Personal Best: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" by Victor Hugo

Published September 30, 1996 10:06AM (EDT)

i picked up this book on impulse during an odd pocket of time about seven years ago. I was living alone in a very isolated area and I was having insomnia so severe that I was only sleeping one to three hours a night. On top of that, when I did sleep, I had intense nightmares, all on the theme of brutish men viciously killing and/or raping women -- me for example. The dreams were terrifying, but they were also bewildering; while they could be explained by real-life fears, I felt they were more about me than anything external, and because I very much wanted to understand them, I thought a lot about them. Solitude, sleep deprivation, nightmares and self-examination are a loopy combination, and I spent my many waking hours moving in and out of an half-dream state in which the violent images from my subconscious loomed about me, leering ridiculously as I nodded off in the grocery store checkout line.

It was in this state that I saw Hugo's classic in a bookstore, and while I had never wanted to read it previously, I had a strong, if addled, intuition to pick it up.

For anyone who doesn't know, the story, which takes place in medieval Paris, is about Quasimodo, a deformed, barely verbal hunchback who is feared and hated by all. His only friend is Dom Claude Frollo, a stern, cerebral priest so cold he ignores the poor hunchback when he's being publicly tortured for a crime he didn't commit. The only thing the priest gets excited about is Esmeralda, a beautiful young gypsy he wants so badly his lust turns to hate. She is the only character to show the hunchback a moment of human kindness: at the same moment that the priest ignores him, when he is being jeered by a horrid rabble, she approaches the public stock and gives him a drink of water. Because of this, he falls fiercely in love with her, even though she is too disgusted by his ugliness to even let him kiss her hand. Meanwhile, she is obsessed with a shallow glamour-boy whom she believes once protected her.

Crazy with frustrated lust, the priest has the gypsy arrested for witchcraft and condemns her to death. As she's being led to the gallows, Quasimodo comes down like a fiend and carries her off to the sanctuary of Notre Dame. After an uneasy respite, there's a battle and Esmeralda is seized and hung. In despair, the hunchback kills the priest and crawls off to Esmeralda's tomb to die with his arms around her body.

According to today's ideas, the book is hopelessly corny; the plot moves forward with the aid of coincidences, convenient eavesdropping and the discovery of mysterious notes. The emotional tone is loud, naked and drawn in big operatic swatches. Characters fling themselves before each other and yell out their hopeless love, only to be dramatically scorned. But the mechanics of the plot are only the surface layer of the book's heart. The characters, with their dime-store costumes and big, bald poses, are like two-dimensional conduits for an underlying psychical plot of primary depth and power.

All three characters are like parts of a single, unintegrated whole trying desperately to reunite; each of them has something the other needs. Esmeralda's love for her fatuous playboy is like that of a teenager with a crush on a rock star -- her passion is exquisite, but her choice of object makes it ridiculous. And, also like a teenager, she is trivially cruel to the priest. She is sparkling and lovely in spirit, but so lacking in discernment or intellect that she is silly and weightless. Even her kindness to the hunchback is little more than a whim; she has no concept of the deep love it has engendered in him. The priest, on the other hand, has plenty of intellectual discernment and even depth. But without the light and playful innocence that the gypsy has in such abundance, his passion is dry, warped and perverted. Quasimodo is the only one capable of real love, but he is too raw. Without the refinement present in the other two he cannot express his real beauty or even make his strength effective. He is not an ideal character -- he is chaotic, vindictive and gross, baring his teeth and snarling like a wounded animal.

The priest is all brain, the gypsy girl all joy and sensuality and the hunchback all deep feeling. For, in spite of his darkness and ugliness, Quasimodo is truly the heart of the triad. In the extremity of his pain and deprivation, he is able to locate a depth and purity of being that the other two don't have at all. And yet he is the one they cannot quite bear to look at.

Quasimodo is not a rapist. But he is a dark, powerful, violent male who looks quite terrifying. As I read about him, I thought about my nightmares: it occured to me that they were about male power gone berserk for lack of development or love or even acknowledgment. Not male power in the outside world, but in my internalized templates and ideas about men, which had become part of me. It occurred to me that these internal images looked so scary because I didn't know them well enough, and that, under their apparent ugliness, there could be beauty and power that I did not yet understand. As I read I experienced a sense of grace unlike anything else I've felt before, and it moved me to tears.

It wasn't as if the book gave me a resolution or an answer. But it helped me give definition to a very complicated and even frightening internal process by dramatic means more powerful than any therapeutic explanation. And for that, I will always love it.

By Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent collection is "Because They Wanted To."

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