I recently read The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.
Two things: It’s a ridiculously long book. I confess I skipped a few pages…er chapters with unnecessarily detailed descriptions of buildings and scenery. (Like he literally had whole chapters of nothing but description!)
And it’s fucking dark and depressing.
It’s nothing like the Disney movie. I found none of the characters to be decent human beings, except Esmerelda.
Spoiler alert: she dies.
In the afterword of my edition, it talks about how Victor Hugo was trying to show the process of fate and how inescapable it is.
I didn’t see that.
I did see some interesting feminist themes though.
I was struck by how sensual yet virginal Esmerelda is. She belongs to no man. She chooses to marry a somewhat important character to save him from being “executed” by the court of fools, but she basically tells him to fuck off when he wants to consummate the marriage.
But her virginity isn’t one of chastity in the Christian sense.
She’s a dancer and seems very in touch with her body. She acknowledges having desires. She isn’t afraid to own her sexiness. In a way, her virginity seems more about her being in charge of her sexuality. She is in search of her mother (perhaps a symbol for the sacred feminine or crone) and doesn’t want to have sex until she has found her.
Therefore, I dubbed her the “wild feminine spirit.”
And in a patriarchal world, of course the wild feminine would be besieged from all sides.
There are two characters who want Esmerelda sexually. Phoebus, a playboy soldier, is one. Esmerelda develops a crush on him after he rescues her. Phoebus is named after a sun god, and in a way, I believe that Esmerelda is in love with what he should be rather than who he actually is. She is obsessed with his name but never really knows him.
Phoebus, the non-god, is a pretty douchey guy. He has a fiancée, but is bored with her. He finds sport in seducing women. When he sees Esmerelda, he decides he wants to have sex with her and sets about trying to seduce her with promises of love that he doesn’t mean.
He is a perfect example of objectification within patriarchy. He has no concern for her as an actual person and merely wants to possess her sexually. He tries to guilt her for not wanting to have sex. He promises her things that he never intends on following through on. Sound familiar?
Frollo, the priest mentioned above, is the other. He hates Esmerelda’s sexuality and craves her at the same time. He has spent his life in celibacy. When he becomes aroused by Esmerelda’s independent spirit, he blames her for his own arousal.
In other words, he’s purity culture incarnate.
Interestingly, he’s probably far worse than Phoebus. Phoebus doesn’t care about Esmerelda, but he also doesn’t see her as responsible for his own desires. Frollo, on the other hand, thinks she is the devil for the way he thinks about her.
He blames her and abdicates his own responsibility for his sexual desires. In doing so, he justifies stalking her, trying to kidnap her, trying to rape her, and ultimately murdering her.
Phoebus embodies the “boys will be boys” mentality of patriarchy.
Frollo embodies the “I can’t help it; she was asking for it” mentality of rape culture.
He even tries to convince Esmerelda, as she is languishing in a dungeon without food, warmth, or basic necessities of any kind, that he is suffering more than she.
He gets off on images of her being tortured until she confesses to being a witch.
Ultimately, when he cannot force her to love him, he abandons her to the gallows, allowing her to be executed as a witch.
In the end, Frollo acts the way his own god acts, demanding the submission and love of someone while threatening to punish them if they will not comply.
And the namesake of the book? Well, he’s definitely not as nice as Disney portrays him. Probably for good reason, he hates everyone in Paris except the man who raised him. Quasimodo attempts to help Frollo the first time he tries to capture Esmerelda. He gets caught and punished for the attempted kidnapping. When Frollo turns his back on him while he is in the stocks, Esmerelda shows him kindness by bringing him some water.
At that moment, he falls in love with her, in a different way from the others. He doesn’t want to own her or force her sexually. He longs to be loved by her but sees her as a person. Even then, he is pretty despicable. He protects her from rape one night, but when he realizes he’s fighting off his master, he cowers down, basically saying, “Go ahead and rape her, but please kill me first so I don’t have to feel bad about it (my paraphrase).”
So Quasimodo has glimmers of being able to be a good character, but ultimately cannot stand up to patriarchy and power enough to be good.
I went back and forth as to whether I saw Quasimodo as a symbol for the deformity of healthy masculinity, which cannot fully develop in a patriarchal, misogynist culture or whether I saw him as the alienated and tortured “good” potential of Frollo, twisted by the church, suppression of his own sexuality, and his lust for power.
Probably Quasimodo is both.
Eventually he redeems himself slightly by killing Frollo, but only after he has been rudely awakened to Frollo’s evil when he sees Esmerelda hanging and Frollo laughing in delight.
Frollo certainly spouted off plenty about fate, so I can see where readers might think he is speaking for the author, but I was struck by how fate was often the name he gave his own inability to take responsibility for his desires, needs, and vices. Externalizing his desire and viewing his sexuality as evil set the stage for his dehumanizing Esmerelda and blaming her for the abuse he carried out.
Throughout the story, for all of the men who bemoaned “fate,” the only person who was literally powerless, imprisoned, and at the mercy of other people’s choices was Esmerelda. (Well, the only main character). The others who felt “powerless” to fate were only powerless insofar as they refused to own their choices and actions in the events.
And Frollo, in feeling the most powerless, was the one with his hand on all the strings.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is probably one of the most depressing books I have ever read, but I can’t say that it was a terrible book. There was so much there symbolically to analyze, and I was mesmerized by the way that it seemed to map out how patriarchy crushes a woman’s attempt to own her own body and sexuality. While I might have been happier with a different ending, I can see how no other ending would have carried the impact. In the end, it’s a story of the feminine being betrayed and murdered for refusing to submit.