It is not enough to pick up a book and read it without any context. This is a mistake many readers make today, partly because we assume that we know a story based on movie adaptations, or we assume that all books of any age are meant to be consumed as a throwaway novel like so many written today.
As I say, it’s a mistake, and such mistakes lead to misunderstandings of what a novel is, why it is, and how it should be approached. Yes, heaven forbid, the reader should have some idea of what’s going on in this age of instant information.
If one were to approach The Hunchback of Notre Dame as “today I’ll read this because I enjoyed a version of the story in film,” then that reader is in for a bit of shock and confusion. It should be mentioned that the story we think we know is there for any and all to discover, though as is often the case with film adaptations, the novel is better and quite a bit different, especially the ending.
But what this novel is goes far deeper than a simple romantic adventure story. In early 19th century France, Gothic architecture was being neglected and often destroyed. Centuries old masonry was traded for plaster. For the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, medieval stained glass was replaced with white glass to allow more light while the aforementioned neglect set in on the great stonework.
This novel, you see, is a call to arms, thinly disguised as one tragedy being used to prevent another. Victor Hugo wrote this novel to make his contemporaries aware of the value of Gothic architecture. How better to do such a thing than to appeal to the reader through the emotions of nostalgia and romance?
We all think we know Quasimodo, be it from Lon Chaney’s pantomimed silent masterpiece, the animated Disney character, or from any number of other versions. For Victor Hugo, Quasimodo is the personification of the cathedral itself. To the citizens of “modern” Paris, he is deformed and doesn’t fit in with society at any level, but he has his value. Surrounding his dramatic story is meticulously researched history, a travelogue of exquisite detail, and superb linguistic artistry, all wrapped in a love letter to Paris. I can only imagine how this would read in the original French.
The book touched me on a number of levels. As an amateur medievalist, everything appeals. The setting, the characters, the descriptions… all of it hit the mark. The themes of cultural evolution between medieval and modern France help me to better appreciate the history on a new level. As one who follows a personal code, themes of loyalty appeal to me. The themes of change across time play into that sense of nostalgia that gives this novel its haunting quality. Themes of love are explored through a number of characters, and they are handled masterfully in my view, even if the effects it has on our characters are often negative. The idea of new technologies destroying the knowledge of the past is one that always rings true with me, especially now that even something like a book is treated as a trivial curiosity in our modern society. As one who studied art in college and continues the lifelong appreciation of such things, the artistry of the cathedral itself comes to life in a way that is driven home even for one such as myself, who has never laid eyes on the real thing.
Bottom line… as a Gothic romance in the traditional sense, this book is as masterfully written as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it’s just as surprising in the difference of what we think we know versus what’s actually in the book. The passion of Victor Hugo transcends time, even if it isn’t what we think we should expect. His cause becomes our cause. But like so many other classics of its time, it proves that we shouldn’t treat these works as “just another story to burn through.” Books like this stand the test of time because they have something to tell us, something to teach us. It grabs us by the shoulders and pleas for mercy and understanding. It’s not an easy book. It’s not supposed to be. It’s probably made more difficult in that we expect novels of our own time and place to be so much simpler. And it’s even more difficult by the fact that this story will leave a reader gut-punched. This isn’t a novel that will appeal to everyone, especially those with modern sensibilities, but that too is the nature of a masterwork from a bygone era. The struggle is part of the journey, and it’s part of the character of this book. Hugo makes it easy to join his struggle for those who will set aside expectations and simply allow the book to tell its story in its own way, for the entire moral of the tale is not to judge a book by its cover… or by preconceptions.