And They Call This a Classic?

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, 1831
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, 1831

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame enjoys mythic status.  This 1831 French novel has spawned movies, plays, operas, and even children’s comic books.  Its reputation had me opening Hunchback with the enthusiasm of a child with a birthday package.  But after finishing the book, I felt as let down as that same child finding a pair of flannel pajamas after tearing away the ribbon and wrapping paper.


  1. Esmeralda: The heroine of the story is a young, beautiful street performer in fifteenth-century Paris. Though just a gypsy girl, she attracts the lustful eye of Archdeacon Claude Frollo.  Esmeralda is repulsed by the balding, middle-aged Frollo.  Rather, she loves a young soldier named Phoebus, an attraction impossible to understand.  Phoebus does rescue her from Frollo’s abduction attempt early in the novel.  But most men would have done the same upon witnessing such an outright crime. When Esmeralda and Phoebus do share their one tête-à-tête, Frollo is watching nearby.  Enraged, he stabs Phoebus and blames Esmeralda for the murder.  Unbeknownst to everyone, Phoebus survives and later stands by as Esmeralda is about to be hanged for the crime.  She even sees him watching!
    In the 1996 Disney version of the book, Phoebus, saves Esmerelda from the evil Archdeacon and they live happily ever after. Anyone reading this classic soon wonders how they could change the novel so much and why the subject matter was fit for a child's movie.
    In Disney’s 1996 adaptation,  Phoebus is a hero who lives happily ever after with Esmeralda.  Hugo’s novel, on the other hand, ends tragically.  Readers can’t help wondering how anyone thought it a story for children.

    She escapes execution by taking sanctuary in Notre Dame Cathedral. By the story’s end, Esmeralda flees the Cathedral and is hidden from the approaching authorities by her long-lost mother.   All the two women have to do is remain hidden until the soldiers leave and then escape to the countryside.   But Esmeralda sees Phoebus among the soldiers.  The insipid girl runs to him, is captured, and is hanged.  Hugo does endow this heroine with some noble qualities.  She is virtuous and, on two occasions, offers aid to her fellow man.  But the majority of her thoughts are on Phoebus, a man she barely knows and one clearly unworthy of her passion.

  2. Claude Frollo: He has devoted his life to God and science. But once this priest sees Esmeralda, life changes.  From that moment on, Frollo’s one goal is having her.  Hugo’s prose is at its best when describing this passion, a passion so strong you almost feel sorry for the priest.  Frollo does have some redeeming qualities.  When his parents die, he raises his much younger brother.  Also, he becomes foster father to Quasimodo, a deformed
    One of the most famous movies based on the book came out in 1939. It starred Charles Laughton as Quasimodo.
    In the 1939 movie based on Hugo’s classic, Charles Laughton plays Quasimodo. Laughton endured 100 degree heat and sleep deprivation to play the part.  In this torture scene, he supposedly asked a make-up artist to twist his foot to increase his agony.

    foundling nobody else wants.  But Frollo forsakes both men in pursuit of Esmeralda.  Also, his lengthy thoughts on possessing her are just one too many. It becomes apparent his feelings for Esmeralda have nothing to do with love as he stands by during her torture and later execution.  When all is said and done, he is nothing more than a comic book villain, not worthy of classic villain status.

  3. Lackluster relationship between Esmeralda and Quasimodo: The hunchback Quasimodo is the bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral. At one point he is wrongfully sentenced to flogging.  The Parisian mob treats him horribly but Esmeralda alone gives him water to drink.  He becomes devoted to her.  It is Quasimodo who delivers her to sanctuary in the cathedral.  It is Quasimodo who makes sure her every need is met while she’s there.  And it is Quasimodo who saves her one night from a rape attempt by Frollo.  However, Esmeralda never has a kind look or word for the man.  I had to wonder if she was the same character earlier who had defied public sentiment to give him water.
  4. The Ending:  Everyone dies…at least all the main characters.  Phoebus lives but “came to a tragic end—he married.”  (Hugo’s words, not mine.)
  5. Bonus Bit: One of the most faithful versions of the Hugo classic is this 2006 children's graphic novel by L.L. Owens.
    Bonus Bit: One of the most faithful versions of the Hugo classic is this 2006 children’s graphic novel by L.L. Owens.

    The Translation: Perhaps my aversion to Hunchback is due partly to the translation. I’m a lifelong reader and no spring chicken.  But while reading this book, I came across so many English words I’d never heard before that I lost count.  Also, the opening scene was interminable as were the passages about the history of Notre Dame Cathedral.  Normally a patient, conscientious reader, I found myself skipping whole pages during those parts. That being said, the job of translator has to be one of the most thankless.  You must be an excellent writer in two languages.  Also, translators face many of the same struggles as the original author with word choice and structure.  Yet most remain nameless.  Indeed, the title page of my copy only lists Hugo’s name and the illustrator’s name, Rowland Wheelwright (1870-1955).

Question:  Have you ever been underwhelmed by a book everyone else loved?

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Short on Words, Long on Feelings

Bronzeville Boys and Girls by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1956
Bronzeville Boys and Girls by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1956 (original cover)
Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks
Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

She is known for her poems about the black experience and the female experience.  But it is Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems about the “growing up” experience that first introduced me to this poet and her sparse, beautiful words.  Brooks wrote Bronzeville Boys and Girls for children in 1956.  Somehow, either by reaching back to her own youth or observing children in her Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, Brooks latched on to universal childhood feelings in these 34 short poems.  Here are a few snippets from some of them.


Children rarely walk from point a to point b, they run.  In the poem, “Paulette” we meet an eight-year-old girl whose mother wishes she’d start acting ladylike.  But Paulette is busy exploring the world around her. The poem begins and ends with the same question.

“What good is sun

If I can’t run?”

Children love their parents no matter what:  In “Andre” we meet a boy who dreams one night that he can choose any parents he wants.  He wakes suddenly knowing exactly which ones he’d pick.

“And this surprised and made me glad:

They were the ones I always had!”

Children don’t like change:  In “Lyle”, we meet a boy who has moved seven times in his young life and is about to move again.  He longs to be like the large tree in the back yard.

“Tree won’t pack his bag and go.

Tree won’t go away.

In his first and favorite home

Tree shall stay and stay.”

Children enjoy life for life’s sake:  In “Gertrude”, we see a young girl’s thoughts on hearing celebrated singer, Marian Anderson.

“Fingers tingle. I am cold

And warm and young and very old.

But most, I am a STUFFless thing

When I hear Marian Anderson sing.”

Bonus bit: Here is a video of Marian Anderson singing “Ave Maria.”  Close your eyes and you too will become a “STUFFless” thing.

Question:  April is National Poetry Month.  Do you have a favorite poet or poem?

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