,
loaded with irony, big themes, tragic characters, and 19th
I enjoyed reading it.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Lengthy ninth-grade-book-report-style version:
Some weeks ago, Younger Daughter was lounging around,
watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Back in 1996 when Disney first issued this
animated version, I was horrified that Disney would present this story to children.
I banned the movie for our family.
Now it’s on Netflix and my movie-banning
powers have waned (if I ever really had those powers).
Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame
was the first novel I read completely in French, when I was a
I think I must have read an
abridged version. Fast-forward 30 years: I did not remember the plot details,
but I remembered the emotions I felt when I read it – disgust, dismay, horror – at seeing humanity at its most raw.
Having glanced at Disney’s version with its singing
gargoyles, I decided to re-read the book this summer.
Could it be that I was misremembering, and
there was something there to be Disneyfied?
|The closest thing I could get to a gargoyle. |
It's not even a French one.
At Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL
I was delighted to find a bilingual version on my Kindle – a
few lines in the original French, followed by the English translation. Or click
and go to all French.
I was further
delighted to find that I was able mostly to read the French, referring to the
English mainly for words dealing with articles of clothing and architecture,
and some of the denser sections.
English translation in the Kindle version was actually not that great a
translation, so I supplemented it with the library’s translation by Walter Cobb
I believe there is an even more
recent translation than that.
I have to pause here and say that “The Hunchback of Notre
Dame” is a terrible mistranslation of the original French title Notre-Dame de Paris
Hugo himself objected to the English
The French title means “Our Lady
of Paris” which refers, most obviously, to the great cathedral, but also to the
“Virgin Mother” and by extension to the several prominent women characters in
It’s quite obvious from the
text that La Esmeralda is at least one “Our Lady of Paris”:
There, in the middle of the
pavement – it was noontime with bright sunshine – a creature was dancing – a
creature so beautiful that God would have preferred her to the Virgin, and
would have chosen her for His mother, would have been born of her, if she had
existed when He became man!
- Cobb translation of Book 8
Là, au milieu du pavé, - il était midi, - un grand soleil, - une créature
dansait. Une créature si belle que Dieu
à la Vierge, et
l’eut choisie pour sa mère, et
t voulu naître d’elle si elle
t existé quand il se fit homme!
So why did the English publishers have to take the focus
away from La Esmeralda and The Recluse?
It took me a good long time, but I finished the book.
I did not misremember the fact that the book
is completely inappropriate for a G-rated movie.
read Notre-Dame de Paris
, I hope I am
excused from reading any Stephen King books.
N-D de P
is a 19th
century horror tale.
There are no completely sympathetic characters in this
The male characters are especially
Either physically deformed
(Quasimodo) or spiritually deformed (Archdeacon Claude Frollo) or without
morals (Phoebus) or silly and spineless (Gringoire). And yet, I felt some
sympathy with each one, perhaps because Hugo explains how each character
acquired those flaws.
embodies evil, but he also had actions of pure compassion in his early days.
We feel empathy with Quasimodo, but Hugo does
not paint him as above reproach – Quasimodo becomes violent and angry –
nevertheless an understandable reaction given his situation.
Maybe the reason the English title refers to the male
character(s) is because the publishers felt their deformity was more interesting
than the virtue of the female characters.
The book drips with irony.
Hugo is always pointing out the foibles of members of medieval society,
and by extension, the society of his own time.
At times Hugo the Playwright makes fun of himself by mocking the character Pierre Gringoire, poet, philosopher, playwright.
Hugo’s narrative style is always pulling us
back to a far-off vantage point, reminding us that “things aren’t like that any
more” but at the same time making us see that things are
very much still like that.
The crowd’s attack on the Cathedral is a
proxy for the revolutions Hugo lived through, including while he was writing
The main characters do not fully understand
what is happening to them.
Nor are they
capable of fully understanding others around them.
How very like us now! Many of the characters
are ‘stalkers’ – watching someone else from a distance and making conclusions about
others, without actually entering into a true relationship with the person they
This narrative technique of having
people observing from afar enables Hugo to keep up the ironic observations of
Here is Hugo’s description of
the medieval judge, the “auditor”:
Now, the auditor was deaf, a slight
defect for an auditor.
nonetheless meted out justice without appeal; and quite competently. It is
certain that it is quite sufficient for a judge to appear to listen; and the
venerable auditor the better fulfilled this condition, the only one essential
to the good administration of justice, as his attention could not possibly be
distracted by any noise.
Therefore, having well turned over
in his mind the case of Quasimodo, he threw back his head and half closed his
eyes, to look more majestic and impartial, so that at that moment he was in
fact blind as well as deaf -- a double condition without which no judge is
It was in this magisterial
attitude that he commenced the examination.
Hugo shows little love for Christianity, even though it is
the religious inspiration for the building of Notre-Dame.
The description of Esmeralda I quoted above
is a slap in the face of Catholic theology. The behavior of Archdeacon Claude
Frollo looks pretty much like a condemnation of priests and the Catholic
Note that Disney changed Frollo
from a cleric into a judge, to stay away from accusations of being
While many reviewers note that the Cathedral is very like a
character in the novel, what struck me is how “the crowd” is a character unto
The verb most often used to
describe the crowd is fourmiller,
which means “to swarm” like ants in an anthill.
The crowd’s actions affect the plot and the
fate of the characters.
I noticed the prominent imagery of insects.
For the major characters, fate approaches
them like a spider trapping a hapless insect in its web.
Late in the book, the miserly King Louis XI,
known in real life as “the Universal Spider” appears.
The frequent references to creepy insects
sets the tone of the book as a horror story.
My final comments: autocorrect changes Gringoire to “gringo
ire.” It’s really hard to type French in a Word document.
Maybe by the end of the summer I will succumb
and watch Disney’s version, but only if I can have a glass of wine while
|The closest photo I could get of a hunchback.|
My illustrious brother, preparing for a Halloween party.