2016 Reading Challenge: Book 23


A translated book: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

My first reaction—for being a titular character, Quasimodo (the Hunchback) really does not get much face time with the reader. I (falsely) believed that this story would revolve more around his life, but in fact, he provides to be a foil for the true protagonist, a Gypsy girl named Esmeralda. Although the story does encapsulate the narrative of Quasimodo to a lesser degree, I do suggest that the title is a misnomer. The story is really about the interconnectedness of several lives that come together at the end of the narrative.

Esmeralda, a beautiful young Gypsy, lost her parents in infancy and her hope is to someday reunite with them. She grew up with the Gypsies and travels from city to city dancing with her pet goat for money on the streets. A young roguish soldier named Phoebus spies her dancing and becomes enamored of her. Unbeknownst to Esmeralda, she is also espied by two other would-be suitors—the deformed and tragic bell ringer Quasimodo and the lecherous priest Claude Frollo. Phoebus begins to court Esmeralda’s attentions after he saves her from an odd encounter with Quasimodo, and she falls madly in love with him. Phoebus is in love with Esmeralda…until something better might come along. In the process of Phoebus trying and succeeding to steal her virtue, the lecherous priest who wants Esmeralda all to himself jumps out from his hidden voyeuristic position to thwart the would be lovers. He stabs Phoebus in the chest in the manner of “if I can’t have her no one will.” Esmeralda of course faints and the priest slips away. Phoebus is taken to the surgeon and Esmeralda is put in prison for attempting to kill her lover.

Esmeralda stands trial, heartbroken and confused, and she admits to killing Phoebus and whatever accusations the court alleges against her. As Esmeralda is about to be hanged publicly, Quasimodo “has his moment” by grabbing her up, running into the church, and screaming SANCTUARY! Apparently, she is safe within the walls of Notre Dame, a larger but equally repressive prison cell where she must spend the rest of her life or risk being put to death. She and Quasimodo strike up a hesitant friendship, but mostly, Esmeralda has lost her spirit and goes through the motions of her imprisonment by the hunchback. Quasimodo is nothing but gracious to her, but Esmeralda never really appreciates him.

One night, a huge crowd forms to storm the church, sanctuary rights be damned. They want to hang Esmeralda, whom they claim is a witch. Quasimodo has no idea how to save her, and in his search to find a way he leaves her alone. The lecherous Frollo and the poet from the beginning of the novel come and take her away. For reasons unknown to me, the poet chooses to save her goat instead of her? Then the priest asks her one more time if she will give herself to him. She refuses, and he leaves her to the old crazy woman who has been locked inside a cell, ruminating on revenge against the gypsies who stole her daughter. When she realizes Esmeralda is a gypsy, she plans to scream for the crowd so they will come and kill her. At the last moment, she reveals the little baby booty she has kept all these years from her kidnapped daughter. Esmeralda pulls out the matching shoe from a pouch around her neck and mother and daughter are reunited but it’s too late. The crowd comes and takes them both. Mom ends up dying to try to protect her, to no avail. The crowd hangs Esmeralda, but not before she sees her Phoebus in the crowd.

The story ends with Quasimodo throwing Frollo off of the church roof then disappearing, and years later his skeleton is found holding Esmeralda’s down in the crypt where here body was lain. It appears that he simply laid down and died rather than live without her.

What is the moral of this story? We certainly can view Esmeralda as a cautionary tale, loving the wrong man to the point of her own undoing. We also see revenge waste away her mother and cause the undoing of them both. Perhaps Hugo is making a point about “turning the other cheek” as it were? And let us not forget the self-sacrifice and selflessness of Quasimodo. In the end, none of the good mattered. Phoebus ended up just fine, and everyone else died or suffered greatly. What is the commentary Hugo is making here?

Another interesting side note, perhaps for future research, is the affect of the male gaze on Esmeralda. Very similar to my research on Chesnutt’s Rena in House Beyond the Cedars, Esmeralda is introduced through the male gaze and is represented throughout the story as an object of the gaze. It would be very interesting to reread the novel through this lens and draw further conclusions about the sexualized male gaze throughout the novel.






About alycemsustko

Reader, writer, catmom extraordinaire
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