Disney lied to us.
Let me specify.
You probably guessed that Victor Hugo’s novel does not have dancing gargoyles or Wizard of Oz references, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, we can trace its primary misdirection back to whoever first decided on the English translation of the title of the book: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. This implies that the main character of the story is Quasimodo, the misformed outcast with a heart of gold who longs to spend oooone daaay ooouuut theeeeere. However, Hugo’s original French title is much more accurate: Notre-Dame de Paris. The focus of the novel is on its setting rather than its protagonists – we follow a cast of characters, but in the end, all roads lead to the cathedral.
Anyone who has ever read his magnum opus Les Misérables will not be surprised to hear that Hugo takes his time to set the scene. Roger Clark writes:
For the modern student the process of familiarisation with Les Misérables is an experience that strangely replicates what it must have been like to become acquainted with preHaussmannian Paris. The very length of Hugo’s novel imposes an essentially ambulatory pattern upon the reader’s journey of discovery. [...] Halts in the reading process have to be made, rests need to be taken, sit-downs in cafés and visits to vespasiennes (urinals) become necessary.
Something similar happens here; Hugo takes us on a walking tour of medieval Paris, pointing out interesting people and buildings along the way. His aim is to convince his readers that history does not exist in a vacuum: there is a story behind everything because everything is connected. Both Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris are about change, for better or worse. Hugo does not just invite us to imagine what life must have been like at a certain point in time, but also shows us how France has progressed (or regressed) since then. Even though the story is set in the past, Hugo is really trying to make a point about the present; he zooms in so he can make a point about the big picture.
In the note to the first edition, Hugo describes how he had found the Greek word “ANÁΓKH” (fate) carved on a wall of one of the cathedral’s towers:
These Greek capitals, black with age, and quite deeply graven in the stone, with I know not what signs peculiar to Gothic calligraphy imprinted upon their forms and upon their attitudes, as though with the purpose of revealing that it had been a hand of the Middle Ages which had inscribed them there, and especially the fatal and melancholy meaning contained in them, struck the author deeply.
He decided to write the story of the events that would bring a man to write the word “fate” on the wall in Notre-Dame. The characters in this book do seem to have an inescapable destiny – and a pretty bleak one at that. Most of the characters die horribly and those who do survive are still doomed to live a miserable life (“Phoebus de Chateaupers also came to a tragical end; he married”). Young women fall in love with unworthy men, recently reunited families are torn apart again, and the revolution is crushed by the Powers that Be.
And the worst part?
No one will remember their suffering. Their words will be forgotten, their most precious belongings are of little value to those who come after, and even their bones crumble until there is nothing left. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – only the cathedral remains. It is the statue of Ozymandias, the last remnant of a society after history has wiped out everything else. It seems that there is only one thing that can stand the test of the time: art. In Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo combines architecture and literature and creates a monument to both the present and the past.
However, even architecture is not safe from the relentless course of history. The “ANÁΓKH” carving that inspired Hugo’s story was removed, scraped off and the wall whitewashed:
This is exactly how our marvellous medieval churches have been treated for nearly 200 years [...] They are mutilated on all sides, from inside as well as out. The priest whitewashes them, the architect scrapes them, then the people turn up and pull them down.
Hugo feared that, with the tearing down of these buildings, the past would be lost forever. He expressed his concerns about this routine destruction of his country’s artistic heritage in Notre-Dame de Paris: “Let us if possible inspire in the nation of love of its national architecture. This is, the author declares, one of the principle objectives of his book.” And he succeeded: the story was incredibly popular and spurred a historical preservation movement in France, ultimately leading to a major renovation of Notre-Dame itself. It is thanks to Hugo’s book that it still looks as incredible as it does today – a novel enforcing a building’s place in history.
(I still wonder which Disney executive read this book and thought to himself: “we should make this into an animated musical for children.”)