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The Hunchback of Notre Dame

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

Hugo-NotreDame_titre_webOn January 15, 1831, Victor Hugo finished one of his famous novels— Notre Dame de Paris. It had taken him only four months, after missing many deadlines set by his publishers. This was his first novel; it was a hit in Paris and France from the very beginning. Hugo had already gained fame because of his poems (he was granted many gifts and a 3000 franc annual pension from King Louis XVIII.) He lived during turbulent times. When he was two, Napoleon became Emperor of France. During his eighteenth year, the Bourbon dynasty was restored and Napoleon overthrown. It is no wonder that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was set in turbulent times. And it also explains the French reaction to the work. The French had all lived through Napoleon and the struggles, not to mention the French Revolution that had occurred within living memory.

Notre Dame de Paris was a huge hit for him—even a sensation. The English translator for Hugo retitled the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame because at the time of its publication in English, Gothic novels were popular. Thus all the confusion! Hugo titled it as he did because the main character really is the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, not Quasimodo or Esmerelda. Hugo wanted to bring attention to the condition of the famous cathedral—it was badly in need of repairs. It was attracting thousands of tourists who had read the popular novel. The book also inspired a renewed appreciation for pre-Renaissance buildings, which thereafter began to be actively preserved.

All his adult life, he passionately advocated for an end to the death penalty. He is credited with convincing the British government to spare the lives of six Irish people convicted of terrorist activities, and is also considered in the removal of the death penalty from the constitutions of Geneva, Portugal and Colombia. His archives show that he wrote a letter asking the USA, for the sake of their own reputation in the future, to spare John Brown’s life, but the letter arrived after Brown was executed. What would have happened if the letter had arrived before??

When Napoleon III came to power, Hugo declared him an enemy of the state and moved abroad. He spent fifteen years in exile in Brussels, then Channel Islands. Jersey expelled him soon after arrival, but Guernsey was welcoming. His home in exile is a museum now.

When he returned to Paris in 1870, he was touted as a national hero. He suffered a small stroke, his two sons died and his daughter was committed to an insane asylum, all in a short time period. His wife had died several years earlier; his devoted mistress died two years before him. The whole nation of France celebrated his eightieth birthday. Paris had one of the largest parades ever to celebrate it. For nearly six hours people marched past his window! He was recovering from a small stoke and was not able to leave his bed, but he was propped up so he could watch. He was also given a traditional gift that was only given to kings. Paris even renamed a street after him. Most of the large towns and cities have streets named after victor Hugo. When Hugo died at age 83 from pneumonia, his coffin was laid under the Arc de Triomphe for an all-night vigil. Nearly 2 million people marched in his funeral. He was buried with all honors in a crypt with Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola.

img_44442On to the novel: On January 6, 1482, during the Feast of Fools, a huge crowd is milling around the Cathedral of Notre Dame, taking part in the celebrations. There is a maypole, a mystery play and a bonfire. Esmerelda, a Gypsy, singing and swaying, catches the eyes of several men: Captain (of the guards) Phoebus, Grigoire, Archdeacon Claude Frollo and Quasimodo. Frollo orders Quasimodo to kidnap Esmerelda, but he is caught by the guards, flogged and put in stocks. Esmerelda gives him water, gaining his undying love. Later, after Esmerelda is charged with Phoebus’ attempted murder, Quasimodo saves her from death by taking her to the sanctuary of the cathedral. But the sanctuary doesn’t last long. She is retaken, and hanged. Frollo laughs during the hanging so Quasimodo throws him off the cathedral. Quasimodo finds Esmerelda’s body in the graveyard and stays there until he dies of starvation.

Hugo introduced the concept of the novel as Epic Theatre in Notre Dame de Paris. This was a giant epic about the history of a whole people, with the figure of the great cathedral as witness and silent protagonist. It was the first novel to have beggars as protagonists. It was also the first work of fiction to encompass the whole of life, from the King of France to Paris sewer rats, in a manner later co-opted by many others authors, including Charles Dickens. The popularity of the book in France also kick started the historical preservation movement in Paris and the rest of the nation and strongly encouraged Gothic revival architecture. Ultimately it led to major renovations at Notre-Dame in the 19th century; much of the cathedral’s present appearance is a result of this renovation. Read the rest of this entry

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