The setting of this extraordinary historical novel is medieval Paris: a city of vividly intermingled beauty and grotesquerie, surging with violent life under the twin towers of its greatest structure and supreme symbol, the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Against this background, Victor Hugo unfolds the haunting drama of Quasimodo, the hunchback; Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer; and Claude Frollo, the priest tortured by the specter of his own damnation. Shaped by a profound sense of tragic irony, it is a work that gives full play to the author's brilliant historical imagination and his remarkable powers of description. Whether depicting the frenzy of a brutish mob or the agony of a solitary soul, whether capturing a blaze of sunlight or dungeon darkness, Victor Hugo's art never fails in its quest for the immediacy of felt experience. Andre Maurois writes: "Hugo's characters were to live...in the minds of men of all countries and all races....They are unforgettable because they possess the elemental grandeur of myths and epics."
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April 08, 2001
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Excerpt from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
The Great Hall of the Palace of Justice Three hundred and forty-eight years, six months, and nineteen days ago, the good people of Paris awoke to the sound of all the bells pealing in the three districts of the Cite, the Universite, and the Ville. The sixth of January, 1482, was, however, a day that history does not remember. There was nothing worthy of note in the event that set in motion early in the morning both the bells and the citizens of Paris. It was neither an assault of the Picards nor one of the Burgundians, nor a procession bearing the shrine of some saint, nor a student revolt in the vineyard of Laas, nor an entry of "our most feared Lord, Monsieur the King," nor even a lovely hanging of thieves of either sex before the Palace of Justice of Paris. It was also not the arrival of some bedecked and befeathered ambassador, which was a frequent sight in the fifteenth century. It was barely two days since the last cavalcade of this kind had been seen, as the Flemish ambassadors commissioned to conclude a marriage between the Dauphin and Margaret of Flanders had entered Paris, to the great annoyance of the Cardinal de Bourbon, who, in order to please the King, had been obliged to receive the entire rustic crew of Flemish burgomasters with a gracious smile, and to entertain them at his Hotel de Bourbon with "very elaborate morality plays, mummery, and farce," while pouring rain drenched the magnificent tapestry at his door.
On the sixth of January, what moved the entire population of Paris was the double solemnity, as Jehan de Troyes describes it, united from time immemorial, of the Epiphany and the Festival of Fools. On that day there were to be fireworks on the Place de Greve, a may tree planted at the chapel of Braque, and a play performed at the Palace of Justice. Proclamation had been made to this effect on the preceding day, to the sound of trumpets in the public squares, by the Provost's officers in fair coats of purple camlet, with large white crosses on the breast.
That morning, therefore, all the houses and shops remained shut, and crowds of citizens of both sexes could be seen wending their way toward one of the three places mentioned above. Each person had made a choice, for fireworks, may tree, or play. It must be observed, however, to the credit of the taste of Parisian riffraff, that the greater part of the crowd was proceeding toward the fireworks, which were quite appropriate to the season, or the play, which was to be represented in the great hall of the palace, which was well covered and protected, and that the curious agreed to let the poor leafless may tree shiver all alone beneath a January sky in the cemetery of the chapel of Braque.
All the avenues leading to the Palace of Justice were particularly crowded, because it was known that the Flemish ambassadors, who had arrived two days before, planned to attend the performance of the play, and the election of the Pope of Fools, which was also to take place in the great hall.
On that day, it was no easy matter to get into this great hall, though it was then reputed to be the largest covered space in the world. (It is true that Sauval had not yet measured the great hall of the Chateau of Montargis.) To the spectators at the windows, the palace yard crowded with people looked like a sea, into which five or six streets, like the mouths of so many rivers, disgorged their living streams. The waves of this sea, incessantly swelled by new arrivals, broke against the corners of the houses, projecting here and there like promontories into the irregular basin on the square. In the center of the lofty Gothic facade of the palace, the crowds moved relentlessly up and down the grand staircase in a double current interrupted by the central landing, and they poured incessantly into the square like a cascade into a lake. The cries, the laughter, and the trampling of thousands of feet produced a great din and clamor. From time to time this clamor and noise were redoubled; the current that propelled the crowd toward the grand staircase turned back, grew agitated, and whirled around. Sometimes it was a push made by an archer, or the horse of one of the Provost's sergeants kicking and plunging to restore order--an admirable tradition, which the Provosty bequeathed to the constablery, the constablery to the marechaussee, and the marechaussee to the present gendarmerie of Paris.
At doors, windows, garret windows, on the rooftops of the houses, swarmed thousands of calm and honest bourgeois faces gazing at the palace and at the crowd, and desiring nothing more; for most of the good people of Paris are quite content with the sight of the spectators; a blank wall, behind which something or other is going forward, is to us an object of great curiosity.