Notre-Dame de Paris

Wow! What an absolutely fantastic book this is, even though I was expecting it to be called The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and to be about Quasimodo, the hunchback. It is, but he’s only one part of a hugely rich story.

Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame and Quasimodo’s guardian, Jehan his adored younger brother, Phoebus de Chateaupers and Pierre Gringoire are all characters linked by Esmeralda, the beautiful 16 year old ‘gypsy’. Around them Paris breathes with life, it’s exciting, dangerous and squalid. Diplomats and judiciary have their stories told inside courts that have their windows flung open to the colour and lives of the streets below.

The exact date that Hugo started writing is given in the opening line ‘Just three hundred and forty-eight years, six months, and nineteen days ago today’, so the 25th of July 1830 and the setting is Paris 1482, beginning on January 6th, the celebrations for the feast of Epiphany and the Feast of Fools. Added to these exacting dates, Hugo describes in his ‘Notes To The First Edition’ a visit to Notre-Dame that he had taken some years before, when he had seen an ancient Greek inscription carved on the wall, ΑΝΑΓΚΗ, now unfortunately rubbed away either by builders or time. In the middle of the book we see this engraving being made by Claud Frollo in his alchemist’s cell and this together with real historical details that includes an appearance of the king, Louis X1, means that the story is cleverly set squarely in the real world.

The establishment is set up in a handsome gothic mansion that stands opposite Notre-Dame, home to Damoiselle Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier and her mother. Chatting and laughing on the balcony with her friends, sitting on velvet cushions while working on a tapestry they watch life going on in the square beneath them. With them, polishing his belt buckle with a kid glove, is a young cavalier, wearing the dazzling uniform of captain of archers of the ordinance of the King, is Phoebus de Chateaupers, betrothed to Fleur-de-Lys. Seeing ‘that pretty dancing girl, dancing there on the paving, playing her tambourine in the middle of those common townsfolk.!’ they send for Esmeralda to come up to them which she does ‘with the troubled look of a bird surrendering to the fascination of a snake.’

Because, I think, this is a book about outsiders. Rescued from the crib for foundling children by Claude Frollo, Quasimodo has learnt to be suspicious and react violently to others because it’s all he’s known. ‘He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded’ is the beautifully concise way Hugo words it. He lives in Notre-Dame and treats the bells as his friends. The cathedral is peopled by marble figures and gargoyles that show no hatred or unkindness towards him, he pours his heart out to them, ‘the cathedral was not just society to him, but the universe as well, the whole of nature.’ He’s witnessed two acts of kindness in his life, one from Frollo in adopting him and the other from Esmeralda who brings him water when he’s being tortured and to them he gives his complete loyalty. Esmeralda dances with her goat Djali, she’s as beautiful and graceful as Quasimodo is ugly and has the light, sunny nature that reflects the adoration she’s given. La Esmeralda, dances ‘with invisible wings on her feet, living in a whirlwind.‘ She’s travelled through Spain and Catalonia, from Sicily to Algiers and from Greece to France by way of Hungary. But she’s called a gypsy and outsider. To be poor is a crime.

She was dancing, turning, whirling on an old Persian carpet, thrown down carelessly beneath her feet; and each time her radiant face passed before you as she spun round her great, dark eyes flashed lightning.’

The truands are a gang of beggars and crooks who live outside Paris and outside society, in their own Court of Miracles, almost a country on their own, and at some point everybody seems to get caught up with them. Including Pierre Gringoire, the struggling playwrite and poet who moves through the different societies like an imp, joining in wherever he sees his luck lie.

‘the thieves’ city, a hideous wen on the face of Paris; a sewer from which there seeped every morning and to which returned every night to stagnate that gutter stream of vice, beggary, and vagrancy which is always overflowing in the streets of capital cities; a monstrous hive to which all the hornets of the social order bring back their booty every evening; a counterfeit hospital where the gypsy, the unfrocked monk, the ruined student, the dregs of every nation, . . . were beggars by day and at night transformed themselves into robbers; an immense changing room, in a word, where at that time all the actors dressed and undressed for the endless drama of robbery, prostitution, and murder played out in the Paris streets.’

The Alchemist at Home in his Study  1652 etching by Rembrandt

And it’s a book about obsession. Quasimodo is obsessed by the bells and his loyalty to Frollo and Esmeralda and Esmeralda is obsessed by Phoebus who rescued her from immediate danger. But most dangerously Frollo is obsessed with Esmeralda, and for me he was the main character of this book. Love or lust and hate are so bound up in his obsession, that it leads to cruelty that I don’t think he can understand. Isolated from society and believed to be a sorcerer Hugo describes him as looking like Rembrandts etching of ‘Faust’s cell’. He believes Esmerelda has been sent by the devil to tempt him and the passion he has for her ‘stirred up all the hatred, all the malice in his innermost heart.’ His poisonous, corrosive cruelty after the kindness he has shown to his brother Jehan and to Quasimodo is difficult to understand. And there’s the sachette, who’s locked herself away in a dungeon, obsessed with her hatred of gypsies and with the baby shoe that’s all she has left of the beautiful baby girl who was stolen from her sixteen years before.

It’s not just an enthralling story of passion and danger, it’s also the story of Paris and Hugo’s contempt for its ruin by modern architecture is referred to often and in detail! And it’s incredibly visual, the swirling of Esmeralda’s skirts as she dances, Quasimodo almost dancing with the bells, the blackness of Claude Frollo as he swishes about in his hooded robes, the candy colours of Fleur de Lys and her friends as they preen themselves in their palace, all hit a crescendo as the truands charge towards Notre-Dame to save Esmerelda, a huge, colourful, dangerous and bloody battle. It’s easy to see why film makers love it.

And I thought it was very funny in places. Gringoire is ridiculous and Jehan is an archetypal drunken student always trying to borrow money. In the depths of Notre-Dame, where the Archdeacon is pouring over his books, Jehan is spying on him while he plucks up the courage to ask for another loan. Seeing him in his cell for the first time he says:

They say that he lights up the fires of hell in there and cooks the philosophers’ stone on a high flame. Bédieu! The philosophers’ stone means no more to me than a pebble, and I’d rather find an omelette of Easter egg and bacon on his furnace than the biggest philosophers’ stone in the world!’

This was such a rich and enjoyable book and I read it as part of a review-a-long organised by Fiction Fan, which is such a good idea, so lots of thanks to her and here are the links to other reviews:

Fiction Fan:
Kelly’s Review:
Margaret’s Review:

23 thoughts on “Notre-Dame de Paris

  1. What a fabulous review, Jane!
    I didn’t think I would like this book, now I think I’m will. I’ve added it to my list, anyway. Your comment about how visual the story is makes this even more appealing. It sounds as if the author knew what people want and need and used that in this story to make his characters real.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s very exciting Rose and an altogether brilliant story. Hugo does talk about Paris and architecture a lot (as FF said in her review) but I found that quite interesting – he explains how Paris has expanded in a way that makes me want to go and explore it. And there’s a lot of saucy fun!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A recommendation doesn’t get much better than exciting and brilliant 🙂
        I’ve never been to Paris but can imagine reading this book with the computer turned on to search up photos of the places described.
        FF also commented on how much more open Hugo was in this book about lust than other writers of the same time were.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! Looks like we all felt the same way about the book – thrilling story despite those endless digressions! The humour surprised me too, and I loved Gringoire and the goat – they gave the book the warmth and lightness it needed to break up the otherwise dark story. I was also surprised by just how dark it was, and how open about the theme of lust – surprising that it has been used so often as a kind of kids’ story. I was also pleased that the OWC have gone back to the original name which I think suits it much better – like you, I didn’t feel Quasimodo was the central character, though I thought he was very well depicted, with more empathy than I would have expected from an author of that era. But Frollo was the lead, I agree – and again I thought Hugo did a great job of showing how his lust for knowledge first and then for Esmeralda destroyed him. Great book, and I’m glad that so far we all seem to have enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Gringoire and Jehan were specks of light weren’t they and Gringoire and Djali were just so funny, and just thrown in in a line when they disappear together! I’m so glad it has the original title, calling it The Hunchback . . . is all wrong, to me it was a story of Paris. This reading was all excitement and characters etc. ( I am a lady reader after all!) but it could be read as a history of the city and it’s people. Like you said, there is far too much in it for just one review.

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  3. Gosh, what an enticing review, Jane – your love of this book really comes through. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame feels like a legend that has entered the broader cultural consciousness without many of us really understanding the full story behind it. Something you’ve addressed very well in your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jacqui! Isn’t it funny how this happens that we think we know a story and then start to read and find we had no idea! This is a brilliant plot with huge characters, a bit like Dickens but much more lustful!


    1. Yes we’ve all been very positive haven’t we?! I can understand why a film might want to change its title but not the book, The Hunchback . . . is such a sensational title for a book that is far more than that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a great review.
    I find Claude Frollo is a great antagonist. He is not simply “bad” but he is a complex character, who adopts Quasimodo and tries his best to help Jehan but at the same time can do very mean things.
    Gringoire made me laugh a lot as well, especially when he wanders into the court of Miracles and slowly notices that something is definitely off =D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gringoire in the court of Miracles is a very funny set scene all round, I liked the way Hugo made the poet and writer the person who could float around different societies. Claude Frollo is such a complex character, I couldn’t understand how he could be so mean to Quasimodo after adopting him, and the way he uses him . . . fascinating and terrifying!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Jane, this is one of the best reviews I’ve ever read! I have this book on my list for this year’s Back to the Classics. Paris has been on my destinations bucket list for years. I can’t wait to dive into this incredibly rich story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joel you’re going to make me blush! I hope you enjoy it (I’m sure you will) and I think you’ll have a field day with Claude Frollo. I bet there’s a guided tour of Paris following the medieval city as described by Hugo, that’s what I’d like to go on!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I read this as a teenager, and fear it mostly went over my head, I remember enjoying it, and a few of Hugo’s other works, but also that I skipped all the digressions… I should probably give it another read now that I’m a more experience classics reader.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can imagine skipping the digressions especially if you’re younger, you just want to get on with the story! I found the architectural digressions very interesting, I enjoyed looking at Medieval Paris but the history of Louis X1 was quite dull!

      Liked by 2 people

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