Fiction > Harvard Classics > Victor Hugo > Notre Dame de Paris > Criticisms and Interpretations > I
Victor Marie Hugo (1802–1885).  Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.  1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
I. By Frank T. Marzials
A GREAT book, a magnificent book most unquestionably, a book before which the critic may fitly throw down all his small artillery of carpings and quibblings, and stand disarmed and reverent. That Victor Hugo had realised his ambition of crowning with poetry the prose of Sir Walter Scott, I shall not affirm. But then it scarcely seems as if any such crowning were needed, or possible; for the good Sir Walter’s faults lay neither in lack of imagination, nor lack of fervour, nor an absence of elevation of tone, nor, in short, in a deficiency of aught that goes to the making of poetry. “Quentin Durward” deals with the same period as “Notre Dame de Paris,” and if one places the two books side by side in one’s thoughts, such differences as there are will hardly seem to be differences in degree of poetical inspiration. Our own great novelist’s work is fresher, healthier perhaps, more of the open air. A spirit of hopefulness and youth and high courage seems to circulate through his pages—a sort of pervading trust that the good things of this world come to those who deserve them, that merit has its prizes, and unworthiness its punishments. There is blood enough and to spare in the book, and a good deal of hanging and much villainy. But our feelings are not greatly harrowed thereby. We need not weep unless so minded. If a good tall fellow is lopped down here and there—like the worthy Gascon whom Dunois strikes through the unvisored face—the tragedy comes before we have known the man long enough to grow greatly interested in him. We are only affected as by the death of a very casual acquaintance. 1 And such sufferers as the Wild Boar of the Ardennes deserve their fate too thoroughly to cause us the most passing pang. So does Scott, in his genial kindliness, temper for us the horrors of the Middle Ages. He does not blink them, as M. Taine erroneously seems to hold. He presents them, with consummate art, so that they shall not cause unnecessary pain. Victor Hugo, in “Notre Dame,” was animated by a quite other spirit. After the manner of his nation—for French fiction tolerates an amount of unmerited misery to which the English reader would never submit—he looks upon life far more gloomily. Claude Frollo may perhaps deserve even the appalling agony of those eternal moments during which he hangs suspended from the leaden gutter at the top of the tower of Notre Dame, and has a hideous fore-taste of his imminent death. Quasimodo is at best but an animal with a turn for bell-ringing, and, apart from his deformity and deafness, not entitled to much sympathy. But Esmeralda, poor Esmeralda, who through the deep mire of her surroundings has kept a soul so maidenly and pure, who is full of tender pity for all suffering, and possesses a heart that beats with such true woman’s love—what had she done that Victor Hugo should bestow the treasure of that love upon the worthless archer-coxcomb, Phœbus de Châteaupers, that he should make her frail harmless pretty life, a life of torture, and cause her to die literally in the hangman’s grasp? Was it worth while that Esmeralda’s mother, Paquerette la Chantefleurie, should find her child again, after long years of anguish, only to relinquish her, after one brief moment of rapture, for that terrible end? Quentin’s courage and practical sagacity are crowned with success: he saves the woman he loves. But by what irony of fate does it happen that Quasimodo’s heroic efforts to defend Esmeralda have for only result to injure those who are trying to save her, and the hastening of her doom?   1
  Gloom, gloom, a horror of darkness and evil deeds, of human ineptitude and wrong, such is the background of “Notre Dame.” If Scott gives us a poetry of sunshine and high emprise, Victor Hugo gives us, and here with a more than equal puissance, the poetry of cloud-wrack and un-governable passion. There is no piece of character-painting in “Quentin Durward” that, for tragic lurid power and insight, can be placed beside the portrait of Claude Frollo. 2 Lucid and animated as are such scenes as the sacking of the bishop’s palace, and the attack on Liége, they are not executed with such striking effects of light and shade as the companion scene in “Notre Dame,” the attack of the beggars o n the cathedral. Scott’s landscape is bright, pleasant, the reflection of a world seen by a healthy imagination and clear in the sunlight of a particularly sane nature. Victor Hugo’s world in “Notre Dame” is as a world seen in fever-vision, or suddenly illumined by great flashes of lightning. The mediæval city is before us in all its picturesque huddle of irregular buildings. We are in it; we see it: the narrow streets with their glooms and gleams, their Rembrandt effects of shadow and light; the quaint overhanging houses each of which seems to have a face of its own; the churches and convents flinging up to the sky their towers and spires; and high above all, the city’s very soul, the majestic cathedral. And what a motley medley of human creatures throng the place! Here is the great guild of beggar-thieves even more tatterdemalion and shamelessly grotesque than when Callot painted them for us two centuries later. Here is Gringoire, the out-at-elbows unsuccessful rhymer of the time. Anon Esmeralda passes accompanied by her goat. She lays down her little mat, and dances lightly, gracefully to her tambourine. See how the gossips whisper of witchcraft as the goat plays its pretty tricks. And who is that grave priest, lean from the long vigils of study, who stands watching the girl’s every motion with an eye of sombre flame? Close behind, in attendance on the priest, is a figure scarcely human, deformed, hideous, having but one Cyclops eye—also fastened on the girl. Among the bystanders may be seen the priest’s brother, Jehan, the Paris student of the town-sparrow type that has existed from the days of Villon even until now. Before the dancer has collected her spare harvest of small coins, a soldier troop rides roughly by, hustling the crowd, and in the captain the poor child recognises the man who has saved her from violence some days before—the man to whom, alas, she has given her heart. In such a group as this what elements of tragedy lie lurking and ready to outleap? That priest in his guilty passion will forswear his priestly vows, stab the soldier, and, failing to compass his guilty ends, give over the poor child dancer to torture and death. The deformed Cyclops, seeing the priest’s fiendish laughter as they both stand on the top of Notre Dame tower, watching the girl’s execution, will guess that he is the cause of her doom, and hurl him over the parapet. And the student too will be entangled in the tragic chains by which these human creatures are bound together. His shattered carcase will lie hanging from one of the sculptured ornaments on the front of the cathedral.   2
  Living, living—yes, the book is unmistakably palpitatingly alive. It does not live, perhaps, with the life of prose and everyday experience. But it lives the better life of imagination. The novelist, by force of genius, compels our acceptance of the world he has created. Esmeralda, like Oliver Twist, and even more than Oliver Twist, is an improbable, almost impossible being. No one, we conceive, writing nowadays, with Darwinism in the air, would venture to disregard the laws of inherited tendency so far as to evoke such a character from the cloudland of fancy. If he did, Mr. Francis Galton would laugh him to scorn. The girl’s mother—one does not want to press heavily upon the poor creature, and it must therefore suffice to say that she was far from being a model to her sex. The father was anybody you like. From such parentage of vice and chance what superior virtue was to be expected? And, failing birth-gifts, had there been anything in education or surroundings to account for so dainty a product? Far from it. The girl from her infancy had been dragged through the ditches that lie along the broad highway of life, and is dwelling, when we came across her, in one of the foulest dens of the foul old city. She is almost as impossible as Eugene Sue’s Fleur de Marie in the “Mysteries of Paris.” And yet, impossible as she may be, we still believe in her. She is a real person in a real world. That Paris of gloom and gleam may never have existed in history exactly as Victor Hugo paints it for us. It exists for all time notwithstanding. And Claude Frollo exists too, and Jehan, and Gringoire, and Coppenole, the jolly Flemish burgher, and Phœbus, and the beggars—all the personages of this old-world drama. I should myself as soon think of doubting the truth of the pitiful story told by Damoiselle Mahiette, of how poor Paquerette loved and lost her little child, as I should think of doubting that Portia did, in actual fact, visit Venice, disguised as a learned judge from Padua, and, after escaping her husband’s recognition, confound Shylock by her superior interpretation of the law.   3
  In the “Orientales” and “Hernani” Victor Hugo had shown himself an artist in verse. In “Notre Dame de Paris” he showed himself a magnificent artist in prose. The writing throughout is superb. Scene after scene is depicted with a graphic force of language, a power, as it were, of concentrating and flashing light, that are beyond promise. Some of the word-pictures are indelibly bitten into the memory as when an etcher has bitten into copper with his acid. Hence-forward there could be no question as to the place which the author of the three works just named was entitled to take in the world of literature. Byron was dead, and Scott dying. Chateaubriand had ceased to be a living producing force. Goethe’s long day of life was drawing to its serene close. Failing these, Victor Hugo stepped into the first place in European literature, and that place he occupied till his death. 3 —From “Life of Victor Hugo” (1888).   4

Note 1.  The murder of the Bishop of Liège is, I admit, an exception. [back]
Note 2.  Brian de Bois Guilbert is the corresponding character in Scott,—a character equally passionate, but not, I think, analysed so powerfully. [back]
Note 3.  I am not here, of course, arguing any question as to the relative greatness of Byron as compared with Wordsworth or Coleridge, who were then still alive. But neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge had, like Byron, a European name. [back]



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