Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book #53 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo)

After marching across the Persian Empire with Xenophon, I decided I wanted to take it easy.  All that marching got my throat dry and my feet tired and my mind weary, so I figured it was time to sip on a real nice glass of rye whiskey (the Van Winkle 13-year old Family Reserve always will do in a pinch, or any other time for that matter) and kick back with a light-hearted fairy tale of a novel.  At least that's what I thought Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" would be know, a kind of Disney-esque gothic romp featuring an ugly but loveable hunchback who gets the girl in the end because she learns to see past his hideous visage.  Well, Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket was I ever off the mark.  This book is way more Brothers Grimm than Disney.  It deals with serious fucking issues, like the persecution of women, and the depravity and corruption of the church, and in the end almost everybody dies a horrible and tragic death.  A fascinating book, but man what a downer.  I definitely needed an extra glass of whiskey at the end of this one.

Victor Hugo actually named this book "Notre Dame de Paris", since the great Gothic cathedral is where most of the action takes place.  In fact it's almost like the Cathedral and the city of Paris are the central characters in the book.  Hugo goes to great lengths to describe and praise the architecture of the cathedral, and to describe what Paris was like in the 1400s, when the novel takes place.  It's clear Hugo loves Paris and its great Gothic cathedral.  The book was written at a time when Gothic architecture was out of style, and looked upon as primitive and archaic, and Hugo's novel was a love note to Gothic Paris, and proved instrumental in getting the attitudes of Parisians to change in regards to their architectural heritage. It was after this novel that the cathedral was renovated and preserved from a state of descent into disrepair.

The three main characters in the novel, not counting the cathedral and the city, are a priest, a hunchback, and a gypsy girl.  Of course there are other characters too, like a soldier, an impoverished poet, and even the King of France.  In fact, one of the revolutionary things about this novel was that the characters spanned the gamut of Parisian society, from the lowest street people up to the very top of the pecking order with the King.  The priest, Claude Frollo, is the archdeacon of Notre Dame.  His parents died of the plague, and his only family is a younger brother, who he raised after their parents died, and Quasimodo the hunchback, who he adopted after he was left abandoned on the church steps.  Claude loved these two, and raised them as family, but the brother turned out to be a drunken bum, and Quasimodo is, well, a grotesquely ugly and deaf hunchback (he's deaf because his job is to ring the church bells, and they're really, really loud).  Claude is incredibly smart, and has studied everything there is to study (he was clearly an overachiever as a young man).  So at some point he continues his search for knowledge by studying alchemy and the occult.  This makes the parishioners think he's a sorcerer, and he becomes isolated from them.  That's clearly not good for his mental health, since his brother and Quasimodo don't make such a great social circle.

Then Esmerelda, a stunningly beautiful and free-spirited gypsy girl, comes to town.  She hangs out in the town squares, making money by dancing and having her trained goat perform tricks.  The crowd is convinced the goat's tricks are actually witchcraft, but they don't care because they're so entertaining.  But then Claude Frollo sees her, and all is lost.  He becomes hopelessly besotted and completely obsessed. So Quasimodo tries to go kidnap her and bring her to the priest.  But Quasimodo is fended off by some royal soldiers as he attempts to snatch Esmerelda up off the street, and Quasimodo is sentenced to be beaten in public and chained up for public humiliation.  As he is chained after his beating he cries out for water, but none of the good citizens of Paris come to help him, since he's a scary, hideously ugly hunchback and not only are they all pretty much afraid to approach him, but they're also getting pleasure out of seeing him suffer.  So as he cries for water, only Esmerelda approaches and she gives him a drink from a pitcher.  He cries the only tear he has ever shed, and he is instantly and eternally grateful.  His heart has changed from this gesture of compassion.

But in the meantime Esmerelda has become hopelessly besotted and completely obsessed herself...with the soldier that rescued her from the attempted abduction.  This is the second love in the novel, along with Claude's love for Esmerelda, that is blind and obsessive and leads to tragic consequences.  And actually the two other loves in the novel, Quasimodo's love for Esmerelda, and Esmerelda's mother's love for her daughter, all don't turn out so hotly either.  Hmm, I wonder if someone had broken up with Hugo before he wrote this.  Anyway, Claude learns of Esmerelda's infatuation with the soldier, and doesn't like it one he formulates a sneaky plan.  He befriends the soldier, gets him drunk, and learns that the solider is going to see Esmerelda that evening in a hotel room.  The soldier is clearly a cad who just wants to bang the hell out of the poor but gorgeous gypsy girl before dumping her and moving on.  Claude convinces the soldier (who doesn't know Claude is a priest) to let him hide in the room and watch while he porks the young gypsy.  The solder, apparently thinking that this will lend some extra kinky energy to the evening, readily agrees.  So as the priest hides, the soldier leads Esmerelda up to the room.  He then slowly proceeds to get her to relax so he can make his move.  She's nervous and shy, because she's an innocent virgin, but she's so over-the-top crazy for the soldier that she soon decides to let him have his way.  And at that moment, as the solider climbs on top of Esmerelda, Claude leaps out from his hiding place and stabs a knife right through the soldier's back.  Ouch!  The priest runs off and the landlady downstairs hears the soldier's scream and calls the cops, who come and take Esmerelda away.  She is put on trial for murder of the soldier (never mind that there's no evidence, or that the soldier actually recovered from his wound and rejoined his unit).  The judges are convinced she's a sorceress (come on, a gypsy with a dancing goat?  That's gotta be witchcraft...there's no other explanation) and she is found guilty and sentenced to death.  So in a public ceremony watched by a huge crowd, she is hauled in front of the cathedral as archdeacon Claude Frollo comes out.  He is supposed to lead her in an apology to God, and then she will be dragged across the square to the gallows.  Claude whispers in her ear that he still could save her if she just lets him have his way with her.  She is disgusted and refuses, so the priest says the benediction and then turns away and lets her go to her fate.  Then, right before she's lead off to the gallows, Quasimodo swings down on a rope like some crazy hunchback Spiderman, grabs Esmerelda and disappears into the church with her, yelling "Sanctuary!!!".  The crowd goes wild with excitement, because what they just saw was so damn cool.  Anyway, Esmerelda is now safe inside the cathedral, because it's sacred space that's beyond the law.  But of course, now she can never come out.  Oh, and I know you're concerned, so I'll just say that Quasimodo had the presence of mind to save the goat too.

This is some powerful shit, theme-wise.  Hugo is dealing with issues like the corruptness and power of the clergy in French society, sexual repression in the clergy and its unfortunate results, and the mistreatment of women.  God forbid you're a beautiful woman who innocently shows off her sexuality and performs tricks with a dancing, counting goat.  You will clearly be sentenced to death under some pretense because, well, you're stepping out of line there, even though it's titillating...or perhaps because it's titillating.  Interestingly, Hugo describes how when Esmerelda is being dragged in front of the church and then to the gallows her dress barely covers her and is shockingly revealing.  Yep, let's show off the gorgeous girl's body before we kill her as a witch...only seems fair.

Anyway, now that she's stuck in the cathedral, the priest goes to her and tries to rape her, but is fended off by Quasimodo.  The priest is like a father to Quasimodo, because he raised him, and Quasimodo has loved and revered the priest, but his attempted rape against Esmerelda turns the tables for him, and Quasimodo realizes what an evil scumbag the priest has become.  And of course Quasimodo now loves Esmerelda, since she's the only person who has shown him any compassion.  Esmerelda appreciates the hunchback, who helps her be comfortable in the cathedral, but she's too frightened by his appearance to ever really totally appreciate him as a man and fellow human.

Anyway, the priest is pissed because he can't rape who he wants to rape when he wants to rape her.  So now he wants to get Esmerelda out of the church so he can either (1) rape her somewhere that Quasimodo won't find them and then beat the living crap out of him, or (2) have her captured and executed because if he can't have her, well then no one can.  Yeah, nice guy this priest.  Anyway, the priest hunts around for an idea to get Esmerelda out of the cathedral, and finally approves an attack on the church by a mob of poor people who want to loot the place and set her free.  The indefatigable Quasimodo defends the cathedral the mob, at least for awhile, and kills lots and lots of the attackers, including the priest's drunken brother.  But finally, through some confused signals, the king (who is shown to be a buffoon) sends in the army to both kill everyone in the mob, and seize Esmerelda from inside the church so she can be executed, sanctuary be damned.  But then Esmerelda escapes, just in time!!  Oops, but then she gets caught, but not before she is reunited with her birth mother, who long ago gave her up for dead when gypsies carried her off.  But dammit, as the soldiers seize Esmerelda they also kill her mother, so the happiness of reunion that they've each waited for all their lives lasts only about five minutes.  And that was the happiest part of the ending of the novel.  For Esmerelda is hung in the public square, and as the priest watches her die from the tower of Notre Dame, he laughs.  Quasimodo is so pissed at this that he throws the priest off the tower to his death.  Then Quasimodo goes and lays down with Esmerelda's body inside a paupers tomb, where he stays until he too dies of starvation.  The end.

Yep, Hugo has written a life-affirming Disney-esque tale, full of magic and gypsies and a loveable hunchback and an innocent goat performing cute tricks.  Oh, and attempted rape, crazy obsessive stalking, and death...all due to a priest's sexual repression.  Man, that's still a hot topic, even today.  This book seemed much more modern than I thought it would be.  Way more depressing, and way more modern.  Which made me really appreciate and enjoy this book...once I got over the depressing and shocking ending.  Man, I think I need another whiskey just thinking about it...


Viktoria said...

Oh dear. Sounds like a punch in the gut of the idea that love-conquers-all. I haven´t seen the Disney makeover of this one, but I imagine they slaughtered it. I looked through you list of books left to read and they are all pretty bleak, but may I suggest Austen or Doyle for your next choice? The appropriate drink for either would be tea (with milk and shortbread), which might do your liver some good... ;-)

Amy said...

I'm always excited to check back and find that you've posted. I don't think I'll read this one, though. Ugh.