The Time of the Cathedrals : Victor Hugo, “Notre-Dame de Paris”

ABOVE: “AAGGHH! Is that Miller Lite? Get that away!!!

Esmeralda shouldn’t be so spectacularly attractive. After all, Victor Hugo tells us how pretty she is again and again, which is enough to make us suspicious. It’s just like hearing a car dealer go on about some beaut he seems desperate to get rid of, and we know that (Disney adaptations be-damned) Victor Hugo definitely means to get rid of Esmeralda. The entirety of “Notre-Dame de Paris” is nudging her to her doom. Hugo is as much of a manipulative bastard as the Lars Von Trier of “Dancer in the Dark” – although Esmeralda probably dances better in the dark than Bjork.

ABOVE: “I’m a gypsy from Poland! That’s why I like to ride a pole.”

But attractive she is.

“Notre-Dame de Paris” commonly gets translated as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” because Quasimodo, the genetically challenged bell-ringer, cuts such a striking figure. It was the author’s master-stroke to give us such an ugly character. (Not “plain,” like some relatable John Doe or Jane Eyre. UGLY. “Vomit-your-dejeuner” ugly.) But memorable though Quasimodo may be, he isn’t the protagonist. When Hugo wrote the libretto for the opera adaptation of the novel, he didn’t call it “Quasimodo”; he called it “La Esmeralda.”

Hugo loved Esmeralda, that’s clear, and so he sells us on her attractiveness by showing us OTHER characters being passionate about her- rarely in a positive way. She stands at the center of a bizarre love quadrangle whose corners are Quasimodo, Gringoire the poet, Frollo the priest, and Phoebus the soldier. That’s two more people than what your run-of-the-mill love triangle attracts: Esmeralda is practically a hunchback herself, bent under the weight of all that (mostly unsolicited) male attention.

The gargoyles overlooking it all turn this into a Gothic historic tragedy, but really Esmeralda’s plight couldn’t be more timeless. With some tonal adjustments, “Notre-Dame de Paris” becomes a “who-will-she-choose” Jane Austen romantic comedy. Esmeralda is just another gypsy girl on a serious of terrible dates! Consider her suitors:

1- Quasimodo is the Sweet-but-Fugly type. (Not to mention deaf so he never listens to a thing she says. He won’t even leave his man-cave, where he’s always “ringing his bells”!) He’s probably a monster in bed, but she just can’t introduce him to friends and family.

ABOVE: … Although he has a cute hair-do.

2- Gringoire the Broke-Ass Artist. He has a lot of pretty things to say but no job to speak of, and eventually ends up paying waaaay too much attention to Esmeralda’s pet goat. THOSE CRAZY ARTISTS!

ABOVE: Yes, Gringoire, we saw the guy-liner, we get it, you’re an “artist.”

3- Frollo the Homicidal Stalker. At first Frollo comes across like a good catch! He has a respectable job, he’s active in his church, he’s well-read, and he’s mad about Esmeralda. But then he goes a little TOO mad, too intense. That “respectable job”? He “forgot to mention he was a Catholic priest.” “Active in his church?” That  turns into “incoherent rants about the apocalypse.” “Well-read” turns into “has a disturbingly large collection of serial killer biographies.” Restraining order for Frollo!

ABOVE: “Let me guess, Frollo… You had an onion omelette for breakfast.”

4- Phoebus the Handsome Douchebag. There’s really not much to say about Phoebus. He’s a douche bag. He douches. No, let’s be fair. Phoebus has a LOT of love to give… And he’s gonna give it to a LOT of chicks. Phoebus is single-handedly responsible for the herpes epidemic of 1482.  Esmeralda thinks he’s sooo DREAMY and would LITERALLY die for him. Phoebus, on the other hand, keeps on calling her “Similar” or “That ethnic chick with the bazooms.” 

ABOVE: “Big sword. Luxury horse. You know you want me.”

What woman of a certain dating age hasn’t had to deal with some or all of these?

None of the cinematic adaptations can prepare you for the awfulness of Phoebus. I myself just made him sound like a lovable, incorrigible ladies’ man. He’s not. He’s an out and out piece of horse manure. He’s too dumb to be a rake, too cowardly to be a rogue. He’s cute so he rarely has to resort to date-rape, but that is clearly where his emotional inclinations lie. I hated Phoebus more than Frollo: Frollo is willing to burn in Hell for Esmeralda, but Phoebus barely has the emotional energy to jerk off over her corpse.

ABOVE: Notre-Dame de Paris. One of the few characters that doesn’t die.

“Notre-Dame de Paris” was published in 1831, when Hugo wasn’t even thirty years old, but it feels like the work of a much older man, filled with a reactionary sadness at a disappearing architectural world. I only noticed three tangents. That’s restrained by Hugo’s standards, compared to latter, “let’s-discuss-everything” works like “Les Miserables” or “The Legend of the Centuries.” The one tangent that’s still worth reading is the ode to Gothic architecture: it practically changed the way France thought about the preservation of its historical sites. The one that is eminently skippable is a dry, too-detailed description of the street lay-out of Paris in the 1500s. Our characters spend nearly all their time either at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame or at the fabled Court of Miracles (“where the lame walk and the blind see”), so what’s the point, other than reminding us of Hugo’s erudition, which we had never doubted? There is a third tangent: a profile of Louis XI as a penny-pincher that is inconsequential but effectively delays the climax.

And what a climax it is.

*sniff sniff*

I’m a huge Hugo fan, (I count “Les Miserables” among my top-ten all-time novels) but avoided this for years,  because the plot was too familiar, and the tragedy of it all too inevitable. It was still a pleasure to watch Hugo erecting the gallows for his victims. GO READ NOW! Read it to fall in love with Esmeralda, or to hate her for not seeing that the only guy around her who wasn’t a monster was the one with the hunchback.

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! You’re the Pope of Fools if you don’t get familiar with this book at some point!!!

POST-SCRIPT: (Spoiler!)

“NDdP” is an oppressively tragic novel, but it also features one of the pithiest literary punch-lines of all time. After reporting on the horrible deaths of most of his cast, here’s Hugo on Pretty Boy Phoebus:

“As for Phoebus, he also met a tragic fate.

He married.”



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