Notre-Dame of Paris (Penguin Classics)
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2003
Having little knowlegde of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I failed to realize how drastically different the Disney version was from reality. The story does not focus on a loveable hunchback who finds happiness in the end, rather it is about the cathedral itself. The action and characters all feed off of Notre Dame and represent its values, but they are merely secondary aspects of the book. It is also a violent, depressing, and sometimes even erotic book, none of which of course comes through in a Disney movie.
Many things make this book an incredible read. The most obvious is the incredible prose. Hugo was a beautiful writer and his writing flows so smoothly. He also described with incredible detail the Paris of the late 15th century--the city's skyline, its culture, some of the notable people, and the issues of the day. He spent three years researching the book and he turned his noted into an historical epic. Finally, the action and characters of the book are well developed, exciting, and unique while still representing the values and controversies Hugo wanted to explore.
I originally picked this book up when I was in the 7th grade and was unable to make it more than 20 pages without giving up in frustration, but having more knowlegde of European history, a greater appreciation for literature, and more patience with a book that admittedly starts slowly, I am very glad I came back to it. I don't think this is a book that a young reader will find interesting--though the story itself is great so an abridged version would keep them reading--but any fan of great literature, beautiful prose, French history, architecture, or Victor Hugo will love this book if they give it a chance and do sit patiently while it revs up for 30-40 pages. I highly recommend it.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2006
Victor Hugo never did anything by halves. His NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS begins as a tour of Gothic Paris and ends as a monumental and melodramatic Grand Guignol. Needless to say, all the film versions focus on the wrong character: Quasimodo is by no means the main focus of the novel, and the novel certainly is misnamed when called THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. The hero, if there is one, is the cathedral itself, brooding over Renaissance Paris like a horror from another age.

The only character who is not not overdramatized appears only once in an unforgettable vignette at the very end: Louis XI, King of France, who has been called by the historian Philippe de Commynes "The Universal Spider." Louis; his grasping barber, Olivier le Daim; and his grim hatchet man, Tristan l'Hermite are unforgettable and more sharply drawn than any other Hugo characters I can recall.

John Sturrock's translation is well done except for his occasional inclusion of an archaic term without footnote or any other comment. Most notable are two items of apparel I still cannot visualize, namely bycokets and actons. Yet every Latin phrase, and there are many spoken by Pierre Gringoire and the student Jehan Frollo, is faithfully translated.

Also useful would have been a map of Louis XI's Paris. I was frequently confused about where the action was taking place, because most if not all of the place names were later superseded by others.

I would venture to say that no one reading this novel will ever forget it. I first read it more than twenty years ago, and it still sprang into my mind as sharply-etched as before.

This edition is unabridged. Although Hugo sometimes tended to go off on tangents, I could not think of a single chapter I would axe. Even where it does not add to the plot, it adds to the atmosphere of a city in which life and love were cheap, and no infraction was ever left unpunished by the most dire means possible.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2002
After ignoring this book for all my life since the story is so well-known I finally read it since it is written, after all, by the great Victor Hugo. I knew that it was not about the hunchback but rather about Notre-Dame itself (as the correct translation of its original title indicates) but still this novel really took me by surprise - at times I was wondering if it was in fact the novel all the movies are based on. Although the plot develops at a fast pace from the start, there are chapters which some readers might find lengthy or oddly out-of-place, such as the very detailed description of the cathedral and the view of Paris from it, or the discourse on how books kill architecture. But it is so beautifully written that I did not mind this in the least bit. Another critizicm often is that Hugo uses too many adjectives to describe one noun, but this is exactly what makes this book so highly enjoyable - a firework display of Hugo's literary brilliance. To top this off, the book is also very witty and entertaining at times, despite its dismal subject. I found myself reading entire pages several times because I enjoyed them so much. This is a much under-appreciated book. Please do not let the fact that it has been "disney-fied" deter you from reading it!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2002
If you've only seen the film adaptations of this story, for heaven's sake read this jewel of a book! Hugo's ability to see into the hearts of people, especially those in states of degradation, is unequalled. His style, even in translation, is immensely powerful. The scene between Claude and Esmeralda in the dungeon is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking bits of writing I have ever come across.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2011
By now we all know the story, or do we? Dom Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame, develops a lustful obsession towards the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda, and decides he must either possess her or destroy her. He sends his adopted son Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame, to capture her. The attempt fails, however, and Quasimodo is taken by guards, tried for the attempted abduction, and sentenced to a public flogging. While undergoing his punishment, Esmerelda grants him a drink of water, a gesture of kindness the pitiful hunchback never forgets. Esmerelda is later tried for a murder she did not commit, having been set up by Frollo. Quasimodo rescues her from the gallows and carries her into the cathedral where, due to the law of sanctuary, she is immune from the persecution of the law.

Like another great classic, Moby-Dick, most people only experience this story in the form of a movie or a condensed children's book, in which the ending is oftentimes either truncated or replaced by some sort of "happily ever after" resolution. The actual book Victor Hugo wrote contains little that is suitable for children, and as for the actual ending, I'm certainly not going to give it away in this review.

This is one of the greatest novels ever written. Why do so few people read the actual book? For one reason, it's a tough read. Written in 1831, and taking place in 1482, the story contains a lot of medieval history. The names of unfamiliar historical personages of church and state are liberally tossed about, along with a fair amount of archaic terminology. While it may be possible to read Les Miserables without a single footnote, you'd be hard-pressed to read Notre-Dame without ample notes and a couple trips to Wikipedia. Secondly, like all great books of the past, and like so few books of the present, this novel contains a complex message. Over and above the more immediate lessons it teaches us about love, obsession, courage, devotion, and fate, Notre-Dame de Paris also laments the death of architecture at the hands of the printing press. Gothic cathedrals were the books of their day; their walls were the pages, their sculptures and stained glass windows were the texts which educated the illiterate masses. One of Victor Hugo's personal interests was the preservation of historical architecture, in particular the remaining medieval buildings of Paris. Quasimodo's hulking form is an embodiment of the monolithic architecture of the Notre-Dame cathedral itself. The story takes place at the time when the printing press was gaining prominence in Europe. With the dissemination of printed materials, more inexpensive and easier to mass produce than hand-copied manuscripts, came a rise in literacy. This in turn heralded the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and led to the triumph of education over ignorance, reason over superstition, science over religion, and democracy over monarchy. A more educated and literate population no longer needed those ornate cathedrals to instruct them as to what's right and what's true; possessed of the power of literacy they could now decide for themselves. While I think it's safe to say Hugo was on the side of literacy, Quasimodo is the incarnation of Hugo's nostalgia for the beautiful but obsolete form of expression encapsulated in those Gothic cathedrals. Now is a particularly interesting time to read this book, while we are undergoing an equally monumental shift in the primary mode of information dissemination, from the printed word to digital media.

Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the few novels that rises above the sphere of literature into the realm of mythology. Hugo has written such a well-crafted story, so memorable, so elegant in its basic structure, so universal in its themes, yet so deep in its philosophical undertones, that it earns itself a place alongside some of the most ancient myths and legends. The elemental opposition between Quasimodo (ugly on the surface but possessing beauty of soul) and Claude Frollo (superficially pious but sinister underneath) could have been written thousands of years ago. It's a testament to Hugo's skill as a writer that Quasimodo, a deformed man of childlike intelligence, has become a household name along the lines of Odysseus, Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, or Batman. Esmerelda is one of the greatest female characters in literature--part gypsy sex goddess, part street-smart urchin, part naive teenage girl. At times she's a damsel in distress, yes, but she's also a strong-willed protagonist, with a fierce independence that's undermined by her flawed, shallow infatuation with a handsome, egotistical man who ultimately brings about her downfall.

There are so many subplots and supporting characters in this book that never make it into the Disney or Hallmark Channel versions of the story. If you haven't read Hugo's version, you're missing out on a lot. Treat yourself to one of the world's greatest works of literature and start reading this book today.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2005
Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris is usually translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, giving the impression that Quasimodo, the hunchback, is the hero of the novel. In truth, this is a story without a true hero or a true villain. The original French title is more apt because the central character is the cathedral itself, overshadowing, shaping and constraining the merely human lives that are played out in and around it. If the story has a villain it is Fate; blind, merciless and unremitting. There is however a heroine, La Esmeralda, and she alone of all the characters makes us laugh and cry.

Hugo can be prolix. For what Dickens will say in a sentence, and Dostoevski in a paragraph, Hugo will employ a chapter, when the mood takes him. I hate the idea of abridgements and I would normally never recommend skipping or skimming any part of a great work, but Hugo is a possible exception. The thirty-odd pages devoted to A Bird's Eye View of Paris can be safely skipped over, unless you are a bird. Everything else is essential, or at least worthwhile. Neither does the author skimp on the use of coincidence, and the plot relies on one 'who-should-it-be-but' coincidence in particular which is so convenient and unlikely that most readers will groan when they realize what it is. The charitable interpretation is that the book is after all about Fate and its inevitability.

Despite those quibbles, the novel is a resounding 5-star must-read. It is astonishingly imaginative and includes scenes, especially those in the prison, and at the very end, that are as powerful, disturbing and memorable as anything in literature. I will say no more about them, because I hate spoilers even more than I do abridgements. Needless to say, if you think you know the story from movie versions, you don't.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2005
This is the second time around that i have read Notre-Dame de Paris, aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I am telling you, just like many other reviewers have said already, you aren't going to know what the story is really about from watching the Disney version of Hunchback, or even the black and white version of it (but that version is quite good, if you must see a movie on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, see the black and white version of it that shows the more serious interpretation of the book, unlike the Disney version). From reading it the second time, I truly feel more overwhelmed by Victor Hugo's description of the characters, and the main character of the whole book, the Notre Dame cathedral. One thing I love about Hugo, and this novel, is how he truly gives you a epic FEEL with his beautiful prose. I have read many classics, but not too many of them can actually make you feel the scenes, the emotions, the plot, and the characters like Victor Hugo. At times this book can be very haunting, frightening, cryptic, hilarious, moving, touching, and so much more. Victor Hugo is truly the only author so far in my life that can truly make me cry from reading his novels. I deeply feel inspired by Victor Hugo, I wish that Victor Hugo was in the highschool curriculum, and that The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be part of the reading list. But whether its assigned to you or not, this book is truly one of the great novels of all time, and should be read with an open mind and an open heart.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2004
I really liked this book. Unfortunately, years ago I saw the Disney cartoon and so never felt compelled to read the story. I feel embarrassed to compare the cartoon with this book that has stood the test of time, and will be remembered long after the name Disney is forgotten. But I only do so for those, who like me, may have been put off by the thought of retreading a storyline that you basically know. If you've only seen the movie, you do not know the story. The characters in this story are wonderful. The motivations and emotions that they convey are believable and compelling. Claude Frollo, despite his sinister actions, is my favorite character of the book. His motivations, his sufferings, and his raw emotions captivate. I have found with this book, as I have with so many other classics, that its reputation as a difficult read is overstated. There are only a couple of chapters that grow tedious, but on the whole the book is magnificent and accessible. If you enjoy reading about passionate characters, whose emotions and feelings are confronted by realistic obstacles, then this book is sure to please. I love how these characters wrestle with their emotions and how - as in real life - they are not always able to gain their heart's desire. Wonderful.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Victor Hugo, the French poet and writer, who wished to change how novels were written and read, wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in the beginning of his career. In contrast to Les Miserables, which is his more celebrated work, and was written several decades after the Notre-dame novel, the present piece is not only laced with more humor and romance but also stands out as a piece where the young poet in Hugo pours out a ravishing range of similes. Just for the pure magic of his metaphors and similes that make all his descriptions so poetic, so powerful Notre-Dame is worth reading.

The story itself reads like a fanciful movie, an ugly hunchback, Quasimodo is brought up by a Priest Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre-dame. The hunchback is hence attached like a dog to his master to him. The English title of Hunchback of Notre-dame is a misnomer, for the original is called Notre-dame de Paris, and English title lets us assume that it is the story of Hunchback as hero, while the original title asserts it is story set in Notre-dame and has characters who reside in it, or live in its shadows. The Priest Calude Frollo, leaving his pursuit of science and philosophy meanders to a path of unrelenting lust for the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda. A writer, Pierre Grigorne, gets into a set of bizarre circumstances, where a token marriage attaches him to the gypsy. Phoebus, captain of King's Archers is the object of the affection of Esmeralda herself.

Besides these characters, there is a madwoman who lives in confinement, pining for her lost child, who was carried off by gypsies, and hates Esmeralda. There is the goat Djali, who performs tricks with Esmeralda, Jehan who is Claude Frollo's irreligious brother, King Louis IV - who interacts with Claude on issues of science, and the most important character, who lurks like an existence all though, is the Notre-Dame itself. The romances criss cross through a series of interesting episodes and drama, and that forms the crux of the story that I won't divulge here. Readers will benefit by discovering surprises and mystery for themselves, in process getting enchanted by a story that has been a popular read for centuries now.

What makes this novel a masterpiece, besides the poetic descriptions, is

Hugo's description of the cathedral of Notre-dame and the city of Paris, and his discussion of how the arrival of printing press signaled an end to the importance as architecture as the expressive art of intellectuals. The views of the author expressed in these pages and pages of delightful reading provide the reader not only with historical and architectural perspective on the buildings in Paris, but also gives us a word image of buildings, roofs, rooms, carvings, modernism, and more. In his commentaries and comparisons between writing and printing as form of expression in contrast to architecture, Hugo unmasks a wide array of issues that arrival of every new media (TV, Cinema, Internet, Digital Photography) bring. How existing precepts and concepts are revised, how adaptations occur, how each age has its own expression through any of these means- and all Hugo says so passionately about architecture or literature allows us to feel the essence of why we make monuments of stones or words in the first place.

Victor Hugo had great skill in developing characters, and describing their lives over an extended period of time, capturing how situations and people led to certain choices, behavioral changes and thought process of each. His ability of doing this, in a very detached manner, where narrative is like a camera floating into a room, and staying long enough for a distant observer to watch and identify traits of every person present there, makes him a great novelist. The novel, like all classic reads, looks formidable in size, but can be read at a formidable pace, especially after the first half of the novel is over.

Besides the merits of the novelist, and the beauty of his wordplay, the story itself is a charming one, and has been brought to screen versions many times. Reading Hugo's two major works allows one to get the same keen insight into French society of the respective times, as does Thackeray and Dickens novels for England and Tolstoy in Russia. Reading any of these masters takes time, but trust me, it is worth the patience and the effort. Recommended highly.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2004
This is one of those "masterpieces of literature" one always hears about but never gets around to reading (unless forced to in high-school!). Hugo was never required reading in any of my high-school English classes, so finally, after recently visiting Paris and seeing Notre Dame for myself, I felt obliged to read Hugo's novel. Over the course of a few weeks, and some wistfully long rainy days, I became enthralled with Hugo's seemingly eye-witness acccount of 15th century Paris. The most developed character of all is of course, the cathedral, and Hugo devotes whole chapters to its history. Another chapter on the invention of the printing press is fascinating not only for its historical value, but Hugo's comparisons to architecture, the middle-ages, and society. The highly symbolic character of Esmeralda, who takes refuge in Notre Dame's walls, is the "other" protagonist of the novel, and the object of both the repressed Claude Frollo, and the grotesque, Quasimodo. She falls tragically in love with Phoebus de Chateaupers, a typically arrogant and callous soldier who treats her like a prostitute (i.e. Mary Magdalene). The characters of Jehan Frollo (Claude's brother), and the destitute poet Pierre Gringoire, are enjoyable to follow throughout the story, which weaves in and around the streets surrounding the dominating towers of Notre Dame (which all visitors are obliged to climb after reading this beautiful novel for just as beautiful views of Paris).
Without giving away the story or ending, I'll just say that despite having known about this story all these years, it held many surprises and interesting scenes for me. Understanding that Hugo is a quintessential 19th Century Romantic, the reader will encounter two different worlds in one here, as Hugo creates a 19th Century gothic romance using exquisite research and detail from the late 15th Century. His general commentaries on architecture and history are worth reading in themselves. Without being overly dry or pedantic, Hugo manages to convey the importance of historical preservation (the popularity of this book was greatly responsible for refurbishing Notre Dame to its present well-being), as well as creating an enthralling, imaginative human story which is accessible to every reader throughout time. Esmeralda & Notre Dame (strangely, not Quasimodo, "the Hunchback") remain the most memorable and haunting characters to me. Overall, Notre Dame is an impressive accomplishment, especially for a story with an edifice as its central character!
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