The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Or Notre-Dame de Paris, to give it its original French title and one which is much more appropriate. Quasimodo, the hunchback, has a surprisingly small role in the book while the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself is at the heart of the story, with most of the action taking place within its walls, on top of its towers or in the streets and squares below.

Set in 15th century Paris, the novel follows the stories of three tragic and lonely people. First there’s the beautiful gypsy dancer, La Esmeralda, who captivates everyone she meets with her looks, her dancing and her magic tricks. Alone in the world with only her goat, Djali, for company, she dreams of one day being reunited with her parents. Then there’s Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, once a good and compassionate man who rescued Quasimodo as a child and raised him as his son. He becomes obsessed with Esmeralda after seeing her dancing in the Place de Grève and descends into a life dominated by lust and envy, turning away from the church and towards black magic. Finally, of course, there’s Quasimodo himself, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame. Outwardly deformed and ugly, his kind heart and his love for Esmeralda lead him into conflict with his adoptive father, Frollo.

I read Hugo’s Les Miserables almost exactly five years ago and I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to read another of his books. I loved Les Miserables and I loved this one too, though not quite as much; this is a shorter and slightly easier read, but I didn’t find the story as powerful or emotional. It was a good choice for the R.I.P. challenge, though – the atmosphere is very dark and there are plenty of Gothic elements.

At least having had some previous experience of Hugo meant that I knew what to expect from his writing! You need to be prepared for some long diversions and chapter after chapter that has almost nothing to do with the plot or the main characters. Hugo devotes a lot of this novel to discussing Gothic architecture, the structure of the cathedral, the geographical layout of Paris and other topics which may or may not be of interest to the reader. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t read every single word of these sections (in fact, I skipped most of the chapter entitled A Bird’s-Eye View of Paris) and I don’t feel that I missed anything as a result.

The version of the book that I read is not actually the one pictured above (I just wanted a book cover to illustrate my post). I downloaded the free version from Project Gutenberg for my Kindle, which is Isabel F. Hapgood’s 1888 translation. I was very happy with it, but I’m used to reading older books and older translations; depending on your taste you might prefer a more modern translation. And just as a side note, does anyone else love books with imaginative chapter titles? There are some great ones here, including The Inconveniences of Following a Pretty Woman through the Streets in an Evening, The Effect which Seven Oaths in the Open Air Can Produce and The Danger of Confiding One’s Secret to a Goat. Much more intriguing than just numbering them 1, 2, 3!

As I’ve now read Hugo’s two most popular books, can anyone tell me if there are any others that I should read? I like the sound of Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs, but are they worth reading?

17 thoughts on “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

  1. WORDMAN says:

    After I read your review, I went to Amazon for a gander at Hugo’s books. This one sounded interesting to me: Conversations with Eternity – Think I may just have to put this one in my ‘cart’.

  2. Tanja says:

    I read this book in high school and I enjoyed it, but wow, Victor Hugo really loves going off topic. I think I skipped through some parts too.
    I love those chapter titles! But the problem with them is that they make it more difficult to stop after finishing a chapter because the title of the next one is so intriguing.

  3. Alex says:

    The only Hugo I’ve read is ‘Les Miserables’ and that was many years ago. ‘The Hunchback’ is one of those novels that readers always feel as if they know whether they’ve read it or not because it permeates so much of our culture in non literary ways. I’m not certain if I want to read it because it might alter my perception of the book that i think I know 🙂

  4. justjase79 says:

    I read this last year but couldn’t review it for my blog as I couldn’t find much to say about it, like you say it lacks the power and emotion of Les Mis, or even other novels set in France of the era like A Tale of Two Cities or The Count of Monte Cristo

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting. I struggled to find much to say about this book too, even though I did enjoy it. It doesn’t have the same depth as Les Mis and is definitely not as good as A Tale of Two Cities or The Count of Monte Cristo, which are two of my favourite classics!

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