I recently finished reading “Notre Dame de Paris,” or as it’s known in the English-speaking world, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I was surprised to find that the book is all about architecture. I only knew anything about this novel from the movies, none of which speak two syllables about architecture.
Hugo was passionate about the Gothic architecture that was represented in Notre Dame cathedral and that was disappearing by Hugo’s time. But it wasn’t merely an aesthetic passion for beauty, or some such thing. Hugo argued that architecture, or more simply the act of building, was the oldest form of expression and communication: he says that edifices were our original syllables, our first words, our oldest books, and that physical structures carried the ideas of the ages that built them no less surely than books came to do later. In this novel he makes an impassioned defense of what he sees in the stones of such buildings as Notre Dame, and this would have meant little to me as a reader except that he’s clearly not talking about architecture, he’s talking about history — about the passage of time, people and ideas.
I had heard that “Hunchback” was known as a Gothic novel, but all my life I’ve had only the dimmest ideas of what the term “Gothic” meant. It has many connotations in art and literature, of course, but I had no idea until reading this book that the term “Gothic” also refers to the architecture of the second half of the Middle Ages (roughly 1150 – 1600 AD); and that it was characterized by the use of the pointed arch, which replaced the perfectly round arch prevalent toward the end of the first half of the Middle Ages, a style known as Romanesque.
All this can sound impenetrably academic, but what saved it for me is that all these terms denote ages as much as arches: history, culture, distinct eras. Now, that might seem to be a lot of weighty things for mere arches to support, but apparently that’s how it is, and Hugo can sweep you away with his passionate arguments about what a pointed arch can tell us about such things as human expression, art, even politics. To take only the most basic example, a pointed arch could support more weight than a rounded, which meant that cathedral walls could rise higher than ever and be thin enough to allow great windows, filling the interior with light.
Hugo associates the Gothic with light and, perhaps more debatably, with the freedom of the citizen:
In the Hindu, Egyptian, or Romanesque architecture, one feels the priest, nothing but the priest, whether he calls himself Brahmin, Magian, or Pope. It is not the same in the architectures of the people. They are richer and less sacred. In the Phœnician, one feels the merchant; in the Greek, the republican; in the Gothic, the citizen.
Hugo runs with all of this, and then he takes you on a trip into the past, approximately three and half centuries back from the time in which he was writing.
A few weeks ago I was at a loss for what book to read next, and I picked up “Hunchback,” which my son had read in a young-adult version this past summer, so I was interested in joining him in the story, so to speak. So picked up my copy of Alban Krailsheimer’s 1993 translation, and just to sample the waters, I opened the book randomly, landing near of the end of the chapter, “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris.” And it mesmerized me. Immediately you could see that someone was directly offering you time travel from a great height.
Let us return to Paris and to the fifteenth century.
It was not then merely a handsome city; it was a homogeneous city, an architectural and historical product of the Middle Ages, a chronicle in stone. It was a city formed of two layers only; the Romanesque layer and the Gothic layer; for the Roman layer had disappeared long before, with the exception of the Hot Baths of Julian, where it still pierced through the thick crust of the Middle Ages. As for the Celtic layer, no specimens were any longer to be found, even when sinking wells.
Fifty years later, when the Renaissance began to mingle with this unity which was so severe and yet so varied, the dazzling luxury of its fantasies and systems, its debasements of Roman round arches, Greek columns, and Gothic bases, its sculpture which was so tender and so ideal, its peculiar taste for arabesques and acanthus leaves, its architectural paganism, contemporary with Luther, Paris, was perhaps, still more beautiful, although less harmonious to the eye, and to the thought.
But this splendid moment lasted only for a short time; the Renaissance was not impartial; it did not content itself with building, it wished to destroy; it is true that it required the room. Thus Gothic Paris was complete only for a moment. Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie had barely been completed when the demolition of the old Louvre was begun.
After that, the great city became more disfigured every day. Gothic Paris, beneath which Roman Paris was effaced, was effaced in its turn; but can any one say what Paris has replaced it?
…. [A]dmirable as the Paris of to-day may seem to you, reconstruct the Paris of the fifteenth century, call it up before you in thought; look at the sky athwart that surprising forest of spires, towers, and belfries; spread out in the centre of the city, tear away at the point of the islands, fold at the arches of the bridges, the Seine, with its broad green and yellow expanses, more variable than the skin of a serpent; project clearly against an azure horizon the Gothic profile of this ancient Paris. Make its contour float in a winter’s mist which clings to its numerous chimneys; drown it in profound night and watch the odd play of lights and shadows in that sombre labyrinth of edifices; cast upon it a ray of light which shall vaguely outline it and cause to emerge from the fog the great heads of the towers; or take that black silhouette again, enliven with shadow the thousand acute angles of the spires and gables, and make it start out more toothed than a shark’s jaw against a copper-colored western sky,—and then compare.
And Hugo may have been obsessed with architecture but there is nothing like the visual description he gives to the sounds of a city and its inhabitants:
And if you wish to receive of the ancient city an impression with which the modern one can no longer furnish you, climb—on the morning of some grand festival, beneath the rising sun of Easter or of Pentecost—climb upon some elevated point, whence you command the entire capital; and be present at the wakening of the chimes. Behold, at a signal given from heaven, for it is the sun which gives it, all those churches quiver simultaneously. First come scattered strokes, running from one church to another, as when musicians give warning that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, behold!—for it seems at times, as though the ear also possessed a sight of its own,—behold, rising from each bell tower, something like a column of sound, a cloud of harmony. First, the vibration of each bell mounts straight upwards, pure and, so to speak, isolated from the others, into the splendid morning sky; then, little by little, as they swell they melt together, mingle, are lost in each other, and amalgamate in a magnificent concert. It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations.
Nevertheless, this sea of harmony is not a chaos; great and profound as it is, it has not lost its transparency; you behold the windings of each group of notes which escapes from the belfries. You can follow the dialogue, by turns grave and shrill, of the treble and the bass; you can see the octaves leap from one tower to another; you watch them spring forth, winged, light, and whistling, from the silver bell, to fall, broken and limping from the bell of wood; you admire in their midst the rich gamut which incessantly ascends and re-ascends the seven bells of Saint-Eustache; you see light and rapid notes running across it, executing three or four luminous zigzags, and vanishing like flashes of lightning. Yonder is the Abbey of Saint-Martin, a shrill, cracked singer; here the gruff and gloomy voice of the Bastille; at the other end, the great tower of the Louvre, with its bass. The royal chime of the palace scatters on all sides, and without relaxation, resplendent trills, upon which fall, at regular intervals, the heavy strokes from the belfry of Notre-Dame, which makes them sparkle like the anvil under the hammer. At intervals you behold the passage of sounds of all forms which come from the triple peal of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Then, again, from time to time, this mass of sublime noises opens and gives passage to the beats of the Ave Maria, which bursts forth and sparkles like an aigrette of stars. Below, in the very depths of the concert, you confusedly distinguish the interior chanting of the churches, which exhales through the vibrating pores of their vaulted roofs.
Assuredly, this is an opera which it is worth the trouble of listening to. Ordinarily, the noise which escapes from Paris by day is the city speaking; by night, it is the city breathing; in this case, it is the city singing. Lend an ear, then, to this concert of bell towers; spread over all the murmur of half a million men, the eternal plaint of the river, the infinite breathings of the wind, the grave and distant quartette of the four forests arranged upon the hills, on the horizon, like immense stacks of organ pipes; extinguish, as in a half shade, all that is too hoarse and too shrill about the central chime, and say whether you know anything in the world more rich and joyful, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes;—than this furnace of music,—than these ten thousand brazen voices chanting simultaneously in the flutes of stone, three hundred feet high,—than this city which is no longer anything but an orchestra,—than this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest.
I think the act of opening to a random page actually saved me because if I had started on page 1 with the story-proper and had then encountered these long historical essays, I might have found it all heavy going, as many readers do. But my first taste of the novel was in the architectural parts, so I was prepared. In fact as I returned to page 1, I wanted the architecture parts to resurface quickly.
So I think in a way I benefitted from some dumb luck there.
As for the plot, even critics who love the novel have called it melodramatic, and if so, I won’t argue. I still loved it, though I get the point about the melodrama.
(Spoilers ahead for those who have not read the novel.)
I probably prefer realism in my novels, or psychological depth: I could spend a thousand pages just exploring a character’s thoughts and inner life, and I don’t need him to be the long-lost son of another character, or some such thing. Hugo goes in for the latter (I’m looking at you, too, Dickens!) But though I didn’t need it, I was swept in all the same, and could feel meaning in it even if my head sometimes wanted to protest. At moments like these you sometimes have to make sure that your head remains useful in your reading rather than an obstacle.
Now, I want to ask, who is the central character of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”? I mean, apart from the cathedral. As many readers have noted, this book is no more about the hunchback than “Anna Karenina” is about Ms. Anna. She is a major character but not the central one of her novel, and the same is roughly true of Quasimodo.
But then who is the central human character here? That’s easily answered with “Anna Karenina”: it’s Levin, and no other possibility. But here, if not Quasimodo, then who? Some readers feel it’s Esmeralda, but I feel we didn’t get enough from her, or enough about her. The person whose character we are most often with, most consistently exploring, is Archdeacon Claude Frollo.
It might seem strange that the villain of the piece is the main character. But Hugo really didn’t think of Frollo as a simple villain. In the movie adaptations, he’s usually a villain and nothing more. In the book, he’s a complex character, capable of limited goodness, able to draw our limited sympathy. He has to be complex, if he’s going to be the major character of a work like this. In another kind of work he could be an archetypal villain, but Hugo is working on something a little different. He’s interested in tragic figures: potentially good or bad people with deadly flaws who also have drawn a bad deck.
When such characters act, the results are tragically out of line with their intentions, even opposed. Nothing could be more heroic, in intention, than Quasimodo’s stout defense of Notre Dame when it comes under attack; but the poor man doesn’t realize that the beggars storming the cathedral intend to take away Esmeralda, whom the authorities are going to hang the very next day; and he greets as liberators the soldiers who have been sent to make sure she hangs.
Two major facts about Frollo surprised me in the novel: he is devoted to an undeserving brother; and he adopts the hunchback as a baby, and does so of his own accord. The ugliness of the baby is said explicitly to draw out his compassion; no one else in the novel, even Esmeralda, can bear to look at him.
But I would concede that by the end of the novel Frollo has fallen into archetypal villain territory, especially with his final diabolical cry. I understand Hugo is depicting a descent in stages toward evil, but the descent takes Frollo so far that the final stages leave you with questions. A priest can fall into damaging lustful obsession and commit evil acts, that’s not controversial. But Hugo implies heavily that Frollo was corrupted by dark arts such as alchemy, and I don’t see how any of that, misguided and mistaken though it was, would inherently lead him to the evil that he did. You can be an alchemist, and even become greedy for the gold that alchemy was intended to produce, without becoming a kidnapper, murderer or rapist.
You can also be a celibate without being any of those things, as of course countless male and female celibates are not. Frollo does at one point muse that “vitiated love” must turn “to horrible things in the heart of a priest, and that a man constituted like himself, in making himself a priest, made himself a demon.” But Hugo says these are “evil thoughts,” and one thing we must remember is that Frollo doesn’t understand himself (he admits this loudly several times) and is looking to exonerate himself, excuse himself, for what he’s done already and the evil he intends to do. At times he openly blames Esmeralda for driving him to his acts, and I think in the same way he is blaming his vocation here. He may well have chosen wrongly in his vocation, but what he’s doing here is allowing himself to believe that a man in his situation must inevitably do the terrible things he’s planning to do.
At times Hugo seems to describe Claude Frollo as falling into evil because of his pursuit of knowledge:
He thus became more and more learned and at the same time, as a natural consequence, more and more rigid as a priest, more and more gloomy as a man.
I cannot see how that follows – how mere studiousness and concentration would not actually help a celibate to maintain his vows. Celibacy and great scholarship can easily co-exist, and possibly even be each a support for the other.
Of course that’s different from a person who coldly pursues knowledge without human feeling, but that kind of withdrawal from or hatred of people – such as in misogyny, or greed – has its origins in things other than curiosity or a love of knowledge.
Hugo is very much an advocate for humanistic progress, but he consistently depicts students in this novel as bad apples, ranging from good-for-nothing scoundrels to dangerous leaders of riots. I wondered if this portrayal was more of a commentary upon the French Revolution of 1789, which was declared to be founded on a new age of reason but which descended into the Reign of Terror.
But even if that could explain why Hugo is so down on students in this particular novel — and I’m not sure it’s the proper explanation — there are still passages in which Hugo seems to associate the mere love of knowledge with a lack of feeling and compassion. For example, of the two women listening to the story of the kidnapped baby, Hugo says that one is “the most inquisitive” and “consequently the least sensitive.”
Hugo was a writer and poet of Romanticism, and I haven’t read anything else by him, so I can only ask: did he perhaps have some distrust of pure reason divorced intentionally from emotion?
At one point Hugo likens Claude Frollo to the German legend of Doctor Faustus — a scholar/alchemist who gives his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge, power, and worldly pleasure. He even seduces and destroys an innocent young girl, so the parallel is very close, though in some versions of the legend, such as Goethe’s, his soul is saved in the end. I know little about the Faust legend but it does seem that this might shed light on what Hugo was trying to say about Frollo, alchemy, perhaps even knowledge in general.
What may have influenced Hugo’s characterization of Esmeralda, I have no idea. I just will begin by saying, it surprised me that Esmeralda’s love for Phoebus is essentially no more than lust, arising from romantic notions of love.
“Phœbus,” continued the Bohemian, gently releasing her waist from the captain’s tenacious hands, “You are good, you are generous, you are handsome; you saved me, me who am only a poor child lost in Bohemia. I had long been dreaming of an officer who should save my life. ’Twas of you that I was dreaming, before I knew you, my Phœbus; the officer of my dream had a beautiful uniform like yours, a grand look, a sword; your name is Phœbus; ’tis a beautiful name. I love your name; I love your sword. Draw your sword, Phœbus, that I may see it.”
“Child!” said the captain, and he unsheathed his sword with a smile.
The gypsy looked at the hilt, the blade; examined the cipher on the guard with adorable curiosity, and kissed the sword, saying,—
“You are the sword of a brave man. I love my captain.” Phœbus again profited by the opportunity to impress upon her beautiful bent neck a kiss which made the young girl straighten herself up as scarlet as a poppy. The priest gnashed his teeth over it in the dark.
“Phœbus,” resumed the gypsy, “let me talk to you. Pray walk a little, that I may see you at full height, and that I may hear your spurs jingle. How handsome you are!”
From that scene forward, Esmeralda shows no more ability to control her passion than Frollo his. But, she is only 16. And of course her nature being infinitely better and sweeter than his, she can’t be compared with him in what she does with her lust. She injures herself mainly. Her final cry of “Phoebus!”, giving away her hiding place, had me shaking and dropping my head simultaneously.
Esmeralda is one of the few people in the novel genuinely capable of platonic love and real compassion, as you see when she saves Gringoire from the noose and when she brings water to Quasimodo. In both of those instances she’s going against the mob, too, which always takes some spine. She had so much promise! But it’s all undone by her superficial love of a rake.
And book-Esmeralda is a little cool toward Quasimodo, not in that famous scene when she gives him water, but later, when they are at close quarters inside the cathedral and she can’t stand to look at him for very long. That’s yet another surprise, for anyone used to Esmeralda’s tender scenes with Quasimodo inside the cathedral as depicted in the movies.
It’s almost like seeing the first “King Kong” movie, from 1933: if you’ve seen later versions of the movie, you’re kind of surprised that Fay Wray has no feeling for the big monkey.
Not quite, but you get the point: I wanted Esmeralda to overcome her repulsion at Quasimodo’s physical appearance, more than she does.
In one respect the King Kong comparison fits perfectly: I’m a lifelong New Yorker who can’t look at the Empire State Building without thinking of Kong; and in the same way Quasimodo is linked with that magnificent medieval skyscraper in Paris.
One other thing: the climactic confrontation in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) is obviously indebted to a similar fight between Quasimodo and Jehan that takes place just above the three great portals of Notre Dame. In both scenes, the “beast” swings Gaston/Jehan over the precipice like a rag doll, the antagonists hide behind statues, the “beast” is silent, etc.
“Ho ho!” said Jehan, “what do you mean by staring at me with that solitary and melancholy eye?”
As he spoke thus, the young scamp stealthily adjusted his crossbow.
“Quasimodo!” he cried, “I am going to change your surname: you shall be called the blind man.”
The shot sped. The feathered vireton whizzed and entered the hunchback’s left arm. Quasimodo appeared no more moved by it than by a scratch to King Pharamond. He laid his hand on the arrow, tore it from his arm, and tranquilly broke it across his big knee; then he let the two pieces drop on the floor, rather than threw them down. But Jehan had no opportunity to fire a second time. The arrow broken, Quasimodo breathing heavily, bounded like a grasshopper, and he fell upon the scholar, whose armor was flattened against the wall by the blow.
Then in that gloom, wherein wavered the light of the torches, a terrible thing was seen.
Quasimodo had grasped with his left hand the two arms of Jehan, who did not offer any resistance, so thoroughly did he feel that he was lost. With his right hand, the deaf man detached one by one, in silence, with sinister slowness, all the pieces of his armor, the sword, the daggers, the helmet, the cuirass, the leg pieces. One would have said that it was a monkey taking the shell from a nut. Quasimodo flung the scholar’s iron shell at his feet, piece by piece. When the scholar beheld himself disarmed, stripped, weak, and naked in those terrible hands, he made no attempt to speak to the deaf man, but began to laugh audaciously in his face, and to sing with his intrepid heedlessness of a child of sixteen, the then popular ditty:—
“Elle est bien habillée,
La ville de Cambrai;
Marafin l’a pillée….”
He did not finish. Quasimodo was seen on the parapet of the gallery, holding the scholar by the feet with one hand and whirling him over the abyss like a sling; then a sound like that of a bony structure in contact with a wall was heard, and something was seen to fall which halted a third of the way down in its fall, on a projection in the architecture. It was a dead body which remained hanging there, bent double, its loins broken, its skull empty.
More about “Notre Dame de Paris” in later posts. Here I just want to leave some images of Our Lady of Paris.
In the late 1800s or early 1900s:
From around 1600:
Just beyond the Cathedral, on the right bank of the Seine, is an open space known as the Place de Grève, which was used for public executions and punishments. It is where Quasimodo was scourged and Esmeralda hanged, and where, historically, countless others suffered similar fates. Today it is the site of the
There’s an outstanding gallery at Historic Photos of Notre Dame.