If when you hear the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame you think Disney, then let me make one thing crystal clear: this is hardcore misery here. No happy endings, no cheery musical numbers and sure as hell no talking gargoyles; the last point there is a definite improvement, regardless of what you think about the absence of the other two. The actual plot of this is one whose quality transcends time really. It focuses mainly on the gypsy known as La Esmeralda and the tragic results of the lust that men foster for her, ultimately culminating with the moral "don't judge a book by its cover". It's perhaps a little on the melodramatic side, but then what great novel isn't?
The characters are similarly grim, so much so that there are few that could actually be considered to be "heroic" in any sense. Esmeralda is kind and sweet, but hopelessly naive, unable to defend herself against the unscrupulous men around her. Quasimodo is just about heroic; far from the innocent, cheerful hunchback portrayed by Disney, the novel's Quasimodo is malign and surly towards all but those who have shown him kindness. Apart from the previous two, there aren't really any other good main characters. There's Phoebus, initially a charming rogue, but an utterly selfish and shallow one who passes up the opportunity to save Esmeralda from the hangman. There's Claude Frollo, a priest so consumed by his lust and desire for power over Esmeralda that he refuses to allow any other man to have her, and Jehan Frollo, the priest's spoiled and arrogant younger brother. It makes it rather easy to figure out favourites. Nonetheless, they are written as believable individuals, with strengths and weaknesses that round them out nicely.
One thing that I would mention is that occasionally the narrative does take a sharp turn into territory that doesn't really contribute anything, feeling more like stuff that Victor Hugo found out as part of his research and couldn't help but cram into the plot, despite being totally unnecessary. I am referring specifically to the chapter dedicated entirely to the description of the Paris skyline from the top of the Notre Dame, 99% of which is never brought up again. There are other occasions, but that chapter is the most egregious example. Not a game-breaking fault for me, but certainly something to keep in mind.
Not much more to say really. It's stood the test of time for a reason. Definitely still worth a read, despite the sections that spout pointless information that never gets used in-story. 4/5
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