Paris in the 15th Century
Victor Hugo (1802-1885-France-you can read more about him here) created in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, characters known by millions world wide who have never heard of his novel.
Quasimodo has rung the bells of Norte-Dame Cathedral millions of times in Saturday morning cartoons and old movies on TV. The Gypsy girl he loves, Esmeralda, is a stock Disney character now. His work has influenced countless novelists from Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky on down. He is buried in the Pantheon in Paris in a crypt shared by Emile Zola and Alexander Dumas. Two million people lined the streets of Paris for his funeral possession. He is among the towering giants of world literature.
The Hunch Back of Notre-Dame probably violates many rules taught in creative writing classes around the world today. Hugo loves to stop the flow of the narrative and talk about something that he thinks his readers should know about. He is very much given to the use of the "Dear reader" device to move the plot along. His characters seem a little one dimensional (with one or two exceptions) and he does more or less force the reader into sentimental emotional attitudes by telling us what to feel. All that being said, it is a great novel loved by millions, including me now.
I do not feel a lot of need to retell the plot. I will just try to explain why I like it and why I think it has endured as a classic when other works have been forgotten.
Part of the power of this novel is in the great descriptive power of Hugo. He made Paris in 1482 come very much to life for me. Hugo covers the full spectrum of society, from the king to the ragged poor and the criminals. I first fell in love with this novel when Quasimodo was crowned the Pope of Fools at a street ceremony. There is nothing like the mob scenes in this book in any English novel of the period (that I can think of anyway). I thought one of the very best parts of the book came when the struggling poet (stock romantic figure) Pierre Gringoire accidentally wandered into "The Court of Miracles" where the Gypsies and Thieves of Paris are conducting a meeting. Gringoire has to be accepted as husband by one of the women or he will be executed in order to keep the groups meeting secret from the authorities. I thought this scene was so great with lots of details to make sure we could visualize it. It was completely real for me (If you are a fan of the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation maybe this scene will remind you episode where Q puts the crew of the Enterprise on trial for crimes against the peoples of the universe and the jury is a wild collections of criminals from throughout the galaxy.) The beautiful Gypsy girl Esmeralda accepts him as her husband, but in name only and he is saved.
I liked an awfully lot the historical tangents, the lists of items found through the book, the descriptions of the Cathedral, and the historical detail of Paris in the late 15th century. I pretty much knew what was going to happen but I still found the telling of it very exciting. I concede it maybe a bit melodramatic and the use of the Gypsy girl is possibly xenophobic or worse (I do not think this usage was meant in a mean spirited way.) Also Hugo's insistence on the beauty of Esmeralda seems to carry the idea that an ugly woman is not worthy of concern and certainly not worth writing about.
The evil characters in this novel do seem to have the most depth to them, just like in some of the novels of Charles Dickens. Sometimes it does seem like the interludes between plot action are pretty long (even though I would not advise skipping them). There is a lot in this novel to love if you just let its magic take you over and forget that you saw the plot on the Disney Channel when you were ten!. There are cliches in this novel and Hugo wanted it to be a big success (which it was).
Sometimes it feels like Hugo said to himself "OK I am a genius so why should I deprive the world of my works by cutting anything short".
The novel is very political and the King of France makes an important appearance. Hugo makes a very powerful and bold statement when he shows the way the King panders to the mob while being motivated only by his bloated ego. There is a lot of good treatment of the differences between social classes and we really learn a lot about the cathedral as we read. We also learn a lot about alchemy and other occult sciences. I thought something was missing in the treatment of the relationship of Quasimodo to the church leader who adopted him when he was a foundling (I was waiting to find out Quasimodo was his son!) and I thought the emergence of Esmeralda's mother at the end a bit overly melodramatic.
I am so glad I have at last read this classic novel. (I read this at Dailylit.com-226 episodes-no translator credit given-I read it over about ten days). I hope now to be ready to read his giant work (600 plus episodes on Dailylit) Les Miserables later in the year. Anyone interested in French literature or the 19th century novel for sure needs to read this novel.