1831 The Hunchback of Notre Dame

7 Oct 10

I love this book, as some of you may know since it’s on my Favorite Books list.  We just finished reading a children’s adaptation of it for literature.  Sarah and Amber sat riveted through the entire thing as well and Jordan (who’s read it before) and Lydia.

When we finished the book, I asked the kids which of the virtues they thought Victor Hugo might be teaching about in Hunchback.  Jordan suggested charity, which I agreed is the biggest one, though we could think of instances of the characters using (nor not using) other virtues as well.  As we sat discussing this, I saw another children’s adaptation sitting close by, and a thought struck me.  First, I asked the kids how Quasimodo was treated, and how he chose to act.  We all agreed that though Quasimodo was mistreated, he never let the difficult circumstances of his life dictate how he would treat others.  He never lost his charity.  Then I asked, “What other character in classic literature do we know of that was physically deformed, mistreated, and locked away, but instead of keeping his charity, he lost it?”  Jordan immediately answered, “The Phantom of the Opera.”  (Which was the book that I had seen, but it was out of sight of the kids…though Jordan may have been reading it earlier since it was out.)

Eric (the phantom’s name…the movie I don’t think ever mentions it, and while we’re on the topic, they do change things quite a bit from the novel, though if you read it you will find out what a horse is doing down in the basement!) allowed the difficult, horrible, and unfair conditions of his life sap away his love and concern for others.  The depth of his love for Christine could probably be debated upon, but personally, I never saw it as a real love, but more of a selfish infatuation.  And he was willing to go to any lengths for what he wanted.  He was willing to torture and kill others to keep that grasp on his power over the theatre.  I liked how the movie portrayed him as a more sympathetic character, though, to show how easy it can be for a good person to follow those ‘natural man reactions’ (i.e. not act on principle) and become a villain.

Quasimodo, on the other hand, had a very similar life.  He even shares the pangs of unrequited love.  But no one could doubt his love, not only for Esmeralda, but for people in general.  The book Hunchback does a very good job showing different types of love (or charity).  The kids and I listed Emeralda’s admirers and discussed the type of love they felt for her.  First, there was Captain Phoebus, who could hardly be said to love her at all.  He selfishly wanted to ‘kiss’ her, but nothing more, and when she proved to not be as easy a target as he had hoped, he gave her up and could not care less what happened to her.

Then there was Dom Claude.  He, being a priest, was not allowed to have those romantic feelings for her, but instead of doing the best he could to combat the ‘natural man’, he wallowed in it.  Dom Claude is actually a very interesting character.  Unlike the typical Disney villain that he was morphed into for the movie (which I still like, regardless) he started out a good person.  He adopted Quasimodo freely, when he had been abandoned and no one would take him in.  Dom Claude also knew full well how evil his selfish infatuation with Esmeralda was, but his guilty conscience was not torment enough to give him the fortitude to fight it.  His love for Esmeralda was selfish, but not the same type of selfishness portrayed by Phoebus.  Dom Claude did not simply want to use Esmeralda, but his own feelings of love and longing were the only thing of concern for him.  He desperately wanted Esmeralda to love him, but he did not think about Esmeralda’s happiness.

Esmeralda’s next admirer is Pierre Gringoire, who is one of my favorites, simply because he is amusing.  He is a starving poet that Esmeralda saves from the gallows, and he is a little attracted to her at first, but when he finds her unattracted to him, they become friends and co-workers.  He does not give Esmeralda’s needs or feelings precedence over his own, but he does worry a little when she disappears for a month.

And the final admirer is Quasimodo.  He truly loves Esmeralda.  He gives up his bed and food to her when she is in hiding.  He protects her and cares for her and always takes her feelings into consideration, even if it causes himself more pain.  He has perfect love, perfect courage, but not a perfect understanding of the events going on around him (partly caused by his deafness and inability to understand what people are saying).

Esmeralda herself is an interesting character to think about in regards to charity.  She is like most of us, I think.  She is neither cruel, selfish, dispassionate, nor any other variety of those very deficient in true charity, but neither is she an example of perfection in that area.  She is young and naive, which is nothing against her of course, as we all are at some point young and naive, but she is not the freedom fighter that she was depicted as in the movie.  She does help Quasimodo when he has been taken to the Place de Greve and is being taunted on the wheel.  She is kind to Quasimodo, but when her own heartfelt concerns and troubles are causing her stress and emotional turmoil, she can be extremely rude and ungrateful to Quasimodo.  Looking on, as a reader does to a character, we can easily see how selfish this is, but it’s hard to feel so when it is us who are the party in turmoil and we lash out at those who care for us.

Reading this book with the kids has been enlightening for me as well.  I love the original, but now reading it (even just an adaptation) and thinking about it with regard to the virtues, I see this book as a study of charity.  The virtue, as well as many of the forms of its deficiency, are dissected and examined.  And comparing Quasimodo with Eric has been fun to think about as well.