Monday, 20 November 2017

'Notre Dame' and the Shifting Meanings of Literature

by Ellie Williams-Brown

Notre-Dame de Paris is a love letter to the Notre-Dame cathedral, and yet it is more commonly recognised for its themes of equality and deconstruction of prejudice. If discussed today, due to adaptations and pop culture, people will focus on how the story highlights the barbarism of those in power and the need for progressive societal change towards acceptance. If the story is to remain relevant, as the original purpose has been met, this is necessary, especially as the reinterpretations can be just as valid as the original intent. The shift of this view can be placed down to adaptations, and society's changing needs. It is amusing that the shift of what people see in the book would not necessarily upset Victor Hugo, but may have been encouraged by him especially with the themes of socialism running through his later works - such as Les Miserables.

Notre-Dame de Paris (‘Our Lady of Paris’) is a medieval Catholic cathedral on the Île de la Cité in Paris. Constructed in 1163, because the previous cathedral for Paris was considered too shabby. It was consecrated in the 1180s, even though construction did not finish until 1345. The cathedral is an engineering marvel, with its flying buttresses, naturalist sculptures and exquisite stained glass making it one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and one of the most famous church buildings in the world.

Before the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris the cathedral had fallen into disrepair. The Huguenots had vandalised it as they deemed it idolatrous; the 1793 French Revolution damaged, plundered it, and used it for the atheistic state-sponsored religion, the Cult of Reason, who also threw the Fête de la Raison inside. This was essentially a giant party to insult both the deposed King and the Catholic Church. Later, the statues of the Kings of Israel, which feature on the outside of the cathedral, were executed as they were misinterpreted for the Kings of France. These accumulated to mean that by the 1830s, the cathedral was immensely damaged - Notre-Dame had been destroyed by the ravages of time, changing government and a general lack of disregard. It was at this point Victor Hugo decided to write on it as a point of interest and research.

Through this research Hugo fell in love with the building and decided he needed to write a story to draw public interest and make them fall in love with this piece of architecture, just as he had. With plays such as Cromwell and Hernani he was established as a successful playwright and essayist, already the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement. This meant in 1828 Hugo was entrusted with a sizeable advance of 4,000 francs and a demand that his novel on Notre-Dame would be completed by 1829. As many authors often do, Hugo blew the advance and put off the novel by retreating to plays, where he was more comfortable. In a slightly questionable decision, Hugo decided to sell the stage rights to a different publisher, which his original publisher discovered, leading to negotiation which resulted in the novel’s deadline being pushed back to December 1830. However, in the early 1800s, France was averaging about one revolution per month, and in 1830 the July Revolution occurred, delaying the deadline once more, allowing Hugo to finally finish the novel on January 13, 1831.

Through the novel and subsequent activism Hugo saved Notre-Dame and woke people up to the historical and architectural marvel in their midst. Notre-Dame de Paris meant there was a huge renovation in 1845, making Notre-Dame the tourist attraction we see now. Lending Hugo a key role in establishing the concept of historical preservation, which would only take hold in Europe and America after World War Two.

Most people remember the melodrama of Esmeralda, Quasimodo and Frollo, but the book is a lengthy argument of the importance of architecture and the way it shapes the lives, ideas and culture of those who occupy its space. This was especially prevalent at the time of Hugo’s writing where the printing press and the subsequent rise of literacy were just being introduced, and the memory of architecture being the main way of communicating big ideas on a large scale was fading out of public consciousness. All the characters in Notre-Dame de Paris are inept, cruel or victims, but this is seen as unimportant as the building outlives and outlasts any individual’s flaw and ultimately will weather all of humanity's flaws. In reality, this is true with the building being a much bigger shaper of French cultural identity than any individual person (Napoleon exempt). The fragility of humans against this piece of architecture is seen with the final image presented in the book, where Quasimodo’s and Esmeralda's bones are discovered and turn to dust when touched. But, the veneration of the building was not the reason the book became a cultural phenomenon.

Notre-Dame de Paris cares little for the plight of marginalised groups and takes a much darker and cynical take on humanity: Quasimodo is Frollo’s lap-dog and henchman, deaf from ringing the church bells; Frollo is an attempted rapist at best; Phoebus just wants to use Esmeralda for sex; and Esmerelda is the basic romantic representation of the Madonna-whore trope with a touch of racism added in. Esmeralda is the main representation of the Romani people, although she is later found out to not be Romani - she was a white girl stolen at birth - and is reunited with her mad birth mother before they then die horribly. Everyone in the book dies an awful death. The idiocy of man is seen greatly with one character being given the choice to save Esmerelda or a goat, and then choosing the goat. The only people who escape from being subjected to dreadful deaths are Phoebus and Hugo’s self-insert character, the poet.

The themes we commonly associate (melodrama and the plight of the abused) can be clearly seen as wrong, as when the first English translator decided to title the book The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Hugo was notoriously outraged. The melodrama is just background noise to Hugo’s main point of architecture and how, “The book will kill the edifice.” As briefly aforementioned, this is Hugo discussing how literacy and the printing press would kill the original common language of architecture. This view, whilst true, is also ironic as it was visual mass media which killed off the message of Hugo’s original idea.

The first interpretation of Notre-Dame de Paris was the 1836 opera Les Esmeralda. This was far less dour: placing Quasimodo as a minor character, allowed Phoebus to die a noble death in the name of love and Esmeralda survived at the end. Frollo was also not presented as being especially affiliated with the church, something which continues through much later adaptations. This opera was written by Hugo and is the first interaction of the text being diluted for mass visualised consumption to make it palatable for a wide audience.

Les Esmeralda was followed by many different adaptations in the following decades, but the 1923 adaptation by William Worsley, starring the American actor Lon Chaney, brought the tale of Notre-Dame de Paris back into popular consciousness and established Quasimodo as a movie monster. The fact that the film was pitched as a love story explains the shift in the narative - Phoebus was good, Frollo was still not a priest; but Quasimodo still died (for the love interests to be together without guilt) and there was still a large dollop of racism against the Romani people. The film banked $3 million and triggered a host of copycat adaptations, but the original connection to the novel had been lost, the visual mass media had destroyed the novel.

In 1939 William Dieterle decided to remake the 1923 film, using their sets which were still standing, but remained far more loyal to the book. Esmerelda was now an actual Romani which may not be as progressive as it seems with one character just saying, “Who cares about her race, she’s pretty!” but the Romani people were not demonised in this adaption, unlike any others. This is the remake Disney borrow from most for their 1996 version and establishes the idea of the story we see today. This version took a sharp lead away from the comparison of people to the building, focusing more on the plight of the innocent. There is still the romantic sub-plot but there are constant reminders that innocent lives are at stake. Arguably, the most powerful moment of the film is when Esmerelda breaks into the city of Paris - which the Romani had been banned from - to plead with the King to let her people live freely. This film gave justice for the oppressed, and established the anti-fascist theme always prevalent in following adaptations. This was the only film screened at Cannes that year, a film festival created in opposition to the fascist presence in the Venice film festival. There is something extremely powerful about watching a film where the Romani are the persecuted underclass whose plight is just that, a plight, at a film festival created to oppose fascism, when at the same time Hitler was preparing to to kill hundreds of thousands of Romani. This has nothing to do with Victor Hugo’s original intent but is far more powerful, and in a way, far more important.

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