The story takes place in 1482 and 1483, when Paris's center was, as today, the Ile de France, surrounded by the Seine, where there emerges the marvelous Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, a work of the people, of the years, and of Gothic architecture. The book begins with the popular festival where Quasimodo is crowned as Ugly King. Quasimodo is a deformed creature: hunchback, deaf, blind in one eye, but in posession of an extraordinary physical strength. Abandoned, as a four-year-old, at the Cathedral's gate, he was adopted by Claude Frollo, the arch-deacon of the cathedral, a nobleman with a tragic story and a younger brother who, in spite of having been nurtured and loved by Claude, has betrayed him with his licentious and illegal behavior. Frollo hates women, in particular the young gypsy Esmeralda, a lovely young girl who, with her white goat, dances, sings, and divines the future, to the scandal of the good consciences, including Frollo.
This is one of the most powerful stories ever created, a masterful adventure into the depths of the late Middle Ages. Surrounding the tragic love story between Esmeralda and the Hunchback of Notre Dame is a deep reflection on the demise of Medieval times and the slow but inevitable onset of the Renaissance. Hugo inserts chapters about the Cathedral's history and the description of Medieval Paris, its different neighborhoods and urbanistic setting. Frollo explains, to his astonished listeners, how and why the invention of printed books will mean the death of Architecture, at least as an art. "The book will kill the building", he says, because the printed book "is the greatest event of humanity. It is the mother of Revolutions". Before the press, the Church was able to control thought and speech. People expresed themselves in architecture, when they participated as artisans in the construction of public buildings, true works of the people. Not anymore: the book will allow a clearer and more powerful means of expression; fluid, eternally changing, from then on literature will be the most transparent way to express oneself. We know the printed book precipitated the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaisssance and Modernity, but Frollo submerges into bitterness and his terrible sexual frustration: he hates Esmeralda because he desires her immensely.
The plot thickens with the whole crazy, tragic love story involving the pretty gypsy, the hunchback, the captain with whom Esmeralda falls in love, Frollo, his brother, the mad crowds, and king Louis XI, sending his troops to take the cathedral. Impossible literature in our days, "Our Lady of Paris" is a prodigy of imagination, of the recreation of a bygone world, of an integral work which articulates history, political and ecclesiastical power, and the whole of society, from the rich and noble, and the bourgeois, to the miserable and criminal rubbish, peopled by unique characters, yet a reflection of their time and place. In spite of being a somber and desolate story, Hugo tells it with an epic tone, not a sociological one, and therefore makes it an endearing and not a sordid story. I wonder what Dostoevsky would have made with this material!
An emblem of Western culture, it is much more than a story, because it includes a grand reflection on the age: architecture and the printing press, a changing society, urbanism and people.