|4 out of 5 stars|
Set in medieval Paris, Victor Hugo’s powerful historical romance The Hunchback of Notre-Dame has resonated with succeeding generations ever since its publication in 1837. It tells the story of the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, condemned as a witch by the tormented archdeacon Claude Frollo, who lusts after her. Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral, having fallen in love with the kindhearted Esmeralda, tries to save her by hiding her in the cathedral’s tower. When a crowd of Parisian peasants, misunderstanding Quasimodo’s motives, attacks the church in an attempt to liberate her, the story ends in tragedy.
I don’t know about you, but I think about obsessional crimes and stalking as modern phenomena, exacerbated by life in huge cities. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame demonstrates that there is truly nothing new under the sun. Victor Hugo wrote this tale of obsession in the 1800s. The gypsy girl, La Esmeralda, has the misfortune of attracting the obsessional gaze of two men, the archdeacon Claude Frollo and his protégé, the deformed bell-ringer of the cathedral, Quasimodo. She, in her turn, is fixated on handsome Captain Phoebus, who couldn’t care less about her although he is willing to take advantage of her when an opportunity presents itself.
None of these people actually know one another—they have only observed from afar and projected their own fantasies onto other people. Quasimodo has the most reason for his adoration of La Esmeralda—she brought him water while he was incapacitated at the pillory during an undeserved punishment. Earlier, we see La Esmeralda save Pierre Gringoire, the unsuccessful playwright, from hanging by accepting him as a temporary husband. Pierre is somewhat disappointed when he discovers that she intends a platonic relationship, but is sensible enough to appreciate that her kindness has spared his life.
La Esmeralda is presented as a kind, good person. But like many women, she finds herself the focus of unwanted male attention. We often think of stalking in relation to celebrity, but in reality many ordinary citizens find themselves the object of obsession of other “regular” people. A waitress may, by serving a cup of coffee, unwittingly launch an obsessive on a mission to “own” her. Having had a small brush with such behaviour myself, I have realized how startlingly easy it is to become involved in such situations. There are so many lonely people living in our cities, who are used to being ignored while resenting it. If your job requires you to be polite and helpful, these folks may misinterpret your intentions. The crumbs of attention that they receive from you may trigger that hunger for more, beginning something that you never meant to start and which you feel powerless to stop.
At the same time, La Esmeralda is guilty of a similar behaviour—she knows nothing about Phoebus except that he is handsome and wears a beautiful uniform. She is very young and it is like a young woman today becoming enamoured of a celebrity. Unlike many, La Esmeralda has the opportunity to meet her crush and is only prevented from consummating her desires by her stalker, Archdeacon Frollo.
None of this can end well. Modern instances of stalking are liable to end in death, either of the pursuer or the pursued. The HoND deals with these apparently timeless topics—I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially Othello. Victor Hugo’s tale definitely deserves its reputation as classic literature.