The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (audio): second half

hunchbackIn brief: better than the first half.

In the first half of this classic novel, I felt there was a bit much explication of aspects less interesting to me personally: most to the point, the architecture of Paris and the history of that architecture. This turns out to be a historical facet that does not fascinate me. If you feel otherwise, enjoy. I said then that Hugo’s strengths lay in the narrative of his story, especially in dialogue; and it seemed to me that this second half had more of that. I am still refraining from plot summary, since that question is well answered by the internet at large. So, briefly, in this second half our characters meet their fates. La Esmeralda, Quasimodo, Claude Frollo, Phoebus, Gringoire and Sister Gudule are for me the central characters, and each comes to a resolution by the end; Hugo wraps up very neatly in that regard.

I found the story interesting – not riveting, but engaging in that I cared about the fates of these characters. It moved a little too slowly to be called riveting, but I did remain mostly attentive. (The description of Parisian building styles through the centuries was not entirely absent in this latter half of the book, so I did still zone out some.) Gringoire’s comic soliloquies are among the best moments; and the Archdeacon’s depravity was shocking and certainly absorbing. I think he easily equals the sociopaths featured on Criminal Minds. One of my observations on finishing this book is that 15th-century French society unfortunately allowed for such crazed and dangerous behaviors if one only held a high position in the church.

This is mild praise, you realize. The Hunchback of Notre Dame struck me as a fine story, but unremarkable. And yet Victor Hugo is a big name, and this one of his best-known works (I am not excited about Les Miserables!), so what have I missed? Well, for one thing, there is this assertion that I got from Wikipedia:

Hugo introduced with this work the concept of the novel as Epic Theatre. A giant epic about the history of a whole people, incarnated in the figure of the great cathedral as witness and silent protagonist of that history. The whole idea of time and life as an ongoing, organic panorama centered on dozens of characters caught in the middle of that history. It is the first novel to have beggars as protagonists.

Notre Dame de Paris was 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 Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and many others, including Charles Dickens.

And when put in this perspective, I see its value a little more clearly. Upon its publication in 1831 there were no novels like this; okay. On the other hand this is Wikipedia (and there is a sentence fragment in the above quotation, oh the horror), so, grain of salt. Certainly I can see how this is a great, sweeping view of 15th century France, as stated involving both the King and the beggars, and I am happy to nod to the precedent set even if this is not my favorite example of the genre.

The narrator, David Case, turned out to be perfectly fine and appropriate. I liked the different voices he plays for the very different characters of Gringoire (comic, self-important, whinging), the Archdeacon (dark, conflicted), Esmeralda (sort of a wilting lily), and Quasimodo (deaf). He gave the piece flavor.

In the end, though, I shrug at this lengthy audiobook and move on without looking back.

Rating: 5 gargoyles.

6 Responses

  1. With “The White Heron” I liked your ability to imagine how the book might have been received in its own time; that was a rich and important contemplation. With classic works like “Hunchback” that is important as well. I’m glad you noted its historical/literary context.

    I didn’t read this book, but I know that Hugo’s works had a tremendous contemporary impact; his popular reputation gave him a prominent & significant voice as he wrote of the French Revolution.

    “Reading the classics” is not always about literary enjoyment in our modern sense; sometimes their value is in giving us a sense of their own times, and perhaps even what we can learn from them – as you yourself have noted in other commentaries.

    • Yes. I don’t regret the time I spent on this one (although I am a little closer to regret in the case of Anna Karenina…) but it is interesting to me that some classics hold their enjoyability – for me personally – much better than others. Maybe it’s time to pick up The Count of Monte Cristo again. I remember that being positively mesmerizing in high school. And the World’s Strongest Librarian recommended a follow-up read to me, too! (his interview still forthcoming :))

  2. […] pages long: fewer in English, but no, I have not read this one. (I listened to the audiobook of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also long.) It became a sung-through Broadway musical to great success (Wikipedia says it was the […]

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