The Tragic Novel That Saved Notre Dame's Cathedral

The Tragic Novel That Saved Notre Dame's Cathedral

When projects of the demolition of Notre Dame came into the public light, Victor Hugo decided to do what he did best to save that precious cathedral.

When I was younger, I was obsessed with Disney's portrayal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was so enamored with the characters, the setting, and the story that I asked my parents to buy me the novel it was based on. But, when I was finally able to read, I was very disappointed. Obviously, being just six years old, I found the novel extremely sad and tragic, not to mention boring. The experience was such a bummer that many years had to pass for me to take the book again and give it another chance. So, what was the problem? 

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To start with, the plot. Unlike the animated retelling, the novel is very tragic. There's no real happy ending, which I guess makes it historically accurate. Perhaps as a child it was hard for me to understand why the evil characters managed to continue with their lives while the others had to face the worst of fates. I've come to realize that we're so used to stories closing in perfectly packaged endings, that when they have more realistic outcomes we feel betrayed by the author. Yet the truth is that the plot is not the most important part of the whole book. About 60% of it is all about describing the cathedral, each spot, and its history. The passion and love with which Victor Hugo describes this amazing colossal structure is really compelling, which is basically the whole purpose of the novel.

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You’ll see, for so many years the people of France got into the fashion of hating everything related to Gothic or Medieval art. They thought they lacked the stylized beauty of more modern buildings and arts that they started a sort of campaign to restore or demolish these buildings. Victor Hugo, on the other hand, believed that these were actually impressively beautiful samples of architecture and was marveled by how people in the Middle Ages managed to create such impressive and breathtaking buildings with the tools and knowledge of their time. Even before publishing Notre Dame de Paris (the original title of the novel) in 1831, he had written a paper he named “War to the Demolishers,” where he criticized and spoke out against those who believed that these historical buildings were vulgar and deformed examples of a dark past. He wanted them to understand the beauty and importance of these buildings, and hoped the text would prevent them from being demolished.

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By 1829, Notre Dame was in terrible condition: the walls were crumbling and the original beauty was fading due to the lack of care from the citizens and government. The original colorful stained-glass that used to be one of the main attractions of the cathedral had been foolishly replaced with generic clear glasses. Moreover, at some point, it had been used during the French Revolution as a gunpowder factory, which clearly damaged the structure. For Victor Hugo, neglecting this treasure of Gothic architecture was a crime, but his paper didn’t have the effect he wanted, so he decided to try something else. He took the bad impression people had towards these buildings and created a character with the same characteristics. Quasimodo, whose name means “half-made,” represented the monstrosity, deformity, and vulgarity that people had attached to the cathedral, but at the same time he was a pure, thoughtful, and kind character people could relate to and care for.

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Notre Dame, more than being just the setting of an appealing tragic story, became a character not only in Quasimodo but in the building itself. The long descriptions of the cathedral and its own story had such an importance in the novel that the moment it was published it became a huge success. People from the countryside and actually other countries would go to Paris exclusively to see the cathedral where this compelling story took place. Naturally, out of the success, the city council started the restoration project in 1844, and ever since, it has become one of the most iconic places not only of Paris, but of the world.

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Images from @notredamedeparis and engravings from the novel.