I heard a promo recently about a segment on Public Radio, and the gist of it was, “What book did you read when you were young that changed your life?” I heard only the promo, but it got me to thinking about the question, and my answer — momentous if not quite life-changing — seemed to be Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and in French as “Notre Dame de Paris.” I was around 13 or 14 years old when I spotted a paperback copy of the novel on one of those carousels in a sweet shop near our house. I think I was attracted to it because  of the suggestive illustration of the gypsy girl Esmeralda  on the cover. (Did I mention that I was about 14?) In those days a paperback book cost less than a  buck, so I bought it and sneaked it into the house, figuring the cover might attract unwanted attention.


I went to elementary school from the late ’40s to the mid ’50s, and the most provocative thing I read was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” I was taking quite a leap from that curriculum to Victor Hugo — although I didn’t know it at the outset because writers like Victor Hugo weren’t mentioned at Memorial School. I was mesmerized by the book. I read it over and over. I certainly had never read such descriptions of lust and violence, and I was scandalized but fascinated by the idea of all this immorality in the Church.

What I found most absorbing, however, was not the salacious aspects of the plot nor the images of Esmeralda but the deformed bell ringer, Quasimodo, who has become the popular symbol of this story. As I mentioned in a post about six months ago, Quasimodo was so named because when he was an infant his mother abandoned him at the cathedral of Our Lady of Paris (“Notre Dame de Paris”) on Quasimodo Sunday — the first Sunday after Easter. The Introit of the Mass for that day is taken from the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. That passage is often translated, As newborn infants do, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good.


When I first read the novel, I was especially energized by the passage in which Quasimodo defies both public and ecclesiastical authority and rescues Esmeralda from imminent execution, and I was deflated by his ultimate failure to save her. Aside from the drama, though, one seemingly innocuous phrase in the translation I read had a permanent impact on me — so much so that I recall it more than 50 years later. It was Hugo’s reference to Quasimodo as “the unfortunate man.”

In the popular  retelling of this story, what is frequently lost is that core reality that the grotesque figure who plays a critical part in it was a human being with the same desires and sensibilities that motivate all human beings. The very fact that the story is popularly known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — as though his misshapen spine defined Quasimodo as a person — suggests a disregard for, or at least an ignorance of, Hugo’s intention to present Quasimodo as a man motivated  by two understandable feelings — a sense of loyalty to the archdeacon Claude Frollo, Esmeralda’s nemesis, who had provided the foundling with a home, and a chaste affection for Esmeralda, the only person to show Quasimodo compassion.


This experience of the fictional Quasimodo resonates in the experience of the real Joseph Merrick, the 19th century Englishman who was known to his contemporaries and is widely known now as “the elephant man” because he was so “unfortunate” as to suffer from a disease that badly deformed his body. Life gave Merrick two choices — to be alternately displayed and hounded as a freak or to withdraw from society almost entirely and live in seclusion in London Hospital. I think it is a telling detail in Merrick’s biography that once he was living permanently at the hospital he asked to be confirmed in the Church of England. I suppose that request was an indication of his hope, or faith, that in the mind of God he was as much a human being as any other amalgamation of body and soul.

Hugo’s novel was my answer to the NPR question both because it introduced me to classical fiction and because it  made me aware for the first time of the whole creature that may be imperfectly displayed in the features and posture of a man, woman, or child — something, I am sorry to say, I have had to be reminded of many times since.

Gargoyle at Notre Dame de Paris

While I have been musing over the question posed by NPR, I have learned that among Hugo’s many concerns was what he construed as a threat to the integrity of architecture in Paris and throughout Europe. In his mind, Hugo connected this fear with what he worried would be the numbing effect of the recently-invented printing press, an idea he touches on in “Notre Dame de Paris.”

The cathedral itself, which was begun in the 12th century and completed in 1345, was in disrepair in the early 19th century, partly as a result of the protracted political turmoil in the city and partly because of simple neglect. Hugo writes:

The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still, no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it as been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last

On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. “Tempus edax, homo edacior,” which I should be glad to translate: Time is blind, man is stupid.

The attention Hugo called to the condition of the cathedral was at least partly responsible for a major renovation of the structure, which is the focal point for many visitors to Paris. You can see interactive panoramic views of the cathedral by clicking HERE.

Alfred Barbou illustration from the first edition of the novel.


Read the book

February 15, 2010



I turned on a TV yesterday morning — an unlikely thing for me to do — and wound up watching part of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on Turner Classic Movies. It was the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. It is one of at least 14 movie and television adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel “Notre Dame de Paris” — the formal name of the cathedral in Paris — and is generally accepted as the best of the lot. Among silent films, the 1923 version starring Lon Chaney was a benchmark achievement on several accounts — the sets recreating 15th century Paris, Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the deformed bell ringer, and the box office receipts of more than $3 million, Universal’s highest gross in the silent era.

I was pretty young when I first read Hugo’s novel, which is always marketed under the misleading title used on most of the films — misleading in that while Quasimodo might, ironically, be the most attractive figure in the story, he is not more important to the story than Esmeralda or Claude Frollo. Although the story has been retold 14 times on film TV, none of the re-tellings are entirely true to the original. Writers and directors have departed in many ways from Hugo’s plot and characters.


It is central to the tragedy of Hugo’s story that Esmeralda is executed and Quasimodo vanishes after her death, and Hugo leads his readers to believe that the bell ringer died in his grief, embracing Esmeralda’s body in a cemetery for social castoffs.  In the Laughton version both characters are alive at the end of the film; in the Chaney version Quasimodo dies, but Esmeralda lives. These are not details; they are significant deviations from Hugo’s intent.

Among the other actors who have played Quasimodo are men as different as Anthony Quinn, Anthony Hopkins, and Mandy Patinkin — the latter in a TNT cable production in 1997. Quinn was paired with Sophia Loren in a 1956 French production in which he and Loren were the only actors who spoke English. The rest of the dialogue had to be dubbed over the French.


That was the first color film based on the novel. Whereas Patinkin tried to duplicate as closely as possible Laughton’s image of Quasimodo, Quinn’s makeup was mild, not coming close to the grotesque features that Hugo describes and that constitute the context for the bell ringer’s place in — or, rather, outside of — society. In that version, Esmeralda is killed accidentally which, of course, dilutes the injustice inherent in the story. But who would want to execute Sophia Loren?

Walt Disney Productions

There have also been a couple of attempts to stray so far from Hugo’s work as to turn Quasimodo into a huggable cutie — as in Walt Disney’s 1996 animated feature — or even a comic figure, as in the 1999 French romp, “Quasimodo d’El Paris.”

I hope that folks who have seen even the best of these films don’t think they’ve experienced what Victor Hugo created in his novel. On the other hand, who has the patience to read classical novels in the Twitter age?

Incidentally, the bell ringer was named Quasimodo because, as an infant, he was abandoned at  the cathedral by his mother and found on Quasimodo Sunday — the first Sunday after Easter. The Introit of the Mass for that day is taken from the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. That passage is often translated, As newborn infants do, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good.


I have read what I consider to be a spurious explanation that Quasimodo’s name was a play on words — an idea that depends on translating quasi modo to mean “partly made” — meaning that Quasimodo was born incomplete. I can’t find my Cassell’s Latin Dictionary right now, but if memory serves me right, the literal translation of the first two words of  the passage is not “partly made” but “in a similar way.”