Thursday, November 17, 2011

Notre-Dame of Paris: Don't Be Intellectual, Disabled, or Female in the Middle-Ages

To my friends and family who heroically put up with me while I was reading Notre-Dame de Paris Notre Dame of Paris The Hunchback of Notre Dame: my apologies. I know rambling paragraphs in the vein of "guess what just happened in the book I'm reading" are rarely as interesting to the recipient as they are to the sender. But damn, this is a good read.

 Also sorry to the security guards at the Maison de Victor Hugo in Paris. I know I looked way too excited, but this is first edition, baby!

It's also a terrible Disney movie. Not that it's a bad movie, per se, read Victor Hugo's book and wonder how Disney decided it was a basis for a Disney movie. Out of all the "happily ever after" Disney edits, this one might be the most infamous. And with good reason. I mean, it's not even remotely the same story. The chronological beginning of the novel (which is not in the Disney movie) almost has Disney tear-jearker potential: two people (a serious Sorbonne student and an older small-town prostitute - omg meetcute?) whose lives have been defined by loneliness and tragedy suddenly wind up as single parents and find that adorable babies bring them joy they never thought possible. C'mon, you can see that heartwarming trailer! Except that then everything goes wrong and everybody dies (when Claude Frollo, the student, and La Chantefleurie, the prostitute who is Esmeralda's mother, do finally cross paths in the novel, it's in the midst of a heart-wrenching mess of misplaced hatred and parental despair).

Frollo (who gets to sing a pretty kick-ass song in the Disney movie but does no such thing here) is the central character for a lot of the book. He's a kid with Ebenezer Scrooge-levels of studiousness, sent away to boarding school. His teachers actually think he'd make an excellent doctor or surgeon (wtf did being a surgeon in 15th Century Europe entail?), but when he adopts his orphaned baby brother Jehan, he decides to stick with his parents' goal of him joining the clergy because he feels it would mean a better life for the child. Shortly after this, he decides to also adopt the deformed toddler in the church's free baby bin whom a crowd is planning to burn alive. At this point, Frollo 1) knows how to read, 2) has adopted a disabled kid, and 3) has ruined the city's baby-murder pastime, so he is not terribly popular with the people.

"I'll take it!"

For a while, things go pretty well. Frollo teaches Quasimodo (which apparently once had religious meaning but now just means "you ugly") to read and also lets him run around Notre Dame like it's a freakin' playground (probably while on his cell phone ignoring the glares of everyone around him). Later he gets Quasimodo the bell-ringer job and sends the now fratboyish Jehan to school. Then he becomes obsessed with alchemy and sex, has multiple mental breakdowns, and everybody dies, except the goat. The end.

Oh man, the goat. I totally assumed Djali, Esmeralda's goat sidekick character, was a Disney invention. But she's not! She is actually quite important! Esmeralda loves her pet goat and brings her everywhere, even to the hotel room where she's gonna have sex with Phoebus (except they don't get to have sex, because this book could be subtitled "No One Gets to Have Sex with Esmeralda"). When Esmeralda's sorta-husband Gringoire (long story, and no, it's not consummated because...see above) has a choice between saving Esmeralda or saving the goat, he goes with the goat.

Which would you choose?

Basically, if there were ever a group of characters who required the intervention of stereotypical Sassy Gay Friend, this is it. He could counsel Frollo on sex-positive thinking and feminism (and maybe suggest some meds), Esmeralda on respecting boundaries with the dickish guy you're obsessed with, Quasimodo on self-confidence, and Jehan on not being a drunken douchebag.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg of this book! I haven't even touched on Hugo's "okay, now let me tell you what Frollo meant about the printing press's effects on architecture!" essays. But architecture certainly looms over (haha!) this story. The stunning cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris is both sanctuary and prison for the three main outcasts. It's where they can be their science-experimenting/disabled/witchcraft-accused selves but is also, especially for Frollo and Quasimodo, extremely isolating. But, if you were a science-experimenting/disabled/witchcraft-accused person in the 1400s, what choice other than isolation did you have? For Quasimodo, a twenty-year-old both ridiculed and threatened by a public he cannot communicate with, Notre-Dame is both a (at one point, literally) fortress and, with its bells, his only non-violent means of expressing himself. Hugo writes, "the first time he clung unthinkingly to the rope in the towers, and hung there, and set the bell in motion, the effect on Claude, his adoptive father, was of a child whose tongue has been set free and who has begun to talk."

Photos mine, artwork public domain from Victor Hugo Central.

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