The Idiot Learns to Read #7: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Look not at the face, young girl, look at the heart. The heart of a handsome young man is often deformed. There are hearts in which love does not keep. Young girl, the pine is not beautiful; it is not beautiful like the poplar, but it keeps its foliage in winter. Alas! What is the use of saying that? That which is not beautiful has no right to exist; beauty loves only beauty; April turns her back on January. Beauty is perfect, beauty can do all things, beauty is the only thing which does not exist by halves. The raven flies only by day, the owl flies only by night, the swan flies by day and by night.

Where do I even begin?  First of all, instead of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo should have called this A Brief History of Paris Plus a Long-Winded Description of Notre-Dame, A Whole Bunch of Side Stories, Oh, and a Tale About a Deformed Oprhan. Because that’s what this really was.  I don’t know whether to love or hate the story.  When I first began reading it, I definitely hated the story.  A few more chapters in and I was truly hating it.  I almost abandoned it like I did Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.  By the end, however, I was utterly riveted.  What happened?  Let me tell you.

This story is about a really fucked up love triangle and what happens when you become obsessed with something you cannot have.  It is also about man’s passion for things that look good on the outside and his abhorrence for anything that is ugly, despite the beauty within.  But before we can even get to that point, we have to go through a whole bunch of other crap.

The story opens up with a big party.  It’s some festival or other.  This is Paris and you know they have a festival for everything.  “It’s Tuesday, let’s PAARTAAAY!!!”  It’s some kind of freak show party, though.  All the ugly, weird deformed looking freaks get together and the townspeople elect one of them to be the Pope of Fools.  It’s supposed to be an honour but really you know they’re just laughing at you.  Anyway, Quasimodo is elected Pope of Fools.

The party would have been interesting except Victor Hugo chose to be long-winded about it.  He described everything, every little thing, in super agonising detail.  He also outlined every conversation held by every attendant at the party.  I went through pages and pages of description and conversation between random people who appeared to have absolutely no relevance to anything.  The further I got into the book, the more I realised that those people I was forced to listen to would never make an additional appearance.  I suffered through this for several days.

The next set of books (Victor Hugo wrote the story in books–11 in total, with several chapters each) gets even worse.  You would think the story would then pick up.  Oh no.  Victor Hugo proceeds to give us an intimate history of Paris and Notre-Dame, including key events and important figures’ influence on the infamous church.  And when I say detailed, I mean detailed.  Everything from the weight of each stone to how many cracks in said stone to the number of cross beams holding up the rafters and blah blah blah blah.  I was cross-eyed by the time I finished the description of Notre-Dame.  And what’s next?

Oh, a description of the Place de Greve, this square near Notre-Dame where they used to hang people.  Oh my God, I could not sit through another lengthy discussion, so I started skipping chapters.  I’m sorry, Mr. Hugo, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.  It was at this point that I almost gave up on the whole book altogether.  I skipped ahead a little bit to see if there was an actual story to read, or if this was going to be strictly historical documentation, but I did see something that was interesting so I decided to keep on with it.

I’m glad I did but there was still a little more agony to get through.  Time for the back story.  Oh man, the back story.  At first glance the back story does seem as irrelevant as everything else I had previously read, but I came to learn that those back stories would tie neatly into a nice little bow, with everything explained.  It is here you learn about all the significant characters of the story:

The Evil Priest
The Evil Priest’s brother
Quasimodo
Captain Phoebus
Esmeralda
The Sacked Nun
Esmeralda’s Sorta Kinda Husband

It’s just that Victor Hugo has a bizarre way of giving you the back story.  You know the Evil Priest is important, because he’s evil, d’uh, and he sets everything into motion.  But who cares about the Sacked Nun, or the Evil Priest’s brother, for that matter?  What do these people have to do with anything?  And the way they are brought into the story… it’s so odd.  Three gossiping old women are randomly talking about the Sacked Nun, but you kinda don’t know they’re talking about her and you have no idea why she is important.  It seems so random, and then later on you get this moment, like, “OMG!!! The Sacked Nun is…..”

I’m not going to tell you.  Read the damn book yourself.

So what the hell is this story about?

Remember what I was saying about the fucked up love triangle and what happens when you try to possess something that is not yours?  Yeah, it’s all that.  So….

Quasimodo is a horrific little orphan that nobody wanted.  He has one eye.  He has a huge hunchback.  He’s got frightful red hair (back then red hair was associated with the devil).  He spoke only gibberish until someone took pity on him and adopted him.  He was the bell-ringer at Notre-Dame and because of this, he is mostly deaf.

The Evil Priest is the one who adopted Quasimodo.  In the beginning, he wasn’t evil.  He seemed like a nice guy, a little cold and distant, but still most people thought highly of him.

Esmeralda is the beautiful gypsy girl.  She’s precisely the sort of woman that everybody either loves or hates.  All the men love her because she is beautiful and the women hate her because she is beautiful.  No one loves Esmeralda more than the Evil Priest.  No one hates Esmeralda more than the sacked nun.

Everything jumps off when the Evil Priest sees Esmeralda dancing somewhere.  He is so transfixed that he becomes immediately obsessed with her.  He tells Quasimodo to kidnap her on his behalf.  Quasimodo, who will do anything for the Evil Priest, goes to do his bidding but in attempting to kidnap the beautiful gypsy girl, he is thwarted by the handsome Captain Phoebus.  Esemeralda is naturally terrified of Quasimodo.  I mean, who wouldn’t be.  He’s atrocious and it is human nature to to be horrified by things that are ugly.  It’s also in our nature to be enamoured by things that are beautiful, no matter what ugliness that beauty may hide.

Because Captain Phoebus saves Esmeralda, she is immediately in love with him.  Quasimodo is arrested and the Evil Priest basically throws him under the bus.  “I ain’t tell him to kidnap that girl!”  They throw Quasimodo into a public jail so that people can walk past him and laugh at him and throw stuff at him.  It’s a hot day and he’s begging for water, and even though he tried to harm her, Esmeralda is the only person who feels sorry for him.  She brings him something to drink and because of this he falls in love with her.

So Esmeralda and Captain Phoebus are all in love and it’s great and everything, but the Evil Priest has not forgotten about her.  Every time he sees her, he gets crazier and crazier.  The stuff he thinks about her is actually quite creepy.  Through nefarious actions, the Evil Priest finds out that Phoebus is supposed to be meeting with Esmeralda.  Evil Priest wants to meet her too and he makes a deal with Phoebus so they can all hang out.

Instead of hanging out, somehow Phoebus gets stabbed, Esmeralda gets blamed and the Evil Priest disappears.  The police tell Esmeralda that Phoebus is dead so now she has to go on trial.  Because she’s a gypsy, they automatically assume that she is a witch and they torture her to get her to confess.  She ends up confessing even though she didn’t do anything.

While she is in jail awaiting execution, the Evil Priest comes to her to confess his undying love for her.  She is absolutely repulsed.  He is the author of all her misery.  Every time something bad happens to her it is because of something he did.  She didn’t even know it at the time but she finally figures it all out.  She tells him under no circumstances would she ever, in her life, have anything to do with him.  He tells her that she is about to be executed, but she doesn’t care because she thinks Phoebus is dead.

On the day of her execution she discovers that Phoebus is NOT dead.  He was in the crowd waiting to see her get hanged.  He didn’t even know that she had been arrested.  And anyway, he didn’t even give a damn because he was about to marry someone of his own kind.  See what I mean about beauty hiding an ugly heart?  He is basically standing there while his supposed one true love is about to get executed and because he is standing with his new hoe, he’s like, “Oh, I don’t know her like that.”  He didn’t even speak up when he found that she was to be hanged because she allegedly stabbed him to death.  He could have at least said, “Well, since I’m not dead… everything is cool.”  But he didn’t.  What a loser.

Meanwhile, Quasimodo has never forgotten how kind Esmeralda was to him and how jacked up the Evil Priest is.  He also witnesses what a loser Phoebus is.  He decides to save her.  Right when she is about to get hanged, he swoops down out of the church, snatches her up ad brings her back to Notre-Dame for sanctuary.  Back then, you could hide in a church and nobody could do anything to you because the church was a safe place.

Both Phoebus and the Evil Priest did not witness this and they both think Esmeralda is dead.  The Evil Priest is all depressed because he loves Esmeralda so much and he is the one that sent her to her death.  He blames everyone but himself, including her, as the author of all hi miseries.  Apparently, he thought that if she were dead, he would no longer be on fire with passion like he was.  Priests were supposed to be virginal and free of lustful thoughts.  Every time he sees her he just can’t help himself.  It really is quite disturbing.

He goes away for a little while but once he returns to Notre-Dame, he finds out that Quasimodo has been hiding her inside the church.  He becomes even more jealous and enraged.  It was one thing for him to be jealous of the handsome Phoebus but ugly ass Quasimodo?  It’s even more outrageous.  Once more, Evil Priest tries to go to Esmeralda but she is like, “GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME!”

Fine.  If I can’t have you, no one can.

The Evil Priest sets off a dangerous set of events that ends up in a huge battle in front of Notre-Dame.  A bunch of people end up dead.  One last time he tries to reason with Esmeralda but she is still obsessed with Captain Phoebus who doesn’t even have the time of day for her. Quasimodo tries desperately to save her but his valiant attempts fail.

In the end, the Sacked Nun, the Evil Priest’s brother, the Evil Priest and Esmeralda all end up dead.  Phoebus gets married.  And as for Quasimodo, well, nobody knows what happened to him.

It was a good story, Mr. Hugo, but I wish we didn’t have to go to Tibet to get to California.

Next up is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Normally, I like to do long, short, long, short but I’m plunging into another long novel because this is what my book club is reading next.

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