Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 21 June 1996

The criticism Disney received over its interpretation of the Pocahontas story was revived somewhat when they decided to animate Victor Hugo's famed novel Notre-Dame de Paris.

It was a controversial decision, reminiscent of similar comments made about Alice in Wonderland over forty years earlier. It was controversial not just because of the novel's fame but because of its subject matter. Notre-Dame de Paris was a very dark story, after all -- hardly typical Disney fare.

While they (again controversially) kept some of the darker elements, the story was (still controversially -- Disney can't win sometimes) modified to provide the requisite "happy" ending -- although not in the way you might expect.

The story tells of a deformed young man, adopted as a baby by the cruel and self-righteous Judge Claude Frollo. Frollo had chased and killed the baby's mother (as he hated her kind, the Gypsies); compelled by fears of divine retribution, he provides for the hunch-backed child and names him Quasimodo (or "half-formed").

Quasimodo grows up in the dark belltower of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, serving as its bell-ringer, believing himself to be a monster, and dreaming of spending time in the open. But when he meets the beautiful Gypsy Esmeralda and the noble soldier Phoebus, other options present themselves, and he begins to realize that maybe Frollo is wrong about him... and the Gypsies he persecutes.

Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz once again provided the songs for the film (as they had for Pocahontas). The soundtrack here is a considerable improvement; although derided as containing mostly forgettable songs, I find it to be stunning. Menken used several different themes in his music, each appearing in several different songs and repeatedly in the background music. It's not apparent when viewing the movie, but listening to the soundtrack reveals the full extent of the cohesiveness of the entire work.

The film opens with a stunning introduction, rivaling the opening sequence from The Lion King. This epic, 6-minute song, "The Bells of Notre Dame" tells the back story behind the film, accompanied, of course, by the same brilliant animation found throughout. The song contains a full spectrum of emotions, moving from contentment of everyday life, to the fear of Quasimodo's mother, to the action-packed chase scene (underscored by urgent religious chants in Latin), to the admonishment of Frollo by the Archdeacon, to Frollo's reluctant decision to care for the boy. The song positively soars at the end, reaching the same heights as the cathedral's bell towers over the streets of Paris, thanks to Paul Kandel's beautiful tenor. It's a masterpiece.

About the Latin chanting -- the soundtrack is scattered with various Latin religious chants, such as Kyrie Eleison (God have mercy), Dies irae, Dies illa (Day of wrath, that Day), and Quantus tremor est futurus/Quando Judex est venturus (What trembling is to be/When the Judge is come). These chants are prominent in "The Bells of Notre Dame" and in "Heaven's Light/Hellfire", but they also provide a powerful undertone to much of the background music.

"Heaven's Light/Hellfire" is really two songs; the first is short and sung by Quasimodo as he exults in the caring shown to him by Esmeralda. It serves (by way of contrast) as an introduction to the second. Hellfire was the song that nearly pushed the movie to a PG rating; in it, Frollo sings about his lust for the Gypsy Esmeralda, blaming her and the devil for his sinful feelings.

The song begins with these Latin lyrics (translated), sung by a chorus: "I confess to God almighty,/To blessed Mary ever Virgin,/To the blessed archangel Michael,/To the holy apostles, to all the saints..." Then Frollo begins his (English) confession, while the chorus continues: "...And to you, Father,/That I have sinned,/In thought,/In word and deed..."

The song continues, and Frollo sings: "Like fire,/Hellfire,/This fire in my skin,/This burning/Desire/Is turning me to sin./It's not my fault;/I'm not to blame/It is the Gypsy girl,/The witch who sent this flame./It's not my fault,/If in God's plan;/He made the devil so much/Stronger than a man." Under this text, the chorus repeats, "Mea culpa/Mea culpa/Mea maxima culpa," subtly (and unless you know Latin, unrecognizably) proving that Frollo, in his heart, knows the truth, yet he insists on continuing to lie to himself. It's a very powerful song, completely out of place in a Disney film, yet it adds a needed adult touch to the movie that helps make it credible.

The rest of the songs are mostly forgettable, although the requisite "hero's lament" ballad, "Out There," is not bad. But as I said, the score is incredible, weaving together themes from the songs with powerful Latin lyrics to perfectly and cohesively underscore the action on screen. I consider the soundtrack to The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be Alan Menken's best complete work (although certain individual songs rival it). Bette Midler recorded a version of "God Help the Outcasts" and All-4-One recorded "Someday," which was cut from the film.

The voice cast is filled with experienced and talented actors, some from TV, some from film, and many from Broadway. Tom Hulce (Mozart in the movie Amadeus) lends his tenor to Quasimodo, causing the hunchback's voice to reflect his inner self and not his outward appearance. Tony Jay, who has inherited the role of Shere Khan from George Sanders and was seen as Nigel St. John in Lois and Clark, gives an outstanding performance as Frollo. Demi Moore and Kevin Kline are on hand as Esmeralda and Phoebus, although Esmeralda's ballad "God Help the Outcasts" was sung by a stand-in.

Quasimodo's only companions in the belltower, the comic-relief gargoyles, are Hugo, Victor (get it?), and Laverne. Hugo, the fat, jolly one, was voiced by Jason Alexander; Victor, the tall, serious one, was voiced by Charles Kimbrough. Their only song is "A Guy Like You," containing lyrics like "Paris, the city of lovers,/Is burning this evening;/True, that's because it's on fire,/But still there's l'amore," and "When she wants ooh-la-la,/Then she wants you-la-la..."

The film was unfortunately mostly snubbed at Oscar time, garnering only a single nomination (Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, losing out to Emma). It had the same luck at the Golden Globes, and even inexplicably nominated for a Razzie.

The film was granted a direct-to-video sequel in 2001, called simply The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. In it, the situation at the end of the first movie (wherein Phoebus, not the story's protagonist Quasimodo, gets the girl) is "rectified" by providing a new love interest for the bell-ringer.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a much underappreciated film, and doesn't deserve many of the criticisms it received. Most critics praised the visuals (particularly those of the cathedral, which are stunning) but derided the story and music as insufficient. Roger Ebert gave it a full four stars, but he was among very few to regard the film that highly. Nonetheless, it is a finely-crafted film, only somewhat atypical for Disney (and then only in certain places), and is far too often overlooked.

Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the English title of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. Translating the title seems to have been a difficult process; before Hunchback was settled on (more or less by attrition), the book was published under many different names in English, including Esmeralda, the name of the novel's ill-fated female protagonist. I read a translation as penance for seeing the Disney animated version noded in great detail above, but that was years ago, so I'll leave a detailed book review/literary analysis to someone who's interacted with the text more recently (hint, hint: it's even online in several places, kids!) Most of what I have to share is a bit of history about the book itself.

The Book

Fun fact: Goethe hated Hugo's book with a passion, calling it "the most dreadful book ever written." (In French, because that somehow conveys a deeper disgust: "C'est le livre le plus affreux qui ait jamais été écrit.") But I digress.

The book itself is an odd mix of melodrama and history; set in 1482, at the end of the Hundred Years' War, it devotes entire chapters to detailed descriptions of the city of Paris as it was at that time. These historical and architectural passages were apparently intended to appeal to male readers, although the author addressed Notre-Dame de Paris to female readers, because of its melodramatic and sentimental plot. The plot, just because a little synopsis is in order, is about a tangle of relationships: Quasimodo, the title character, is a deformed outcast who hides in the safety of the cathedral, where he serves as bell-ringer (the work has left him deaf). His protector is deacon Claude Frollo, whose forbidden love for the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda brings about several tragedies. Esmerelda is accused of witchcraft, but is rescued at Frollo's orders by Quasimodo, who also falls in love with her. Esmerelda does not return Frollo's love, because she is enamored with Phoebus, a handsome Captain of the Guards. He turns out to be a heartless cad, but unfortunately Esmeralda is accused of his murder. You see where this is going? Everybody dies unhappy, except Phoebus, who dies because he was a creep. I apologize to purists for my gross oversimplification of the material.

The History

Hugo really struck gold with the setting of his book: he was writing at the height of Romanticism, a period known for its admiration of Gothic architecture, of which the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is one of the most famous examples (and rightly so). At the time of his writing, Notre-Dame had been falling into disrepair and ruin; the French Revolution had taken a similar toll on holy sites throughout France, as the revolutionaries sought to break the power of the Church which had intertwined with that of the monarchy. The publication of Hugo's book called attention to the sorry state of the cathedral, and within a relatively short time spawned a movement to restore the building to its former glory. A contest was held inviting architects to submit plans for the restoration, and by 1845 the project was underway. Notre-Dame's restoration was completed in 1864.

Film versions

Film versions of Victor Hugo's book were well summarized by "The Signature of a Lion", an exhibition about Victor Hugo and Notre Dame at the cathedral in Paris:

The most admired film version is the one by William Dieterle with Charles Laughton (1939), but the most faithful adaptation is the film Jacques Prévert wrote for Jean Delannoy (1956); the most saccharine, the cartoon version by Disney Studios (1996).

Other films based on the book include 1911's Notre Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Albert Capellani and Esmeralda, a 1922 British film (IMDB didn't know much about either of these). There was also a 1923 version with Lon Chaney in the starring/title role, and several made-for-TV movies and straight to video releases.

Everything Quests - Content Rescue


Sources

"The Signature of a Lion" exhibition on Victor Hugo and Notre-Dame de Paris at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, 2 August 2002.

http://us.imdb.com/Tsearch?the+hunchback+of+notre+dame

Roma as Portrayed in Disney's
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

     The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in its many renditions, has never been touted as being a masterpiece of accurate portrayal of Roma or, to use the story's own term, Gypsies. Likewise, no one has ever accused Disney of being a haven of enlightened artists whose only goal is the betterment of society as we know it. Even so, the corporation manages to keep a fairly clean track record as far as political correctness is concerned. Fairly clean is a relative term, however, and often they misstep in the case of stereotypes of the smaller minorities such as Native Americans, as is the case in Pocahontas, and Roma, as is the case in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

     The movie opens with a song sung by Clopin (Paul Kandel) who is dressed as a jester and is singing to a group of small children while doing a hand-puppet show from a wagon. We later learn that Clopin is a "Gypsy" (i.e. Romani). He spins a tale of three Gypsies sneaking into Paris with a small baby, only to be accosted by the city guards and Frollo (Tony Jay). Frollo is a magistrate of sorts who has the idea (which was, in truth, quite pervasive in that era) that Gypsies were inherently evil, thieving con artists. He arrests the arriving Gypsies, but the young mother escapes with her baby. Frollo chases her on horseback through the streets of Paris to the very steps of Notre Dame where she beats on the door for the right to claim sanctuary, and thus, be immune to arrest and persecution. Before she can gain access to the church, however, Frollo grabs her bundle which he has taken to be stolen goods, and knocks her to the ground where she dies due to a head wound. He is about to cast the bundle, which he has discovered is actually a baby, into a well when an Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers) appears to lay the guilt to him. He charges Frollo with the care of the child, which Frollo grudgingly accepts, but relegates the boy to the bell towers of Notre Dame, giving him a name to fit his disfigurement: Quasimodo.

     At this point the movie cuts back to the "present", twenty years later. Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) plans with his gargoyle friends to go to the Feast of Fools against Frollo's wishes. Then we meet Phoebus (Kevin Keike), the new Captain of Frollo's guards, who has just arrived in Paris. Phoebus rescues Esmeralda (speaking: Demi Moore, singing: Heidi Mollenhauer) from the everyday harassment Gypsies receive at the hands of the guards and allows her to escape. He then proceeds to Frollo's fortress for a discussion about his new duties which seem to consist solely of helping Frollo in his maniacal quest to rid Paris of Gypsies. The pair then proceed to the Feast of Fools. Quasimodo sneaks into the Feast and meets Esmeralda for the first time amidst a song sung by Clopin. This scene is the first place the viewer is allowed a look at Gypsies as envisioned by Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. The Feast is, apparently, a holiday "incited" by the Gypsies on January sixth in which rules are ignored and general chaos reigns. All the Gypsies depicted are performers and are dressed as clowns or dancers, except in a few cases. During the line, "Join the bums and thieves and strumpets," three characters who look about as Romani as any of the Gypsies in the movie stream by for each of the three professions listed. There is a heavy implication that these three things are to be normally associated with "Gypsies" and, thus, Roma: beggars, outlaws and prostitutes. Then Esmeralda dances.

     Not only is Esmeralda's dress only vaguely Romani (in that it includes a dress, a shirt and something that might feasibly be misconstrued as an apron), but her dancing can only be described in relation to cabaret scenes in movies aimed more at adults than children. It is watered down somewhat for consumption by children, but that means she "only" displays lots of cleavage, neck and shoulder, and her legs to the knee, both of which are extremely taboo in Romani culture. The dance moves she employs are also highly suggestive, including one portion where she uses a spear jabbed into the stage as a pole to the hooting approval of the Parisian men present, which would simply not occur with an actual Romani.

     Then there is a kind of contest for ugliest person in Paris which Quasimodo "wins" which means he "gets" to be tied to a wheel to be bombarded by tomatoes, eggs and other food stuffs. Esmeralda comes to Quasimodo's rescue, which angers Frollo, and then leads the guards on a chase filled with typical Disney slapstick. In the end she and her pet goat escape via a magic disappearing trick as the crowd voices it's amazed approval. Here is the typical association of Romani with magical abilities so prolific in fiction involving Gypsies.

     Quasimodo returns to his towers accompanied by a dark look from Frollo and the jeering of the crowd as Phoebus sets the guards to search for "the Gypsy Girl." He sees her in disguise near Notre Dame, but, having been entranced by her dancing, follows her in, rather than raising the alarm. Inside, they fight, then he introduces himself and charms her just before Frollo bursts in demanding her arrest. Phoebus claims she has sanctuary and, thus, cannot be arrested, but Frollo tries to argue only to be interrupted by the Archdeacon who throws everyone out except Frollo, who hides, and Esmeralda, to whom he grants sanctuary. With the crowd gone, Frollo steps out to threaten Esmeralda wither her new "prison", Notre Dame. He, too, has been entranced by Esmeralda's dancing, and creepily smells her hair. She gets free of him and flees to his hollered threat that guards will be posted at every door.

     She then speaks to the Archdeacon about her troubles and the cruelty of the Parisians towards Quasimodo and her own people (the latter of which has only been displayed in passing once amidst several instances of Parisians getting along fine with Gypsies). The Archdeacon says he cannot help, but suggests that, "someone in here," might be able to. Then Esmeralda sings a predictable song to God asking "selflessly" that people have understanding for those different from them. Quasimodo hears her singing and sneaks down to listen at which point he is spotted and effectively chased back to his towers again, this time with Esmeralda in tow as she tries to apologize for getting him into the contest.

     Above, in Quasimodo's rooms, Esmeralda catches him up and gets to "meet" the bells and talk with Quasimodo, who falls in love with her. He asserts to her that she is not like the other Gypsies because she is not evil, as Frollo has told him all Gypsies are. She speaks as to the humanity of Gypsies as well as Quasimodo which solidifies them as friends. Quasimodo then helps her and her omnipresent pet goat escape Notre Dame by climbing down the walls, rather than using one of the guarded doors. She then gives him a pendant and a riddle which ends up being a map to the Court of Miracles. Upon returning to his rooms, Quasimodo runs into Phoebus who wishes to apologize to Esmeralda for trapping her.

     Returning once again to his rooms Quasimodo sings about Esmeralda's kindness which acts as an ironic introduction to a song sung by Frollo about his lust for Esmeralda in which he blames her and the Devil for his sinful feelings. This sequence includes a depiction of Esmeralda made of fire doing even more suggestive dancing, including much running of her hands down her body, which almost pushed the movie from a G rating to PG. This is a prime example of the objectifying of Gypsies in fiction. Frollo is not in love with a woman, but lusts after an object. In the end he resolves that he will kill her if she will not be with him.

     The following morning he begins a campaign to find Esmeralda in which he threatens Gadje who might be hiding her and arrests Gypsies when they refuse or are unable to give her whereabouts. The campaign comes to a head at a farm which Frollo suspects is hiding Gypsies, but has no proof. He tells the farmer that he is relegating them to house arrest while the matter is being investigated, then locks them in and orders Phoebus to burn the house down. When Phoebus refuses, Frollo does the deed himself. Phoebus jumps through a window to save the family, but upon emerging is accosted by his men and told that the penalty for insubordination is death. Esmeralda comes to his rescue by means of a rock flung from a make shift sling, and he escapes, but is shot with an arrow.

     After the guards and Frollo return to the city, Esmeralda finds the injured Phoebus and takes him to Notre Dame (with the help of an unnamed Gypsy who looks like he might have been an extra from the Jolly Roger in Disney's Peter Pan). Quasimodo agrees to shelter Phoebus and Esmeralda sews up Phoesbus's wound as he makes advances on her. They kiss, which dashes Quasimodo's hopes. Nonetheless Quasimodo urges Esmeralda and her friend to escape to the Court of Miracles before Frollo's eminent arrival. Before Frollo comes, Quasimodo hides Phoebus, now unconscious, under a table. Frollo, having guessed that Quasimodo had helped Esmeralda escape Notre Dame, questions the hunchback and blames Paris's burned state on him. Just before storming out Frollo reveals that it does not matter because he has discovered the location of the Gypsy hideout (the Court of Miracles) and will be bringing one thousand soldiers there at dawn.

     Once Frollo is gone, Phoebus comes out from under the table and attempts to convince Quasimodo to help him warn Esmeralda and the Gypsies. Quasimodo at first refuses, but catches up to Phoebus in the street and joins him. They use the necklace given Quasimodo by Esmeralda to locate the Court of Miracles in an old grave yard and venture in.

     The Court of Miracles gives the biggest group scene involving Gypsies. First a song sung by Clopin introduces the scene as Quasimodo and Phoebus are accosted in the dark by Gypsies in skeleton costumes (to blend into the surrounding crypt walls). "Maybe you've heard of a terrible place/Where the scoundrels of Paris/Collect in a lair," he sings, implying that Gypsies are terrible scoundrels. He then continues, "....Where the lame can walk/And the blind can see," as Gypsies who have faked blindness or lameness reveal that they are collecting alms as a con, rather than as a right. Up until this this point the viewer could almost be proud of Disney for avoiding, by and large, a seriously negative view of Gypsies (regardless of how incorrect the morally neutral details were), but apparently they could not break the stereotype and finally succumbed to the blatant statement that Roma are criminals and con men.

     The scene then proceeds to a large underground room with a great many people in it, all Gypsies dressed in the afore mentioned pirate-like manner. Clopin takes the gagged and tied-up Quasimodo and Phoebus to a gallows made for two and tells them of their fate. They are to be hanged for finding the Court of Miracles so they cannot spread the location to unwanted ears. "We find you totally innocent," he sings, "Which is the worst crime of all./So you're going to hang!" These lyrics imply that Gypsies have a twisted, if not totally void, sense of right and wrong. Esmeralda arrives just before the trap door is dropped, thus saving the two heros, who may then give their warning. The Gypsies scatter to begin packing up their gaudy tarps and blankets all striped in bright colors so stereotypically found, and Esmeralda greets Quasimodo and Phoebus warmly, but Frollo, having followed the heros, crashes the party.

     He arrests everyone and sends Quasimodo back to the towers of Notre Dame, to be chained up. The following day he puts Esmeralda on "trial" for witchcraft as Quasimodo watches forlornly from above. She refuses to recant and so Frollo puts her to the flame. Seeing this, Quasimodo's anger is aroused and he breaks free, swings down and rescues Esmeralda, then climbs with her over his shoulder, back up to a balcony of Notre Dame and claims sanctuary loudly. Frollo, enraged, orders an assault on the cathedral which allows Phoebus time to trick his guard, escape and incite a riot among the citizenry which includes freeing Gypsies, fighting guards, burning things and Disney-style semi-violent slapstick "hilarity". Above Quasimodo has laid Esmeralda on his bed and begins throwing things down at the assailants who begin using a battering ram. Things culminate in Quasimodo dumping a molten substance out of the rain pipes of the cathedral which by means of exaggeration turns into, effectively, lava flowing down all of the walls and into the streets.

     Frollo slips into Notre Dame, avoiding the burning liquid, and makes his way to Quasimodo's rooms where Quasimodo is failing to revive Esmeralda. Frollo and Quasimodo fight, during which Esmeralda does, in fact, come to. The three end up outside on the parapets high above Paris which now looks astoundingly similar to Hell, thanks to the riots and Quasimodo's anti-siege tactics. After a bit of acrobatic fighting, Frollo is about to strike at Esmeralda with his sword as she holds Quasimodo from falling to his doom when he issues a very biblical line about smiting "His" enemies and casting them into the fiery pit of Hell just before the outcropping he is standing on gives way and Frollo falls to his death. The implication here is that God has now cast His enemy into the pit of Hell (i.e. the burning Paris).

     Quasimodo then slips from Esmeralda's hand and falls, too, only to be caught by Phoebus leaning out a window. Esmeralda joins them and they hug. Quasimodo puts Esmeralda's hand into Phoebus's, marking his resignation that Esmeralda is not for him, then follows them down to meet the public. The ground outside Notre Dame is mysteriously not destroyed and the public cheers them all. We are left with a song by Clopin and the feeling that, from now on, everyone in Paris will be understanding, tolerant and accepting of those different from them, including specifically Gypsies and those who are physically deformed.

     The Gypsies are decidedly sympathetic characters, despite the two fairly specific references to thievery and conning. The greatest mis-portrayal of Roma is in the sexually charged way that Esmeralda dances and dresses and her relationship with Phoebus, a Gadjo. There is little hint of the community orientation of Romani culture, nor the fact that Esmeralda's parents would have arranged any marriage between her and Phoebus (which means it would not have been a likely outcome). One might fault the movie, too, for containing not a single word of the Romani language, but French makes an only marginally more prominent appearance: one word in a song, and once on a sign. The movie, as a whole, is a typical example of mediocrity in animation and scripting with typical usage of stereotypes. This, sadly, seems to be all too common for Disney.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

By Victor Hugo
1831

Preface

A few years ago, while visiting or, rather, rummaging about Notre-Dame, the author of this book found, in an obscure nook of one of the towers, the following word, engraved by hand upon the wall:--

ANArKH.

These Greek capitals, black with age, and quite deeply graven in the stone, with I know not what signs peculiar to Gothic caligraphy imprinted upon their forms and upon their attitudes, as though with the purpose of revealing that it had been a hand of the Middle Ages which had inscribed them there, and especially the fatal and melancholy meaning contained in them, struck the author deeply.

He questioned himself; he sought to divine who could have been that soul in torment which had not been willing to quit this world without leaving this stigma of crime or unhappiness upon the brow of the ancient church.

Afterwards, the wall was whitewashed or scraped down, I know not which, and the inscription disappeared. For it is thus that people have been in the habit of proceeding with the marvellous churches of the Middle Ages for the last two hundred years. Mutilations come to them from every quarter, from within as well as from without. The priest whitewashes them, the archdeacon scrapes them down; then the populace arrives and demolishes them.

Thus, with the exception of the fragile memory which the author of this book here consecrates to it, there remains to-day nothing whatever of the mysterious word engraved within the gloomy tower of Notre-Dame,--nothing of the destiny which it so sadly summed up. The man who wrote that word upon the wall disappeared from the midst of the generations of man many centuries ago; the word, in its turn, has been effaced from the wall of the church; the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth.

It is upon this word that this book is founded.

March, 1831.


The Great Hall


Book First

Book Second

Book Third

Book Fourth

Book Fifth

Book Sixth

Book Seventh

Book Eighth

Book Ninth

Book Tenth

Book Eleventh

It is somewhat difficult to read any classic of Western Literature because for most of us, the basic premise and characters of a story are well known, if not the very conclusion. When I started Moby Dick, for example, I knew that the book would end with Captain Ahab going down to death with the titular White Whale. I was quite surprised by some of the tones and themes of Moby Dick, but I was well aware of the basic plot. This is why I was lucky when I came to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, because other than knowing that there was a character named Quasimodo who was a hunchback, I knew almost nothing about the book.

As I found out later, even the title is merely a title of convenience, with the original title being merely "Notre Dame of Paris". Quasimodo is one of four or five main characters in the book, who are:

  • Pierre Gringoire, an easy going and unsuccessful poet and playwrite. Loosely based on a real person, Pierre drifts amongst the characters but has much less emotional involvement in the plot than the other characters.
  • Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame, is a brilliant scholar who is interested in both orthodox religion and alchemy. He becomes challenged throughout the book, due to his guilt over his attraction and obsession with:
  • Esmeralda, a young "gypsy" woman who dances and performs with a pet goat, and is in search of her lost mother. She is also nominally married to Pirre.
  • Captain Phoebus de Ch√Ęteauper, the object of Esmeralda's affection, is a military officer whose interests are drinking, women and more drinking. Although he is engaged to a society woman, he has many affairs, and attempts to seduce Esmeralda.
  • Quasimodo, a disabled and deaf man who was rescued by Calude Frollo, and raised to be the bell ringer of Notre Dame. Although disfigured and socially isolated, he is more intelligent than he seems. He develops a protective love for Esmeralda.

These five characters act out a convoluted and sometimes melodramatic plot, all taken against the background of medieval Paris, its society and politics. Much like the later and grander Les Miserables, this book combines emotional and dramatic story telling (along with a number of less-than-plausible plot twists) with social and political commentary. The story is romance and the background is realism.

Much of this book is about the early 19th century as much as it is about the 15th century. I would have to be an expert on the politics of early 19th century France and of Victor Hugo's personal belief to see what the exact agenda of this book is. While the attacks on the clergy and the monarchy are fairly obvious, there is probably a number of topical references that I do not understand. However, the book can be read as an exciting drama, without spending too much time guessing what particular axes Victor Hugo had to grind.

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