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Loren D. Morrison
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Victor Hugo never wrote a book titled THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Some early translator gave it that name. What Hugo wrote was a book called NOTRE DAME OF PARIS (in French: NOTRE DAME de PARIS). This is not a book that is primarily about a hunchback named Quasimodo or a beautiful Gypsy girl named Esmerelda. It is a book narrowly focused on the Cathedral of Notre Dame situated on the Ile de la Cite in the center of Paris and, more broadly, on the 15th century city of Paris. This was a Paris where public executions or any form of punishment involving public humiliation were the highest forms of entertainment and drew the kinds of crowds that we would see at a major sports event today. If this book is not read with this in mind, the reader might well be disappointed because he came to it with a different sort of book in mind. I would like to congratulate the one previous reviewer who reviewed the book on the basis of its actual scope and intent.
Now to the human aspects of the novel, the plot so to speak: There are no perfect angels in this book. After all, Esmerelda was a part of a band of thieves who came to public gatherings for the express purpose of seeing what they could "gather" for themselves. Quasimodo was not a misshapen humanitarian. He had been known to carry out a dirty deed or two himself. As for the rest of the characters, there's not a role model in the bunch. To Hugo's credit, we really care about Quasimodo and Esmerelda, "warts and all." This is one indication of good writing.
The basic plot, devoid of any embellishments, is rather simple. Esmerelda, out of humanitarian instincts, comes to Quasimodo's aid in a small but meaningful way when he really needs a friend. Quasimodo, as best as he is able, falls in love with Esmerelda. When the arch villain, Archdeacon Dom Frollo, who is also in love with Esmerelda but has been rejected by her, tries to have her hanged, Quasimodo saves her, but only for a while. Eventually she is executed under circumstances where Quasimodo can't came to her rescue. Quasimodo throws our villain, Dom Frollo, to his death from the heights of the cathedral.
In a way, its a shame that when an author creates a memorable character, or an opera composer writes an unforgettable aria, these creations take on such lives of their own that they overshadow the novel or opera from which they come. That has certainly been one of the fates of this book. Too many readers have come to it searching for the cute little Disney Quasimodo, or even Charles Laughton's unforgettable Quasimodo from the 1939 movie. When it turned out that the scope of this book was so much more comprehensive, they were disappointed for all the wrong reasons.
A note about reading Hugo, or any other author worth reading. One should read for enjoyment, and, where it is available, for information that will increase one's understanding of this world. I have noticed that several reviewers, some of whom didn't like this book, talked of its length, or of Hugo's use of "similes and metaphors." Anyone who is busy trying to analyze a book for styles or techniques doesn't have the right inclination to enjoy the book, to enjoy the atmospheres the author has created, or to get the emotional impact that was the author's intent.
I would recommend THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME as a book that is well worth reading if read for the right reasons. Don't read it, or any book, looking for "techniques" or for "neo-modernism," or "anything-else-isms." I guarantee you that's not what the author had in mind when he wrote his novel. He meant it to be read, not analyzed.
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A. R. Greenlee
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Victor Hugo was, among other accomplishments, a dramatist. It shows in this book. He knows how to take his time, how to create background and setting, how to build tension and anticipation. Yet, when the denouement occurs (as several mini-climaxes do before the final one), it does so with shocking or stunning detail, effect, and speed. For all the meandering Hugo does before a climax, he is quite economical when he gets to the end. "Notre Dame" is, despite its length, a nail-biting, page-turning read.
But the dramatist also is evident in another way: dialogue. As has been mentioned by others, the dialogue seems stagey, two-dimensional, over the top (or under the bottom, if you wish). This, apparently, was typical of stage productions in Hugo's day. Claude Frollo, for example, in his last conversation with Esmeralda, is practically unbelievable. But he is not alone: Esmeralda herself stretches our credulity. (For one thing, we are never told why she seemed so sympathetic to Quasimodo on the pillory but repulsed by him in the cathedral.) She immediately falls in love with Phoebus, whom she only meets once briefly, and never changes her feelings, which is to say that she never learns, never grows, never seems aware. And this leads to the oft-repeated, central complaint about this book: the main players are not people; they are symbols, constant and unchanging.
For example, at one point, in describing Quisimodo and Esmeralda, Hugo writes, ". . . there was someting touching about the protection offered by a creature so deformed to one so unfortunate -- one condemned to death saved by Quasimodo. Here were the two extremes of physical and social wretchedness meeting and assisting each other." (Walter J. Cobb translation)
But that, in turn, may be why this long, 19th-century melodrama continues to mesmerize us today. There is something sweeping, larger than life about the story -- and the characters.
Yes, the book is melodramatic. Yes, the main characters tend to be mechanically unswerving, almost frustratingly so. Yes, the dialogue makes you occasionally wince or shake your head. And yet you keep reading -- avidly. At least I did. Why? Partly I read to find out what would happen next. As I said, Hugo has created a genuine cliff-hanger (no pun intended, Frollo). But there is something more. Hugo made me care. How did he do that? How did he make me care about two-dimensional characters?
That may be, ultimately, an unanswerable question. But part of the answer, I think, is that, as with all good larger-than-life stories, myths, or epics, the issues are central to us all. Therefore, we care not just about the characters, but about the issues they represent. When Frollo keeps falling (in more ways than one), we fall (or fear falling) with him. When Esmaralda keeps not seeing, we think of our own blindness, too. When Quasimodo is rejected, we remember the sting we have known or want forever to avoid. And when the king (most believable of all in the book) is heartless, we think of the indifference (instututional, bureaucratic, political, or otherwise) that is all around us still.
And this last observation raises an intriguing question. Why is the king so believable -- and believable in his cold, casual, indifference? Could this question point to a core irony? After all, the melodramatically-unchanging elements in the story reflect one central issue: Fate. Hugo says he wrote this book after finding a single word inscribed on a wall in the cathedral of Notre Dame: "ananke," which is Greek for "fate" (or "necessity"). It is that same word that is inscribed on the wall in Frollo's "secret room" in the cathedral. Are Hugo's characters wooden-like because they are the faces of fate: inevitable, unalterable, and trapped? Could that be why, despite the passion in the plot itself, the tone of the narrator's voice in the story is almost light and detached? Is Hugo saying, "Rage all you want against injustice, but nothing will change because we are all victims of fate"?
As I read, I kept thinking of at least three other authors. I thought of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, not because of style or mood, but simply because of a similar plot ingredient: a hypocritical clergy person who leaves a woman in the lurch alone. (And Hugo's woman, unlike Hawthorne's, is entirely innocent! [Perhaps too innocent?]) Some things never change. I also thought of Melville who, in Moby Dick, would offer the reader lengthy asides about whales and whale sperm and such. Hugo does the same with architecture and history. But in both cases, you go along with the detour, happily, because there is something in the energy and relish of the author for the subject that draws you in. And both stories lead to an inevitable but nontheless shocking end. And, finally, I thought of Dickens who is infamous for his highly improbable coincidences of plot. Both Hugo and Dickens have plot elements and characters intersect and reconnect in the most unlikely -- yet satisfying! -- ways, time and again. Their books are like jigsaw puzzles, puzzles which, when completed, create an improbably satisfying picture. In "Notre Dame," for example, we learn more than the movies ever tell about who Quasimodo is and about who Esmarelda is. The connection between the two may be unlikely, but, oh!, how it makes you smile with wonder when you read it. Yet, in "Notre Dame," unlike in so many of Dickens' books, the plot does not resolve pleasantly. Injustice? Or Fate . . . cruel Fate?