Thehunchbackofnotre-dame: Cathedral of Love
In 1831, the 29-year-old French writer Victor Hugo (1802–1885) published The Hunchback of Notre-dame (French: Notre-dame
de Paris) to great acclaim with his poetic depictions of the cathedral's architecture. It is a sentimental love story told using imagination, mysterious plotlines and an interesting structure.
Notre-dame de Paris, a cathedral situated in central Paris, was built between around 1163 and 1250. It is considered one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture, one of the most brilliant buildings in French history and a symbol of ancient Paris. Notre-dame means “Our Lady” and refers to the Virgin Mary.
In 1831, the 29-year- old French writer Victor Hugo (1802–1885) published The Hunchback of NotreDame (French: Notre-dame de Paris) to great acclaim with his poetic depictions of the cathedral’s architecture. The most romantic of Hugo’s novels, The Hunchback of NotreDame is a sentimental love story told using imagination, mysterious plotlines and an interesting structure. The work established Hugo as a world-famous novelist and earned him a reputation as “France’s Shakespeare.”
Romantic Writer and Literary Master
In 1903, 22-year-old Lu Xun (1881– 1936) published a translation titled Sigh for the Dust in the monthly Tides of Zhejiang River magazine of a French novelette. In the translator’s notes, Lu Xun wrote: “This is one of Hugo’s everyday records about the miserable life of a low-class woman.” At the end, Lu sighed deeply: “Alas! Across the world,
the social traps are the same; whether in Asia or Europe, as sure as rivers will flow and time will pass. Hugo cannot narrate all the world’s tragedies—there is not enough paper for that. So, when will we reflect on history and put an end to tragedy?”
Victor Hugo was born in 1802 in Besançon, France and was the son of a general in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). Hugo first began writing poems during secondary school and was hooked. His first novel, Hans of Iceland ( Han d’islande), won the praise of author Charles Nodier (1780– 1844), which led to Hugo adopting Romanticism and gradually becoming the chief practitioner of the genre.
Hugo wrote in favour of the monarchy and religion in his early works due to the influence of his family. In 1919, he fell in love with Adèle Foucher (1803–1868). They had two sons and two daughters after getting married. His first collection of poetry is called Odes and Various Poems ( Odes et Poésies Diverses), was published in 1822 and earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII. As he became increasingly liberal, Hugo changed his political views and joined together with fellow young Romantics Alfred de Musset (1810–1857), Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870) and others to form the Cénacle literary society to oppose pseudo- classicism.
In 1827, Hugo wrote a long preface for his play Cromwell, which is now considered the manifesto of Romanticism. In the preface, Hugo put forth his opposition to classicism and proposed the Romantic model of literature. As both an official denunciation of classicism and a classic of Romantic literary theory, it has played a significant role in the history of French literary criticism.
In 1830, the July Revolution broke out, and the restored feudal monarchy was overthrown. Hugo fervently praised the revolution and the revolutionists and eulogised the heroes who died in the streets through his poetry. In 1831, the publication of his novel The Hunchback of Notre-dame caused a huge sensation. One year later, the 30-year- old Hugo fell in love with the 26-year- old actress Juliette Drouet who went on to write him a love letter every day for over 50 years until her death at the age of 77. Most of the nearly-20,000 letters are now stored in the National Library of France.
Hugo was elevated to the peerage by King Louis-philippe in 1845 and entered the Higher Chamber. In 1848, he gradually became a republican and supported Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) in the presidential election. However, three years later, Napoleon III organised a self- coup d’état, restored imperialism and suppressed the republicans. Hugo was thus forced to live in exile for 19 years. He never stopped writing and continuously opposed Napoleon III’S autocratic regime through his works.
When the Second Opium War broke out in 1861, Hugo wrote a letter to Captain Butler about the British and French joined forces’ expedition to China which was later included in secondary school textbooks in China. One year later, his novel Les Misérables came out. This book detailed the sharp contradictions and wealth gap in capitalist society, depicted the miserable life of the lower- class and severely condemned the hypocrisy of capitalist laws.
When Napoleon III’S reign collapsed in 1870, Hugo returned to Paris. During the Franco- Prussian War, Hugo gave passionate speeches encouraging the people and was elected a member of the National Assembly one year later. When the Paris Commune uprising failed, and its members were suppressed by the reactionary government, Hugo condemned the brutality of the reactionaries. He called for pardoning all the Commune members and sheltered those in exile at his residence in Brussels, Belgium.
In 1874, Hugo published NinetyThree ( Quatrevingt-treize), which was his last major work. It focuses on the Republic’s military suppression of the counter-revolutionary revolts in Vendée and vividly describes the cruelty of the monarchists, the revolutionary atmosphere during the dictatorship and the bravery of the republican troops.
In 1885, Victor Hugo passed away in Paris. A state funeral was held, and he was buried in the Panthéon, a tomb reserved for only the most distinguished French people. Hugo was a prolific writer who produced works for over 60 years. He praised truth, goodness and beauty while condemning darkness, ugliness and brutality. His novels are renowned for focusing on all different kinds of lives, combining realism with Romanticism, vivid plots and unique structures.
French philosopher and author Jean-paul Sartre (1905–1980) said that Hugo was: “One of the few truly popular writers, or maybe even the only one.” According to French writer Romain Rolland (1866–1944): “Among all the great men in the literary and art circles, Victor Hugo is the only one who still lives in the hearts of the French people.”
Real and Silent Love
In 1815, the House of Bourbon was restored with the support of foreign forces having been overthrown by the capitalist revolution. The people bravely struggled against these forces and were finally victorious. Victor Hugo then created his masterpiece novel The Hunchback of Notre- Dame based on his experiences of the dark
and brutal feudal rule.
On the first Sunday after Easter, an ugly abandoned baby is discovered at the gates of Notre- Dame cathedral, but no one wants to adopt it because of its frightful appearance. Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, adopts the baby and names him Quasimodo. Quasimodo is halfblind, has a hunchback and walks with a limp. At the age of 14, whilst working as the cathedral’s bell ringer, his hearing is damaged by the loud bells. He then becomes bad- tempered and is hostile to everyone except his guardian Frollo.
During the Festival of Fools, a Gypsy street dancer by the name of Esmeralda attracts passers-by with her beauty and graceful dancing. Claude Frollo becomes enchanted and falls in love with her. He then orders Quasimodo to kidnap her for him.
A poet called Pierre Gringoire also becomes enamoured with Esmeralda. He follows her to a lane and tries to stop Quasimodo from abducting her but is knocked unconscious by the hunchback. As Quasimodo is leaving with the girl in his arms, Captain of the King’s Archers Phoebus de Chateaupers arrives. The captain saves the girl and arrests Quasimodo. Esmeralda is moved by the handsome young captain, however, he simply wants to seduce her.
After he wakes up, Gringoire finds he has wandered into the wrong neighbourhood and is surrounded by beggars who want to kill him. In order to save him, Esmeralda agrees to marry him. Meanwhile, Quasimodo is sentenced to be flogged in the sunscorched square for the kidnapping. On the day of the flogging, Quasimodo cries out for some water, but no one pities him, not even his foster father Claude Frollo. Instead, everyone just mocks him. At that moment, Esmeralda appears, forgives him and gives him some water. Quasimodo is deeply touched and extremely grateful to her.
Esmeralda falls in love with Phoebus at first sight and agrees to go on a date with him. On the day of their date, Frollo secretly follows them and stabs Phoebus, at which the frightened Esmeralda faints. Frollo flees and people think that it was Esmeralda that stabbed Phoebus. Esmeralda is arrested for homicide and sentenced to the gallows by the court.
The next day, on her way to the execution ground, Esmeralda is shocked to see Phoebus with another girl amongst the onlookers. At that time, Quasimodo is deeply in love with Esmeralda, saves her from execution and hides her in Notre-dame. There, Frollo sneaks into Esmeralda’s room but just at that moment, Esmeralda blows the whistle given to her by Quasimodo who arrives to discover it is Frollo trying to force himself on Esmeralda. Frollo storms out and decides that if he cannot have this girl, he will ruin her.
When the court discovers what happened at the execution ground, they fly into a rage and determine to catch Esmeralda. The city’s beggars come to save the girl as Louis XI issues a decree to “kill the citizens and hang the witch,” leading to piles of bodies in front of Notre-dame. Esmeralda is tricked into coming outside by Frollo and Gringoire. Frollo threatens Esmeralda by asking her to choose between him and the gallows. Having been turned down again, Frollo arranges for a sister to guard Esmeralda and goes to report her whereabouts to the troops. Sister Gudule inadvertently discovers Esmeralda is actually her daughter who went missing 15 years ago, and as the troops led by Phoebus arrive, her mother dies trying to protect her daughter.
Quasimodo looks for Esmeralda anxiously and realises that it must have been Frollo who kidnapped her. He follows Frollo to the top of the tower and notices that his beloved Esmeralda has been hanged. Heartbroken and furious, Quasimodo then pushes the evil, hypocritical Archdeacon off the tower.
About two years later, in the tombs for executed criminals, people find two skeletons. A female one is embraced by a male skeleton in a
strange posture. When the people try to separate them, the male skeleton immediately turns to dust.
A Classic of Contrasts
The Hunchback of Notre- Dame is one of Victor Hugo’s most significant works and depicts the history of France during the 15th century under the reign of Louis XI. Hugo skilfully linked the touching story with vivid scenes, creating a highly- readable novel. The work shows the hypocrisies of religion, praises the kindness and friendship of the lower- classes and reflects Hugo’s humanitarianism.
The characteristics of Quasimodo, who was abandoned as a baby, are highlighted by the author’s exaggerated depiction of his hideous appearance. Esmeralda meanwhile is a perfect artistic figure combining honesty, kindness and beauty who was kidnapped by Gypsies as a child. Despite her hardships as a street dancer, she has been a kind, pure and helpful person. As a passionate and naive girl, she believes all others are as pure as she is. She is unswerving and never gives in to Frollo’s threats. She is looked on favourably by the vagabonds and beggars of Paris but always relies on herself and lives a pure life.
Hugo gave full play to Romanticism’s contrast between the beautiful and the ugly. He contrasted good with evil, beauty with ugliness and the lofty with the humble, exaggerating certain features to heighten the differences. Quasimodo was kind-hearted, brave and noble despite his ugly appearance and deformed body. This is a sharp contrast with the sanctimonious, hypocritical and evil Archdeacon Frollo.
The Hunchback of Notre-dame has been adapted into movies, cartoons and plays. In 1939, a movie of the same name was produced in the United States, followed by another version in 1956 in France. In 1982, a British-american movie starring Anthony Hopkins was also released. The masterpiece has even been turned into a Peking Opera and has been a hit with audiences.
Hugo’s works first spread to China during the reign of Emperor Guangxu in the Qing Dynasty. In 1903, Lu Xun translated Hugo’s novel under the name Sigh for the Dust, and Su Manshu ( 1884– 1918) translated Les Misérables.
It was published in the National Daily newspaper. In 1907, the first offprint of Les Misérables was translated and published by the Shanghai Commercial Press under the Chinese name of Tears of a Lonely Star. In 1923, Yu Hu ( 1894– 1959) translated The Hunchback of Notre- Dame and published under the A Doomed Love name. In 1946, Shanghai Qunxue Bookstore published excerpts of The Hunchback of NotreDame translated by Yue Yi with the Chinese name The Strange Bell Ringer, and in 1949, the book was translated in full by Chen Jingrong ( 1917– 1989) and published by the Shanghai Camel Bookstore. Other translators include Guan Zhenhu, Chen Zongbao, Pan Lizhen, Shi Kangqiang and Li Yumin. Today, the most popular translation is that by Chen Jingrong, which was published by the People’s Literature Publishing House.
There has been intensive and extensive research into the thoughts and works of Victor Hugo in China. Apart from the prefaces, introductions and postscripts written by translators, there have been many essays and monographs published in important periodicals and history books on this great writer. In 1927, novelist Zeng Pu ( 1872– 1935), author of A Flower in a Sinful Sea, published an article titled “The 100th Anniversary of French Romanticism” in the True, Beautiful and Good periodical introducing Victor Hugo, leader of the Romantic Movement. In 1935, Mao Dun ( 1896– 1981) wrote Victor Hugo and the Sigh for History and Hugo’s Hernani to mark the 50th anniversary of the author’s death. In 1952, to mark the 150th anniversary of Hugo’s birth, several famous authors, social activists and literary critics, including Mao Dun, Guo Moruo ( 1892– 1978), Chu Tunan ( 1899– 1994), Hong Shen ( 1894– 1955) and Tang Tao ( 1913– 1992), wrote articles to commemorate the occasion. In 1981, on the eve of the 180th anniversary of Hugo’s birth, a national seminar on Victor Hugo’s academic achievements was held in Changsha in the south of China, with 90 papers contributed on the theme. In the same year, the History of French Literature compiled by Liu Mingjiu was published by the People’s Literature Publishing House, giving a specific and systematic introduction to Hugo’s life and writing career and elaborations on his literary theory.
The 100th anniversary of the great author’s passing was in 1985. The whole year was declared the Year of Victor Hugo in France and featured various celebratory events. 1988 was the most important year in terms of translations and research into Hugo’s works in China. Famous scholar Liu Mingjiu compiled the books Selected Works of Victor Hugo and Collection of Victor Hugo’s Works, bringing together the past century’s translations of the novelist’s works.
French poet Charles Baudelaire once praised Hugo as a genius that surpassed national boundaries. This literary genius depicted both a lasting love and a symphony of destiny in The Hunchback of NotreDame, in what is a great milestone in Romantic literature.
A poster for The Hunchback of Notre-dame (1939)
A scene from The Hunchback of Notre-dame (1939)