How delightfully refreshing were these thirty-nine pages of Book 6. I’ve been hounding Hugo for how little of the first half of the novel has been relevant, which hasn’t been entirely fair. I still stand by my belief that most of it could be tossed, but that makes me sound like I think everything has to be plot-driven in a novel. I certainly don’t believe that. Many pages and pages in some of favorite books have been spent telling tales that have little or nothing to do with the plot. Russian authors, in particular, are quite fond of this habit. Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, Diary of a Madman and Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, Candide by Voltaire, and many more spend whole chunks of the book devoted to describing the fashionable beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of a particular class, region, and/or community. These portions of the book are often my favorite because they reveal something greater than a story; they become primary historical sources, revealing what a certain populace was like in a way that no archeological dig or textbook could ever reveal.
Book 6 of The Hunchback of Notre Dame did just this, finally. The conversation between the three “gossips” of Paris and their interaction with the recluse was a historical snapshot. We all know people like this, but what are the subtle differences from century to century? From city to city? What do these people value and what don’t they? Hugo answers all these questions in this Book.
Not only does he do this, but he does so in an engaging, intriguing way. He gives us a bit of humor, a dash of mystery, and a sprinkle of satire. PLUS, it pushes the plot along. Well, not quite, it’s still back story for our central characters, but it feels after all this time as if the plot is moving again. We see the unknown connections between Quasimodo and Esmeralda, and the Book ends with actual plot movement. Esmeralda saves Quasimodo from ridicule and torture. Something happened! Yay! After the tantalizing back story we heard about Esmeralda’s mother, the recluse, and her connection with Quasimodo’s orphanage, this little bit of true plot was the icing on the cake.
I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter in every way possible. This chapter proved to me why Hugo was given such renown during his time. It will take a lot more of this to sway me to believe that he deserved all that renown, but now I know why he had any in the first place. He’s not just a pretentious, over-educated, wannabe-philosopher. He actually has some real talent. I am excited to see more of this, but am keeping my expectations low lest I be disappointed.