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 Châteauper, 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.