The very first time I was introduced to this tale was when I was still a young and naive kid, through the 1996 animated film of the same title by Disney. And like every other Disney films, The Hunchback of Notre-dame was a great ‘musical’, with a happy ending. The good surpassed the evil, always, without fail.
Flash forward years later, reading the novel by Victor Hugo made me realize that the tale is not as ‘happy’ as the film had depicted it to be. In fact, it is actually a tale of tragic romance, way more twisted than a kid could ever fathom.
The original tale from the book got readers latched on the characters and the story revolving around them, each in a different way. Of course, with the nature of books being more detailed even to the most intricate descriptions, reading is definitely more satisfying than watching the film adaptation. And yes, it’s definitely a great decision of mine to pick up the novel and reading it until the very last page, foreword and all.
Basically the whole tale was set in 1482, in medieval Paris under the reign of King Louis XI. The Hunchback of Notre-dame refers to, none other than the wretched and deaf bell-ringer named Quasimodo. The tale revolves around all the unique characters, from Quasimodo, Claude Frollo, Esmeralda, Phoebus, Pierre Gringoire, Jehan de Moulin, Clopin Troulilefou to King Louis XI. The original story line differs with that shown in the animated film, in terms of the character of Claude Frollo, the untold history of both Quasimodo and Esmeralda, the romance between Esmeralda and Phoebus and the most disturbing distinction of it all, the ending.
The 1996 animated film by Disney was considered to be the most ‘matured’ of all Disney films that have ever been made, and in reference to the book, I could not agree more.
Let’s delve deeper to some of the most direct themes of this classic French tale.
Love is most definitely the biggest theme and message behind The Hunchback of Notre-dame. Through the film, we can clearly see a romantic relationship between Esmeralda and Phoebus, not to mention an unrequited love on Quasimodo’s part.
However, the original tale offers a more complicated love story than that. It’s basically a tale of unrequited love between all of the characters. To put it simply, Claude Frollo loved Esmeralda but she despised him for his lecherous deeds. Quasimodo loved Esmeralda but she’s only emphatically nice to him to get to Phoebus. Esmeralda loved Phoebus but Phoebus was this good-looking asshole who just wanted to have what our modern society would call ‘one night stands’ with girls. So basically, everybody in this tragic tale was in love with Esmeralda, but she only had her eyes on the most undeserving and the only man who did not love her, Phoebus.
This actually proves the saying ‘We love the people we cant have’ and ‘Love is blind’ to be somewhat true.
Besides that, the novel exposed if not much, an adequate amount of humane characteristics to that of Claude Frollo, something that we cannot visibly see as it was altered on screen, which is love. Claude Frollo was initially introduced as a passionately loving man, who brought up his little brother, Jehan Frollo de Moulin all by himself, as they were sadly orphaned at a very young age. When Quasimodo was left at the doorsteps of Notre-dame, Claude Frollo was the only person who was emphatic enough to volunteer to ‘adopt’ and look after the poor wretched baby while everybody else shunned him.
“He threw himself, therefore, into the love for his little Jehan with the passion of a character already profound, ardent, concentrated; that poor frail creature, pretty, fair- haired, rosy, and curly,–that orphan with another orphan for his only support, touched him to the bottom of his heart; and grave thinker as he was, he set to meditating upon Jehan with an infinite compassion. He kept watch and ward over him as over something very fragile, and very worthy of care. He was more than a brother to the child; he became a mother to him.”
Unfortunately, as warmth and innocently beautiful love is, it could get menacingly lustful and ugly just as fast and just as much. It burns to the center of your heart and your whole being, and you get to choose to let it be a bright flame of respect, affection and tenderness or let the dark flame of lust, jealousy and desire burn it all to ashes. As for the archdeacon of Notre-dame, the love he had for Esmeralda, a mad and forbidden love he could not contain within his heart was, I believe, the main reason why the whole tale becomes a tragic one. Claude Frollo was the root cause of it all.
Besides the brotherly love between Claude Frollo and Jehan, readers can also spot a motherly love between Paquette la Chantefleurie and Esmeralda. Apparently, Esmeralda was not of Gypsy origin but a French one. She was however, brought up by some unknown Gypsy women, who had ‘kidnapped’ her from her French mother, Paquette, when she was only a baby, leaving Paquette in a devastated and near mad state, which eventually leads her to be a Gudule and lives inside the ‘rat hole’ accompanied by a symbol of both her consolation and despair, the only half of a pair of shoe, while the other half stored in the hands of her lost daughter, Esmeralda.
“But when the child is lost, these thousand images of joy, of charms, of tenderness, which throng around the little shoe, become so many horrible things. The pretty broidered shoe is no longer anything but an instrument of torture which eternally crushes the heart of the mother. It is always the same fibre which vibrates, the tenderest and most sensitive; but instead of an angel caressing it, it is a demon who is wrenching at it.”
Victor Hugo did a spectacular job in describing the heavily influenced Gothic architecture of medieval Paris. The novel contains a whole chapter with intricate and challenging descriptions of the architecture, from block to block, which we can somewhat view through the animated film.
However, besides the beautiful descriptions of the buildings, chapel, churches and all, readers are also offered a notion through the chapter ‘This Will Kill That’.
Our lady readers will pardon us if we pause for a moment to seek what could have been the thought concealed beneath those enigmatic words of the archdeacon: “This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice.”
In this particular chapter, Claude Frollo notioned the words ‘this will kill that’ by referring to a book and a church. Through this chapter, readers are exposed to two school of thoughts. The first one being pondered upon in a religious way while the second being much more artistic.
When pondered in a priestly thought, it can be easily put that while the archdeacon was motioning from the book towards the church, he was highlighting that the press will somehow kill the church. The printing press may bring upon the power of revolution and of science and alchemy, which during the middle ages, was considered a taboo towards the miracle work of God.
“The invention of printing is the greatest event in history. It is the mother of revolution. It is the mode of expression of humanity which is totally renewed; it is human thought stripping off one form and donning another; it is the complete and definitive change of skin of that symbolical serpent which since the days of Adam has represented intelligence.”
The second school of thought is very much artistic. In the Christian era, the architecture was a book itself, a book of stone. Before the press existed, buildings was considered to be the work of art, a defining symbol of things, of religion and of history. Hence, the words ‘this will kill that’ can also be defined as ‘the printing press will kill architecture.’
In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, irresistible, indestructible. It is mingled with the air. In the days of architecture it made a mountain of itself, and took powerful possession of a century and a place. Now it converts itself into a flock of birds, scatters itself to the four winds, and occupies all points of air and space at once.
This chapter somehow proves the power of the printing press towards the late Middle Ages and is still applicable in the modern times as we watch written words reign supreme over everything else.
The book is seen as scattering birds while architecture, like a mountain. When the flood came, the mountain will be drowned as the birds will soar high and easily occupy the skies.
That is how powerful a book is.
Besides the power of love and books, the power of authority can be seen from the film as well as from the novel. Through the film, Claude Frollo was made to be the Minister of Justice in Paris, as opposed to being the archdeacon of Notre-dame in the novel. Despite being the Minister of Justice who should be withstanding justice, Claude Frollo was seen to be betraying his power to bring Esmeralda to the pillory to hang, while obliterating everyone in his way, including the innocents.
Another misuse of power of authority can be seen in the novel, through the character of King Louis XI. King Louis XI was portrayed to be an old and bitter monarch who desires gold and riches and spent them extravagantly for himself while ignoring the needs of others. He was also surrounded by ministers who are cunningly exploit his greediness for power and wealth.
“In truth! ‘Tis a paltry king in his ways with men of letters, and one who commits very barbarous cruelties. He is a sponge, to soak money raised from the people. His saving is like the spleen which swelleth with the leanness of all the other members. Hence complaints against the hardness of the times become murmurs against the prince. Under this gentle and pious sire, the gallows crack with the hung, the blocks rot with blood, the prisons burst like over full bellies. This king hath one hand which grasps, and one which hangs.”
From both the novel and the film, we are shown the power of sanctuaries. Basically, every city in France during the middle ages, up to the reign of Louis XII, had its place of asylum. These places can be in the form of palaces of kings, hotels of princes and churches. The criminals who seek refuge in these places are safe from punishments. However, once they step out of these sanctuaries, they will be immediately caught as the authority kept guard at the doors and watch intently for their preys to step out. Hence, as much as it is an asylum, sanctuaries were also considered a cage, a prison with no way out.
“His foot once within the asylum, the criminal was sacred; but he must beware of leaving it; one step outside the sanctuary, and he fell back into the flood. The wheel, the gibbet, the strappado, kept good guard around the place of refuge, and lay in watch incessantly for their prey, like sharks around a vessel. Hence, condemned men were to be seen whose hair had grown white in a cloister, on the steps of a palace, in the enclosure of an abbey, beneath the porch of a church; in this manner the asylum was a prison as much as any other.”
Notre-dame was one of the places of asylum, the place where Quasimodo brought Esmeralda to while yelling ‘Sanctuary!’, saving her from being hanged at the pillory.
Esmeralda was portrayed to be the beauty in this tale, whereas Quasimodo was the opposite. When Quasimodo decided to participate in the Feast of Fools, he was successfully crowned the Pope of Fools, fooling him into believing that the crowd actually liked him despite his ugliness and hunch-backed built.
“Or rather, his whole person was a grimace. A huge head, bristling with red hair; between his shoulders an enormous hump, a counterpart perceptible in front; a system of thighs and legs so strangely astray that they could touch each other only at the knees, and, viewed from the front, resembled the crescents of two scythes joined by the handles; large feet, monstrous hands; and, with all this deformity, an indescribable and redoubtable air of vigor, agility, and courage,–strange exception to the eternal rule which wills that force as well as beauty shall be the result of harmony. Such was the pope whom the fools had just chosen for themselves.”
However, being called a monster while watching things thrown at him by the same crowd who celebrated him betray his happiness and relief. Fortunately for him, Esmeralda came to his rescue by offering him some water and for that he fell in love with her and returned the favor when he saved her from the rope.
This tale highlights that beauty is nothing when you look at it appearance-wise. Beauty and ugliness radiates from within and the contains of one’s heart should be the basis of it all. Hence, being beautiful and good-looking does not render anyone a Saint, nor does being ugly render anyone a monster/Devil.
All in all, The Hunchback of Notre-dame spoke volumes about love and destiny, the power of written words and above all, the inevitability of fate. The tragic ending of the original tale may not be suitable to be adapted into an animated film by Disney but it was ‘real’ enough to be fathomed by grown-ups. In reality, honestly, life almost always never resembles a fairy-tale with a happy ending. Like The Hunchback of Notre-dame, life is somewhat similarly tragic and sad, where the powerful reigns supreme over the weak, beauty over ugliness, innocent love turns to jealousy and lust, unrequited love stories and yet somehow, fate surpasses them all and determines the ending.