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Love note to: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

October 06, 2022

c/o Victor Hugo

Dear Hunchback of Notre Dame,

Forgive me for using your English name. I know you prefer the original French Notre-Dame de Paris, but I was afraid this wouldn’t get to you if I put that in the address.

I was so excited to meet you! I (of course) watched the Disney movie adaptation as a child, and it’s always been one of my favorites. I feel a special kinship with Quasimodo. I know I’m not alone. Maybe we all feel like strangers here, sometimes? Maybe it’s the most common thing to feel as if you’re looking at the world from far away, able to see its beauty and sense its glories, but unable to connect with (most of) its people? I don’t know. But I have a feeling you do.

“After all, he turned toward humankind only with reluctance; his cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with figures of marble, with kings, saints, bishops, who at least did not laugh in his face and looked on him only with an air of tranquility and benevolence. The other statues, those of the monsters and demons, bore no malice against him. They resembled him too much for that. Their mockery was rather directed against other men. The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and protected him; he would therefore pass whole hours squatting before one of these statues and conversing in a solitary manner with it. If anyone came by he would run off like a lover surprised in a serenade.”

Wouldn’t devoted readers say the same? When nothing is as it should be (which is most of the time), books are our cathedral. Its characters are our saints and our monsters.

But alas! The archdeacon Claude Frollo, possibly the nastiest villain of all time, would certainly agree with us!

“Separated from childhood from his parents, whom he had scarcely known, cloistered and as it were spellbound by his books, eager above all things to study and to learn, exclusively attentive till then to his intelligence, which expanded itself in science; to his imagination, which developed in literature, the young scholar had not yet had time to find out where his heart lay.”

Is ours the way of madness then? As we watch Frollo mature into the adult he later becomes, maybe there is a clue.

“He stirred up from the bottom of his heart all its hatred and its malice, and he perceived, with the cold indifference of a physician examining a patient, that this hatred and this malice were only distorted love; that love, the source of every virtue in man, was transformed into horrid things in the heart of a priest, and that someone constituted as he was, in becoming a priest made himself a demon.

He then laughed more hideously than ever, and suddenly he again turned pale on considering the darkest side of his fatal passion, that corrosive, venomous, rancorous, implacable love, which had consigned the one to the gallows, the other to hell. She was condemned. He was damned.”

Whew. Only priests who love books. Or maybe only celibate priests who love books. Who also happen to be so traumatized by childhood loss and loneliness that their love becomes distorted.

But back to you. You are richer, more beautiful, more tragic, than any one of your movie adaptations could express. And it isn’t just about Quasimodo (hence the French name being more apt!). There are so many lively characters; you learn to love and feel compassion for them all. Even Frollo who is literally the worst. But you especially learn to love Notre Dame—right along with Victor Hugo, who clearly adored it.

“Thus, little by little, his spirit expanded in harmony with the cathedral; there he lived, there he slept; scarcely ever leaving it, and, being perpetually subject to its mysterious influence, he came at last to resemble it, to be encrusted with it, to form, as it were, an integral part of it. His sharp corners dovetailed, if we may be allowed the expression, into the receding angles of the building, so that he seemed to be not merely its inhabitant but its natural contents. One could almost say that he had taken on its form like a snail assumes the shape of its shell. It was his home, his hole, his container. Between the ancient church and him there was an instinctive sympathy so deep, and so many magnetic and material affinities, that he stuck to it in some measure as the tortoise to its shell. The craggy cathedral was his carapace.”

And you are not just full of drama and tragedy and glory; you are also a great source of comedy. Consider the philosopher and dramatist Gringoire, who seems to constantly be in situations where he is in danger of being hanged.

“I see no reason why you should not be hanged. You seem, indeed, to have a dislike for it, but that is natural enough; you bourgeois are not used to it. You have too frightful an idea of the thing. After all, we mean you no harm.”

And on a completely different occasion:

“‘Sire, shall we hang him too?’ It was the first audible word that he had uttered.

‘Why,’ replied the King, “I see no obstacles.”

‘Alas, sire! I see a great many!’ cried Gringoire. …Let not your wrath fall upon so humble an object as I am! The thunderbolts of God are not hurled against a lettuce.’”

And on even still another occasion:

“Gringoire was certainly in a cruel dilemma. He considered that, as the law then stood, the goat would be hanged too if she were retaken; that it would be a great pity—poor, dear Djali! …A violent conflict took place in his thoughts, in which, like Homer’s Jupiter, he weighed by turns the gypsy and the goat; and he looked first at one and then at the other with eyes full of tears, muttering at the same time between his teeth: ‘And yet I cannot save you both!’”

Spoiler alert: he chooses the goat.

But of course, the real hero of this story is indeed Quasimodo, who despite having no one who loves him (regardless of what the Disney movie would have us believe), despite having the whole world despising him and repulsed by him—Quasimodo loves.

“His Cyclops eye bent over her, shed over her a flood of tenderness, of pity, of grief, and was suddenly raised again, flashing lightning. At this sight the women laughed and cried; the crowd stamped with enthusiasm, for at that moment Quasimodo was really beautiful. Yes, he was beautiful—he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast, he felt himself august and strong, he looked in the face that society from which he was banished, and in which he had so powerfully intervened. He stared down the human justice from which he had snatched its victim, those judges, those executioners, all that force of the King’s, which he, the meanest of the mean, had foiled with the force of God!”

So I guess I can forgive the English translators who changed your name, even if our friend Victor would have hated it. Quasimodo is a treasure. And so are you.

—Sarah Avenir

Note to reader: If you’re intrigued by this love letter, consider this a personal introduction to The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. I think you will make each other laugh, and cry, and feel all the feelings.

In the spirit of POSSE, this was also published at: