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?

Fiendish Fridays #2: Thenardier

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

#2 – Friday 29 January 2010: Thenardier

Name: Thenardier
Appears in: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Who is he? Thenardier is a greedy and corrupt innkeeper.
What is he like? He is introduced to us as a “small, skinny, sallow-faced man, bony, angular and puny”, who is “thoroughly crooked, a sanctimonious knave”.
What makes him a Friday Fiend? When we first meet Thenardier near the beginning of the book he is extorting large amounts of money from the poverty-stricken Fantine on the pretext of needing it to feed and clothe her daughter Cosette. We also see him stealing from corpses after the battle of Waterloo – he subsequently claims to have been a sergeant in Napoleon’s army, hence the name of his inn, The Sergeant of Waterloo. Later in the book he causes further trouble for our hero, Jean Valjean.

Many people consider Inspector Javert to be the villain of Les Miserables but I disagree. Yes, Javert also makes life very difficult for Valjean, but he behaves the way he does because of his belief in upholding the law no matter what. I don’t see Javert as an evil character, unlike Thenardier who cares about nothing but himself and his latest money-making schemes.

Redeeming features: I can’t think of any – can you? His wife Madame Thenardier is equally unpleasant but at least appears to love her daughters, whereas Thenardier doesn’t seem to care about anybody.

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

“…there comes a point moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single, fateful word. They are les miserables – the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the most fallen who have most need of charity?”

How do you begin to review a book like this one? Les Miserables is one of the longest books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of long books) and as someone with very little knowledge of French history, it was also one of the most challenging. Of course, I could have bought an abridged version but I make a point of never doing this as I prefer to read a book the way the author intended.

If you’re unfamilar with the plot, here is a brief summary:

Jean Valjean has just been released from prison after nineteen years (he had been sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and then a further fourteen years for making several attempts to escape). As an ex-convict arriving in the town of Digne, Valjean finds himself rejected by everybody he approaches until the kindly Bishop Myriel takes him in and gives him shelter for the night. However, Valjean repays him by stealing his silverware. When the police catch him and take him back to the bishop’s home, the bishop tells them they’ve made a mistake – he had given the silverware to Valjean as a gift. He then tells Valjean to “never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man”. The bishop’s simple gesture of kindness has a profound effect on Valjean, filling him with the determination to be a better person.

After establishing himself as a successful factory owner and becoming mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Valjean promises a dying woman that he will take care of her daughter, Cosette. The rest of the book follows Valjean’s attempts to escape the investigations of Inspector Javert and to build a new life for himself and Cosette. Along the way we meet a gang of criminals, a group of revolutionary students, and a greedy innkeeper called Thenardier.

Most of the characters are very well developed and Hugo spends a considerable amount of time introducing us to them. In fact, he spends the first 50 pages of the book describing the personality of the Bishop of Digne. This is not vital to the plot and could quite easily have been shortened to just a few pages, yet it helps the reader understand why Jean Valjean was so touched by the bishop’s kindness and compassion and why it was a life changing experience for him. However, I didn’t find the characters of Marius and Cosette very interesting, despite their central roles in the book – I thought some of the secondary characters were much stronger, such as the street urchin Gavroche and the Thenardiers’ eldest daughter Eponine.

I did find my attention wandering in places because of all the lengthy digressions on the Battle of Waterloo, life in a convent, the July Revolution of 1830, the Paris sewer system etc. Although these pages are often interesting and informative and contain some beautiful writing, they have very little direct relevance to the plot and interrupt the flow of the story. However, this is really the only negative thing I can say about the book. It’s worth perservering through all the social commentary, politics and history to get to the actual story itself – and the wonderful, moving, thought-provoking, suspenseful story is why I loved Les Miserables.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Classic/Pages: 1232/Publisher: Penguin Classics – translated by Norman Denny/Year: 1862/Source: My own copy bought new