…Victor Hugo is pretty great too. I realized this in 2012, when Tom Hooper’s lavish film adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical Les Miserables came out. The musical is very much in the spirit of Hugo’s novel of the same title, which I read last summer over the course of several months (and I’m not a slow reader). Last November, I got to see the musical on stage in London, and while I didn’t buy one of those iconic t-shirts with Cosette’s waifish face and streaming hair, I think this experience qualified me as a Les Mis fangirl. So I’ve been meaning to blog about Les Miserables for a while, but what really prompted this post was my attendance this past weekend at Alluvion Stage Company’s production of the musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is directly adapted from the Disney animated film of the same title, but apparently is closer in plot and tone to Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris.* (I say “apparently” because I haven’t read the novel yet, so please forgive any factual inaccuracies in what follows.)
I compared Hugo to Dickens because they lived around the same time and wrote big, sprawling novels with themes of poverty and systemic injustice that nevertheless entertain. They even met each other once. I think I’m biased toward Dickens because I’m able to read his works in their original language, which eliminates any linguistic awkwardness that might come with translation. But Dickens also does humor a lot better than Hugo, who takes himself and his subjects too seriously, and he also was a lot better at editing himself (probably because of the serial format in which he wrote), as anyone will attest who has read Hugo’s encyclopedic mid-novel histories of the Paris sewer system and of the convent where Jean Valjean and Cosette found sanctuary. Dickens was able convey an intimate knowledge of London without having to bring his plot to a screeching halt.
But I’m supposed to be writing about what’s so great about Victor Hugo. Well, there are a number of things I could say, but I think the most significant is that he treats the subject of mercy–and its foil, justice–better than any other writer I know of. Jean Valjean is a flawed Christ figure whose life is transformed by mercy, whereas his counterpart Javert is doomed because he doesn’t understand mercy either as an abstract concept or a practical act. In Notre Dame, the priest Frollo has a nominal understanding of mercy from his reading of Scripture, but he can’t accept it or extend it, so he, too, is doomed. If the musical I saw is anything like the novel, Notre Dame is an ironic tragedy because although it takes place in and around a building where the gospel is proclaimed many times a day, nobody really understand the gospel. Les Miserables, however, ends with hope (despite its title) because most of its central characters have learned to forgive because they were forgiven.
I know I’m stating the obvious to those who are familiar with these stories, but if you’re not familiar with them, watch one of the musicals or pick up one of the novels. Victor Hugo’s stories have certainly deepened my understanding of my own Christian faith.
*By the way, I’m intrigued by the title of the novel because it means that the protagonist is not Quasimodo, the hunchback, but rather the cathedral itself–or maybe we’re supposed to read Notre-Dame not as a proper name but as “our lady,” in which case the novel is really about Esmeralda, the sanctified pagan Mary.