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Notre-Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] (1831)

by Victor Hugo

Plot: It is 6 January 1492, Paris: the populace is looking forward to the Feast of Fools. The individual who can pull the ugliest face will be King for the day. The crowd elect Quasimodo, hunchback and bell-ringer of Notre Dame. Quasimodo was abandoned and adopted by Frollo, a priest and alchemist afflicted by sexual repression. The Hunchback is delighted by the acclaim; Frollo is furious and Quasimodo is placed in the stocks. Esmerelda, a sultry gypsy dancer, shows pity. Unbeknown to Esmerelda, Frollo fancies her. She, in turn, fancies Phoebus, a captain of the guards. Quasimodo is caught between his loyalty to Frollo and his love for Esmerelda. Frollo witnesses Phoebus making love to Esmerelda. Frollo intervenes, stabs Phoebus, and leaves him for dead. Esmerelda is convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. Quasimodo rescues her and she gains sanctuary in Notre Dame. Her friends try to rescue her, Quasimodo misunderstands and pours boiling oil over them. Esmerelda is hanged. Phoebus recovers and finds another girl. Quasimodo disappears, having pushed Frollo off the bell-tower. Years later the Hunchback's skeleton is found clinging to Esmerelda's bones.

Theme: Although beauty is skin deep, human passion is aroused only by looks.

Style: Like highly coloured oil paint, inches thick.

Chief strengths: Hugo finds the creative act enormous fun. He is clearly having a ball. Like Shakespeare, he can mingle tragedy with blackest farce.

Chief weakness: Hugo's fascination for historical detail can be boring, as can his frequent wish to squeeze the tear ducts.

What they thought of it then: Goethe was sniffy but Lamartine thought it surpassed Scott. It sold well, especially in England, where the reading public responded with enthusiasm.

What we think of it now: Hugo is unread. Despite passing into popular culture (via Disney and the RSC) he remains overshadowed by twin contemporary giants Balzac and Stendhal.

Responsible for: Charles Laughton's impersonation of Quasimodo which gains its power from Laughton's own neuroses about his appearance. And the Disney version with a singing Hunchback and a disturbingly sexy Esmerelda.

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