Book Report: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831, 193x?)

As you might have guessed, gentle reader, I’ve been on a French Lit kick for some reason lately; I guess it was because The Three Musketeers was good enough to warrant another look at a potboiler from France in the nineteenth century. Well, this book is not quite that fast of a read.

For starters, the first third to four ninths is mostly exposition. We’re introduced to some of the characters through a long and mostly meaningless scene depicting the titular cathedral during a festival of fools. Some extraneous ambassadors are in town, and Quasimodo, the bell ringer, is elected the king of fools. The poet/philosopher who wrote the main drama finds the audience’s attention continues to be diverted by all sorts of interruptions, comings, and goings, and ultimately he’s disappointed. Dejected, he wanders about Paris and ends up in the neighborhood frequented by the vagabonds, who’ll hang the intruder unless someone saves him by marrying him. Against all odds, the beautiful Esmeralda does.

Then, we get not one but two long essays on architecture and the way Paris looked in the time period in which the book was set. Remember, like The Three Musketeers, this novel was a historical novel when it was written, so the author must have felt the need to pad up 40 pages of exposition to educate his readers. But it really kills the pacing of the story.

To make a short story long, this book really collects a very brief number of scenes with a lot of words dedicated to them (much like other older books, I’ve noted). Ultimately, the author lavishes detail on characters that play minor roles in the action (although major roles in the story, I suppose; the action and the story being two different things here).

Spoiler alert!

So Esmeralda falls for a philandering captain of the guard; a repressed bishop fixates on Esmeralda; the poet/philosopher drops out of the book for a while as the bishop stabs the captain while he’s entertaining Esmeralda, framing the young pseudo-gypsy for the crime; as she’s sentenced to hang, the bishop offers to save her, which she rebuffs; the hunchback steals Esmeralda from the hangmen and takes her to Notre Dame, a sanctuary for criminals; the bishop meets the poet and gets him to foment a rebellion of the vagabonds so they–bishop and poet–can secret Esmeralda from Notre Dame; the bloody uprising occurs; the bishop and the poet steal Esmeralda and her trained goat from the church; when they reach the opposite shore of the Seine, the poet takes the goat instead of the alluring Esmeralda to whom he’s already wed by the laws of the vagabonds; the bishop again pleads for Esmeralda’s love, and she rebuffs him; and they all die, including the subplots, except for the captain of the guard, the poet, and presumably the goat.

I don’t know how you can turn that into a Disney film; I suppose it’s only American audiences’ lack of knowledge of the basics of the plot that allowed it to happen. I mean, Disney wouldn’t dare to try Hamlet. And the hunchback: not a nice guy.

So I’ve got one more French book to go and then I am thinking about knocking off some junk from my to-read shelves before the next book fair later this week.

Wish me luck.

Books mentioned in this review:

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