Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

April 7, 2011


“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo (1802-1885 | Biography & Works) is a fictional story set in Paris, France and published in 1831. The novel became a classic and the Hunchback became a tragic hero as well as a cultural icon.

  • 608 pages
  • Publisher ‏ : Barnes & Noble Classics
  • Language ‏ : English
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : 1593080476

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Victor Hugo circa 1880


“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo is a desperate and quite depressing novel. It is filled with the loneliness of 15th Century Paris, its dark corridors, streets and stench.

The book tells the stories of three tragic and lonely figures. Claude Frollo, archdeacon of Notre Dame, La Esmeralda, an enchanting gypsy, and Quasimodo, the disfigured bell ringer as well as Frollo’s adopted son. Surprisingly, Quasimodo has a small role in the book which was originally titled “Notre-Dame de Paris” or “Our Lady of Paris” – a much more appropriate, yet less imaginative title.

La Esmeralda and her goat Djali
An Illustration for Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. Artist unknown.
Appears in “Victor Hugo and His Time” by Alfred Barbou. 1882

The dark, brooding and punishing interactions between the complex characters are a mastery of storytelling. The relationships of the characters with themselves are also part of this complex plot. Frollo’s struggle with Catholicism vs. desire and Esmeralda’s unwillingness to accept a revolting creature for his good heart are only a two examples of what makes this story brilliant. The story is peppered with a few twists, some humor (as much as will allow in the brooding story arc) with sarcasm and mockery galore.

Frollo Carrying baby Quasimodo
An illustration from page 219 in book 4 of the 1889 edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The book’s most frustrating point, and the one which discourages many seasoned readers, is the pages upon pages of descriptive images, whether the streets of Paris down to the cracks (it seems) in the sidewalks or the Notre Dame Cathedral, brick-by-brick almost. The pacing of the book moves unevenly, most of the novel takes place over a period of six month, however the final chapters shoot forward a year and a half or two years.

Mr. Hugo got paid by the word, as were many other authors back then, however, once you get through the descriptive sections (I skimmed some of them) you’ll discover a phenomenal book which certainly deserves the “classic” stature which has been bestowed upon it.

Illustration by Luc-Olivier Merson for Notre Dame de Paris (1881)
showing the recently restored galerie des chimères


Note: I assume most people know what this book is about, if you don’t – stop here!

January 6, 1482 is a holiday in Paris, France. The “Festival of Fools” is in full swing and the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo, is crowned as the Pope of Fools.

Among the crowd is the beautiful Esmeralda, a gypsy girl with a kind heart and a mischievous goat. Esmeralda captured the hearts of many men including Quasimodo, Claude Frollo the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and Quasimodo’s adopted father, as well as Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers.

Captain Phoebus, La Esmeralda and Djali with Frollo assasinating Phoebus in the background.
Auguste Couder (1790 – 1873)

Frollo, who is torn between his heart’s desire and the church’s code, orders Quasimodo to kidnap Esmeralda. However, Quasimodo is captured by the guards, led by Captain Phoebus, who whip him and leave him tied down in the heat. Esmeralda offers him water, saves his life and captures his heart in the process.

Frollo, up to his old tricks again, tried to kill Phoebus whom Esmeralda clearly prefers; however he fails and frames Esmeralda for the assassination. As she is led to the gallows, Quasimodo swings down from the tower and carries her off to the cathedral. Under the law Esmeralda is now in a sanctuary. The criminals of Paris charge the Cathedral to save her, the King who happens to be in Paris as well vetoes the law of sanctuary and commands his troops to capture and kill Esmeralda.

Mistakenly Quasimodo believes that the criminals are trying to hurt his beloved and drives them off. Frollo however hands Esmeralda to the troops. While watching her hang, Quasimodo pushes Frollo off the tower to his untimely end.

In a dark and disturbing ending, Quasimodo lies next to Esmeralda’s body in a mass grave, his arms around her, and eventually dies of starvation.

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Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer:I bought this book
*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account, the money is usually spent on books

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  • Alex BaughApril 7, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I read it and your review really does it justice. I thought it was so good, it motivated me to read Les Mis, the unabridged verson. I didn’t mind the street descriptions, and if I remember right Les Mis has something like that about the sewers.
    BTW, your blog loads very quickly.

    • zoharApril 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Great Alex, thanks for the kind words and the feedback.

  • SuzanneApril 7, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    I never knew that authors were paid by the word — that certainly explains Les Miserables to me (which I enjoyed, even the long passages)

    I have this fantasy of purchasing this book at a little shop in Paris near Notre Dame. But reality tells me that I’d be better off getting a copy closer to home.

    As always, great review.

  • WynterApril 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    An excellent review of one of my favorite books. ‘Notre Dame’ and ‘Les Miserables’are two books that I don’t think get enough credit. LOVE them!

    • zoharApril 8, 2011 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Wynter.

      Do you think the original title is more appropriate than the English one?

      • WynterApril 8, 2011 at 7:11 pm

        Yes I do, that was a tidbit I didn’t know–that Hugo didn’t like the English name. Very interesting. A book should be titled what the author wants it to be titled in my opinion.
        Also, from my perspective when reading the book, I can truly see the author’s point in saying that ‘the main character is the Cathedral.’ It is a work filled with rich history. I don’t have the issues many have with detailed descriptions, so I know people will likely disagree with me when I say that I love the way I can learn about the time, history and setting from this book through those detailed descriptions.
        Hugo may have been writing more volume for the sake of getting paid more, but I think he used those words very well indeed.

  • Julie @ Knitting and SundriesApril 18, 2011 at 10:02 am

    This title is one of my favorite classics. (My absolute favorite has always been Les Miserables, but Jane Eyre comes a close second). I do recall taking a while to be drawn in, however. Maybe it’s due for a re-read.
    I really enjoy your reviews, because you go beyond the book itself, including many facts and some of your own research.

  • CheApril 25, 2011 at 8:10 am

    I loved the Hunchback… and I love your review. Will be linking to it in a post of mine since I cant better this.

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